Thursday, 24 April 2014

Schubert and his songs


Franz Peter Schubert – a shy giant.

It’s hard to believe that two of our greatest composers, both alive in Vienna in the first decades of the 19th century, probably never met. By the time young Schubert was ready to launch himself onto the world as a full time composer, Beethoven was already quite deaf and, despite being publicly acclaimed, had retreated to the inner world of his composition and very much from the company of men. Schubert admired Beethoven enormously, but apparently was too shy to introduce himself when they passed in the street.

We think of Beethoven as a musical giant, yet Schubert was a giant too, but perhaps a more friendly one.

Schubert was born in 1797 to a poor, but musical, family, who recognized his musical talent early and did their best to give him the opportunities and support he needed throughout his life.

His father was a schoolmaster and taught his young son violin. An elder brother taught him piano. He studied the organ and harmony and counterpoint with a local organist. Family and friends made a habit of playing and singing together, surrounding the talented young boy with music.

At the age of 11, he was accepted as a chorister in the Court Chapel. This meant he had a scholarship to the prestigious Imperial and Royal Seminary, the best possible place to hone his compositional skills and further his musical training.

 Music poured naturally and spontaneously from him. Apart from a wealth of chamber music, piano music and nine symphonies, he composed more than 600 songs, each of which is a pearl in its own right. He established the Lied (German: Art song) as an important art form – a special combination of the pianist’s and singer’s skills, a true duet, where the piano part and melody are of equal importance, not just one accompanying the other. Many composers since have followed his example and have given the singer a rich repertoire of ‘art songs’ for the concert platform.

His songs are a very good entry point for a young singer into the world of classical song. Heidenröslein( Rose among the Heather) sets an appealing tale of a young boy and a wild red rose. Die Forelle (the Trout) tells a similar story of a battle between the fisherman and his trout. Wiegenlied (Cradle Song) is easily managed by the youngest of singers. Seligkeit (Happiness) - possibly the most joyful song ever written- never fails to delight. An die Musik (to Music) is guaranteed to warm the coldest of hearts. Ave Maria, best approached when the singer’s breathing can manage longer phrases, is arguably the best well-known of his songs and an excellent choice for weddings and special occasions.

Schubert died in 1828, only 31 years old, yet it is gratifying to know that he did achieve fame in his short lifetime and was always surrounded by a close circle of friends who loved him and his music, as we do today.

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