The Bard Music Festival at 25: Franz Schubert and his World

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Franz Schubert by Leopold Kupelwieser, 1821

Franz Schubert by Leopold Kupelwieser, 1821

My leading thought goes against much of what the Bard Music Festival and my own values, for that matter, stand for. And just read Keith Francis’ provocative series, The Great Composers?, the latest installment of which has just been published. I’ve missed only one Bard Festival since 2006, and I’ve heard great music by Elgar, Prokofiev, and Sibelius. And, well, Saint-Saëns was too gifted to be great, and that really didn’t interest him in any case. Of the composers included in the festival, only Wagner and Stravinsky turn up on common lists of the greatest—not that those stupid lists do anything but harm. Still, during the two twenty-fifth anniversary weekends devoted to Franz Schubert I felt I was living with the gods, and the lingering impression of those weekends swelled accordingly.

In previous Festivals, one of the primary lessons we learned—especially in the case of Prokofiev and Sibelius—was that the best known, most often played works by those composers are not their best or most interesting. I don’t care if I never hear or see Romeo and Juliet again, but Prokofiev’s Third and Fourth Symphonies, his opera The Fiery Angel (not performed at the Festival), even the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution really give us the measure of the man. And, as for Sibelius, audiences should really have a chance to go beyond the Second and Fifth Symphonies and Finlandia. There is much more to be enjoyed in his work.

But what of Franz Schubert? We can’t say that his greatest achievements for a variety of instruments and instrumental combinations aren’t in the mainstream repertory, although a few great works have fallen through the cracks because their genres don’t have a place in modern public performance: for example works for two pianos and piano four hands, part-songs above all, works for male chorus—some of Schubert’s most popular genres during his lifetime and the later nineteenth century. The Bard Festival, following its principle of concerts with mixed ensembles and soloists, brought these to our attention—as well as Schubert’s stage works. Before the great change brought on by the collapse of his health from syphilis, he wrote ambitious and less ambitious operas, and we were able to appreciate how very beautiful or charming much of the music is. Furthermore discussion and the operas themselves gave us an idea of why they failed and why Schubert gave it up and decided to pursue other genres in a systematic way.

All this is well and good, but one can’t have a Schubert Festival without his great works, which are also frequently performed by the great names and by great musicians of less fame. The two Schubertiaden I heard at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival were absolutely of the highest order. Our own organization presented a magnificent performance of the B Flat Major Sonata by Stephen Porter, a very serious and thoughtful Schubertian. Carnegie Hall offered a magnificent performance of the G Major Quartet by the Hugo Wolf String Quartet. A Schubert Festival will simply not work without performances of the highest order. I’m happy to say that the Festival suffered no dearth of outstanding performances—truly memorable ones—thanks largely to the Dover Quartet, the Horszowski Trio, the pianists Danny Driver, Piers Lane, Anna Polonsky, and Orion Weiss and a team of fine young singers, not to mention the American Symphony Orchestra and the Bard Festival Chorus and their directors, Leon Botstein and James Bagwell.

Schubert’s Beginnings and his End

A classic Bard program of mixed genres and ensembles set the Festival in motion. For the most part, works from Schubert’s first two years of notable activity as a composer (1814-15) were contrasted with masterpieces from his final year (1828), marking the limits of his fourteen-year career. Already at the age of 17 Schubert was capable of writing a masterpiece of a song, which has held a central place in the Lied repertory since its publication as his Opus 2 in 1821 (Erlkönig, composed in 1815 preceded it as Opus 1, his most famous work during his lifetime): Gretchen am Spinnrade on Margarethe’s spinning song from Goethe’s Faust. It is significant that we find the young Schubert in his very beginnings concentrating on movement, borrowing the ostinato perhaps from the Spinning Chorus in Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten, and using it to express inner emotional instability as it passes through changing harmonies. In the program it was preceded by An die Musik (1817), based on a text by his disreputable friend Franz von Schober. As trivial, undisciplined, and debauched as the author could be, Schubert’s setting of his words is the noblest expression of human beings’ relationship to music that exists, and it often plays a symbolic role in recital programs, as it did here, initiating the festival. Nicholas Phan sang it most beautifully, giving each line and strophe its full value by observing rests at the end of each. His was a carefully considered declamatory approach, well-documented in Vienna at the time, which only enhanced the simple melodic line. Two highly capable young women followed, Deanna Breiwick, soprano, and Rebecca Ringle, mezzo. A curious quick vibrato in Ringle’s voice proved distracting in her otherwise excellent performance of “Im Frühling” (1826). The more Ms. Ringle sang during the course of the festival, the less noticeable this became, and, as often happens, the acoustic of Olin Hall proved more compatible with her voice that Sosnoff, where the opening concert took place. The wonderful Anne Polonsky played the accompaniments most eloquently. After Sarah Rothenberg, a founding artistic co-director of the Bard Music Festival, who returned for this twenty-fifth anniversary season, played a waltz (1818-21) and a Galopp (1827), dances which were among the staples of his career, especially early on, Schubert’s great F Minor Piano Duet of 1828 was played with remarkable precision, subtle flexibility, and expression by Anna Polonsky and her husband, Orion Weiss. As elegant and poised their basic style, it only helped the grave, deeply moving core of the work to come through to us. The first half of this long, richly rewarding concert came to an end with two early orchestral works, Schubert’s Overture to Der vierjährige Posten (1815), his first theatrical attempt, a one-act Singspiel, and his relatively well-known Symphony No. 3 in D Major, composed in the same year. The rarely-performed, but thoroughly charming overture, has a few interesting Schubertian harmonic tricks. Schubert’s early symphonies, Nos. 1-6, are basically study works. All show Schubert working with models from Haydn, Mozart, and the greats of his own time, Beethoven and Rossini, the latter especially prominent in the Third. After the Sixth, the “Little” C Major, Schubert left a gap of some three and a half years before taking on the B Minor, the “Unfinished,” the first of his two mature symphonies. Maestro Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra were in excellent form for both the overture and the symphony, and the audience responded warmly, even the more critical-minded of them. The enthusiasm and warmth of the ASO under Botstein’s solid and lively direction made it an engaging introduction to Schubert’s symphonic work.

After a sampling of late part-songs (the organizers knew how important it is to make their audience aware of these from the beginning), the Dover String Quartet with Peter Myers, cello, gave a truly extraordinary performance of the C Major Quintet (1828)—one of the finest, if not the finest performance of the festival. After a fastish opening exposition, the performance settled down into a marvel of pace and timing, all focused on making the most of Schubert’s deeply affecting modulations. The Adagio was deeply probing, and the Andante sostenuto Trio in the Scherzo was an amazingly original realization of this extraordinary music, unlike any performance I’ve heard.

By now, it was clear that a general policy of the festival was to perform the repeats—an important practice to observe in performing Schubert’s music. It is crucial not only for classical proportion, but for a macro view of Schubert’s use of repetition, not only in ostinato passages, but on the larger structural scale as well. Hence this was a performance of those “heavenly lengths” that so struck Schumann in the “Great” C Major Symphony. Another aspect of the piece was its performative qualities. With two violins, two cellos, and a viola between them, there were fascinating relationships among the instruments, which Schubert often paired in happily consonant intervals. This gives the work an intimate character, present in much, but not all of the music, which occasionally makes epic gestures. The relationships among the players, as one sees the group interact, is a prominent feature of Schubert’s compositional method. Compare, for example, the very different quintet assembled for the “Trout,” which, as familiar as it is, was not performed at the festival.

Schubert, by Gábor Melegh, 1827, Oil on panel. Hungarian National Gallery.

Schubert, by Gábor Melegh, 1827, Oil on panel. Hungarian National Gallery.

Who Was Schubert?

The next day began with a panel discussion entitled “Who Was Schubert?” with Malcom Bilson; Leon Botstein; and John M. Gingerich speaking and Christopher Gibbs as moderator. As with most of the great composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a great deal of mythology or downright misinformation has clouded our understanding of them as people and working artists. On the one hand, there is Schubert, the poor, modest musical genius at writing simple songs and dances for social occasions, languishing without recognition or recompense, without success in love and relying on the warmth (and cash) of his friends for survival. The perception of Schubert changed radically, thanks to the devotion of the later Romantics, Schumann and Brahms, who discovered new works of serious quality, which showed the scope of Schubert’s ambition as a composer, first the “Great” C Major in 1839, then the B Minor, the “Unfinished” Symphony in 1865. In the later nineteenth century, he was promoted in Vienna as the genial man of the people, who composed truly great, but accessible music in a democratic spirit. He was seen as primarily a songwriter, whose natural genius for melody was akin to folk song. In this panel the issue of aristocratic patronage came up and its possible decline in the Vienna of the 1820s. Schubert first emerged and flourished among a circle of friends, who grew from his connections from the Stadtkonvikt, an elite boarding school in Vienna, which he entered in 1808, then eleven years old. His voice, suitable for the school’s choir, won him a place in one of the finest schools in Austria, where he received a first-rate education and formed connections with mates who were to become prominent poets, intellectuals, and artists. It is well known that Schubert had few if any musicians among his friends, and he was the only musician in the groups. He preferred to dwell in literature and visual arts, with the important poets Mayrhofer and Grillparzer and the artists Leopold von Kupelwieser and Moritz von Schwind among his closest friends. The principal theater where these friendships played out was the so-called Schubertiaden, social evenings where the composer’s music and personality drew friends together for his dances and songs, and perhaps a few larger works.

A Schubertiade at Josef von Spaun's, by Moritz von Schwind, ca. 1870. Oil on canvas.

A Schubertiade at Josef von Spaun’s, by Moritz von Schwind, ca. 1870. Oil on canvas.

The Schubertiaden: Schubert and the Artists

Since artists were a part of the group, it should perhaps be no surprise that drawings, watercolors, and paintings of the occasions should form such a prominent part of their primary documentation. Moritz von Schwind was there, and so were Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Leopold Kupelwieser, and Julius Schmid—all recording the happenings with sketches. Many years later, Schwind decided to bring his reminiscences together in a painting, which he never finished. To an art historian it is particularly interesting to observe how these academically trained artists classically formed sketches to create “snapshots,” casual but close observations of the Schubertiaden, above all Moritz von Schwind, whose working method was so different from the quintessential “snapshot” draftsman, the Berlin artist Adolf von Menzel (1815-1905), who signaled the advent of a new, sense-based visual culture.

There were also artists in Schubert’s family. His brother Karl married Therese Schwemminger, the sister of the artist Heinrich Schwemminger (Vienna 1803-84). She and Karl had two children, both of whom were artists. Their son Ferdinand (Vienna, 1824-53) studied with Heinrich, and both worked together in Rome together, after Heinrich was awarded a study stipendium in 1837. The Bard program designates Moritz von Schwind as a Nazarene artist, that is, a member of the brotherhood of artists who came together at the Vienna Academy in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Most of these belonged to a generation born around 1780. Schwind was born in 1804, a year after Heinrich Schwemminger, who became his friend and, at times, assistant. The influence of the first Nazarenes, devoted to pure, quasi-monastic living and pure, spare draftsmanship, recalling the Italian artists of the Quattrocento. Schwind’s connection to the Nazarenes was not as strong as Schwemminger’s or Kupelwieser’s, although in spite of financial difficulties he managed to study at the Vienna Akademie de bildenden Kunst with the Nazarene Ludwig Schnorr von Karolsfeld and the very different Peter Krafft, while Schwemminger, like Kupelwieser (1796-1862), was deeply connected to the Nazarene tradition through their training at the Vienna Akademie, as we can see in the work Schwemminger did prior to 1837, when he left Vienna for Rome on a Stipendium. Schwemminger’s early work includes an hommage to the Nazarene hero Johann Baptist Scheffer von Leonhardshoff in his St. Rosalia in her Cave and a Madonna and Child in the Ashmolean Museum. Schwind’s early development was more eclectic. In his earliest drawings he imitated Dürer rather than Raphael and his predecessors. Financial pressures made it necessary for him to learn on the job, making ends meet by making a variety of illustrations and drawings for the applied arts. He had the reputation of having been largely self-taught as an artist. In any case his talent develop rapidly. Eventually, Schwind his reputation grew, and he received grander commissions, while Schwemminger’s career revolved around the Akademie, where he taught and curated throughout his later career. Schwind remained within a more classical, linear, formalistic style, in which Schwemminger was possibly an early influence, while Schwemminger later moved into a more optical, modern form of representational art. Both Schwind and Schwemminger shared a passion for classical German literary subjects.

Ferdinand Schubert (Vienna 1824 – Vienna 1853). The Fisherman and the Water Nymph. (a study for a painting in the Kunsthaus Zürich illustrating Goethe’s Der Fischer). Graphite on cream laid paper. 238 x 185 mm, 9 5/16 x 7 1/4 in. Private Collection, Zurich.

Ferdinand Schubert (Vienna 1824 – Vienna 1853). The Fisherman and the Water Nymph. (a study for a painting in the Kunsthaus Zürich illustrating Goethe’s Der Fischer). Graphite on cream laid paper. 238 x 185 mm, 9 5/16 x 7 1/4 in. Private Collection, Zurich.

Ferdinand Schubert the Younger illustrated at least one poem set by his Uncle Franz, notably Goethe’s Der Fischer. (Painting Kunsthaus Zürich, drawing, Private Collection, Zürich) Uhland’s Des Sängers Fluch, which Schwemminger illustrated, became a stirring cantata by Robert Schumann, still undeservedly neglected.) The Nibelungenlied was one of his favorite subjects. In all, Schwemminger inhabited the same pervasively literary world as Schubert. Schwind created many public commissions of musical subject, including a mural of Schubertian themes in the Vienna opera, with the conclusion of Die Verschworenen flanked by “Erlkönig” and “Der Fischer.” As for Kupelwieser, and 1823 visit to Italy in the retinue of a Russian nobleman led to his discovery of the work of Fra Angelico, which confirmed his Nazarene tendencies, and after establishing himself as a portraitist and painter of shop signs, he turned to principally to religious painting.

This is perhaps a good place to mention an especially valuable contribution to the volume of essays and documents published in connection with the festival, also called Franz Schubert and his World. This consists of excerpts from Beyträge zur Bildung für Jünglinge (1817-18), a naively earnest effort by Schubert’s youthful contemporaries from the Stadtkonvikt to implement the educational principles which had formed them only a few years before. Anton von Spaun, brother of Schubert’s great friend Josef von Spaun, who hosted the later series of Schubertiaden, was the leader and co-editor of the project, together with Johann Mayrhofer, also the composer’s close friend, and the major Austrian poet of his generation. This includes a dialogue on Raphael (spelled in the Latinate way favored in Austria, as opposed to the German “Raffael.” Here one Friedrich instructs his friend Willibald in the marvels of Raphael’s life and work. In the idealistic humanist mold of Romantic Vienna, the painter is held up and a moral and aesthetic paragon, although flawed by discreetly mentioned vices which led to his early death. Raphael’s work is exemplary in its power to instill loyalty to the Imperial order, religious faith, and high morals. Resurrected by the Nazarene Brotherhood and maintained by the Academy, we can see Raphael’s artistic methods literally at work in Schwemminger’s drawings and less directly present in Schwind’s own quite similar idealization of the human figure. This would be the equivalent in the visual arts of the ideals expressed in “An die Musik.” (The first principles initiated by the Nazarenes were to enjoy a second life in England, with the Pre-Raphaelites.) It is fascinating to read in Leon Botstein’s essay in the Bard collection, “Schubert in History,” about Jacob Burkhardt’s love for Schubert and the affinity he perceived between the composer and his ideal artist, Raphael. (pp. 306f.) Raphael’s supremacy wained with the twentieth century, although Oskar Fischl (1870-1939) kept the faith alive in Vienna. 150 years later, when the Austrian art historian Konrad Oberhuber continued Fischel’s work on Raphael with a spiritual embrace of his artistic methods and style but with a less establishmentarian view of the moral qualities of the artist’s life and work, it was considered eccentric by his contemporaries.

Period Instruments vs. Historically Informed Performance

At this first panel there was a clash of sorts, familiar enough in academic meetings, but relatively uncommon in public contexts. This has received exaggerated coverage in the press, and I believe I should say something to put it in context. One of the panelists, Malcolm Bilson, who had been a Visiting Artist at Bard the past year and hence an established presence on the Bard campus, in addition to being a Bard graduate (’57), appeared with a gorgeous 1825 fortepiano, on which he played, most beautifully, an unfinished Sonata movement in F# Minor of Schubert’s in his own completion. The audience was transfixed by Schubert’s great music and his own expressive but controlled playing on this sumptuous instrument, rather more delicate than what Graf was making a few years later, and an eloquent vehicle for this work. Bilson had preceded this with a generalized demonstration of the difference between the modern piano and an instrument of Schubert’s time—amounting to a basic introduction to period instruments and the fortepiano, and if one is passionate about historical instruments, it is hard not to sound like a proselytizer. He compared the fortepiano’s lower register with the Steinway that usually inhabits the Olin stage, claiming that a modern piano is muddy while the fortepiano is clear. The Steinway had been stowed back in the left corner of the stage to make room for the fortepiano. The low notes of any instrument are inevitably going to sound muddy from a corner. (I’ve found no end of fascination in how different that instrument sounds over the course of a festival day, when four, five, or more pianists will be playing it.) Leon Botstein challenged the comparison, later calling the sound of a fortepiano “quaint,” much to Malcolm Bilson’s displeasure. There is clearly some context to this encounter. I don’t know about it, and it is most definitely not as interesting as the whole question of the Bard Festival and period instruments, where they have rarely had much of a presence.

Of course the Festival itself is founded on historical context in the larger intellectual and cultural sense, and I have known Botstein to take a great interest in historically informed performance practice. (Will Crutchfield also presents historically informed performances played on modern instruments, as have early music stalwarts like the late Frans Brüggen.) Botstein once created a magnificent sound in a performance of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony using the seating favored by Haydn in his London performances, and he has several times, mostly notably in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Paulus, arranged the Bard Festival Chorus, in front of and to the sides of the orchestra, which afforded a mellower sound for the sopranos and enhanced the clarity of fugal passages. This configuration was current in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

Readers of New York Arts and the Berkshire Review will know that I am great enthusiast for period instruments, and I have criticized programming at Tanglewood, which presents itself as an encyclopedic festival of music as it is practiced today, for not programming enough period instrument ensembles and soloists. Historically informed performance and period instruments are an integral part of classical music as it is performed today. On the other hand, they are not universal solutions. If Bach, Haydn, and Mozart became the reserve of specialists—and Bach has become that to a large degree—we would lose the ability to understand them in the context of later music—and the successive interpretive layers of later generations is one of the most significant enrichments of our experience of music. Imagine never hearing Bach or Haydn on the same program as Brahms, Schoenberg, or Webern, or Mozart with Richard Strauss! The Bard Festival, even with its focus on the composer and his world, depends on the continuum of Western music for its perspective. (Actually the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, who are proficient on both period and modern instruments, have achieved a limited solution to this problem.) The only festival I can remember when I felt the lack of at least some discussion of historical instruments was the one devoted to Liszt, since his pianos were such an important part of his playing and composition…however that is the sort of event which can be more successfully organized in a historical instrument collection.

In Schubert’s case historical instruments have illuminated a great deal about his keyboard works from all periods of his career. The number of musicians playing Schubert on the fortepiano with distinction is growing, and some of their performances are second to none. Still, the line of pianists who have played his music on modern instruments, going back to Schnabel, is venerable and accounts for the major part of our understanding of it. Even the early masters, who formed their approach before fortepianos were common, above all Schnabel, maintained some awareness of the distinction between registers inherent to early instruments. Modern performances that ignore this in favor of a blended, quasi-orchestral sound are lacking a quality essential to the writing.

Old Postcard: F. A. Ackermann's Kunstverlag, München. Universal-Galerie, Serie 213, Nr. 2175b.

Old Postcard: F. A. Ackermann’s Kunstverlag, München. Universal-Galerie, Serie 213, Nr. 2175b.

Early Development: “Erlkönig”

The following concert, From “Boy” to Master: the Path to “Erlkönig,” continued to stay close to the topic of Schubert’s identity—in this case his musical identity. Was he in fact a folk genius endowed with a simple gift for melody, or was he a self-conscious, technically complete composer in the tradition of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven? These questions emerged early in the festival, and ensuing concerts and talks continued to develop them. In this concert devoted to Schubert’s early development, from the age of fifteen to eighteen, leading up to the song which made him famous, “Erlkönig,” of 1815, first publicly performed and published in 1821 as Schubert’s Opus 1. The program was a splendid mélange of Schubert’s early songs and earlier settings of Goethe’s poem, “Der Erlkönig,” all impressive in their quality, but lacking the sense of urgent motion and terror evoked by Schubert’s devilish repeated octaves in the accompaniment. The static quality of the earlier settings may have seem off-putting, but the original context of Goethe’s poem was a Singspiel, in which Goethe’s passion, Corona Schröter, sang it to her own music in a social setting as an ancient ballad recited by the heroine. In this way her setting is perfectly appropriate. This was followed by Bernhard Klein’s 1815 version and Carl Loewe’s 1818 version, culminating in Schubert’s at the very end of the program. Loewe also brought emotional intensity and movement into his setting—independently. It seems highly unlikely that Loewe, living in northern Germany, could have known Schubert’s version before its publication.

The program went further in adumbrating how earlier composers like Mozart and Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg approached the setting of literary verse, as well as the very young Schubert’s first efforts, which consisted of ambitious, emotionally wrought treatments of high poetry, whether the authors were imitating folk ballads, love songs, or not. The very earliest work, “Die Advokaten,” combines song and theater in an extended comic scene, making fun of the greed of lawyers. Among the part-songs Schubert also set a bardic song by James Macpherson, the author of the largely forged Scottish epic, Ossian, which exercised such a broad influence on literature, music, and fashion from its publication in 1760 for generations to come, in spite of the many attacks on its authenticity. Further context came from operatic composers who exercised an influence on the young Schubert, Gluck, Salieri (with whom Schubert studied), Drechsler (Singspiel), and above all Rossini, the king of opera in Vienna, where Singspiel and German opera, favored by both Weber and Schubert, was largely eclipsed by Italian opera. This was the case since Mozart’s last years, when he was considered to be “too German” to compete with the favored Italians.

There was also a group of light piano pieces, including a selection of Schubert’s waltzes, to fill out or picture of the social context in which Schubert encountered his first audiences—a domestic milieu involving the salons of patrons, actually Schubert’s friends, from the bourgeoisie and minor nobility.

The key work in the entire program, however, was Schubert’s fascinating String Quartet in B Flat Major of 1814, consummately played by the Dover Quartet. In this Schubert was wrestling with the compositional processes of Haydn and Beethoven, in which small motifs with special harmonic implications for the structure of whole movements and the entire work were woven together into appealing tunes, more obviously abstract and “constructed” in this early quartet than in the songs, where Schubert quickly became adept at concealing his art. The motifs also carried a distinctive rhythmic signature, which served a dual purpose in the shaping of a melody and in providing a pattern which could be repeated over and over again, either to provide support for Schubert’s amazing modulations or to build space in the overall structure, that is, the himmlische Länge Schumann so appreciated in the Great C Major Symphony. The motivic  repetition, which became a notable part of his technique up to the end, was beginning to emerge in this key work, showing a departure from Haydn and Beethoven. This quartet is a successful, although clearly effortful creation—the most revealing document of Schubert’s learning process one could find. While the fragmentary Quartettsatz is an early masterpiece in this mode, he was truly to fulfill this early effort in his great G Major Quartet. This quartet, in any case, and the early songs, closely analyzed, make it clear that a naïve, natural gift for melody was hardly Schubert’s starting point as a composer. Rather, he painstakingly worked over the examples of the most respected models of the past two generations to forge a compositional method for himself. His melodies are as “constructed” as those of Brahms, built on rhythm patterns and harmonic progressions which could function as useful material for an entire, unified movement and work.

Czerny’s 1836 fantasies after Schubert songs for horn and piano illustrated the immediate Nachleben of Schubert’s achievement as a song writer adapted for instrumental Hausmusik, one of countless adaptations of the sort. At this point Schubert had such fame and appeal as a song writer that the texts no longer mattered, only the familiar melodies.

All these diverse works received excellent performances by Bard’s team of young singers and musicians: Sari Gruber, soprano; Rebecca Ringle, mezzo-soprano; Theo Lebow and Scott Williamson, tenor; Joe Eletto, Andrew Garland, baritone; Paul Max Tipton, bass-baritone; Julie Pilant, horn; Benjamin Verdery, guitar; Judith Gordon, Sarah Rothenberg, Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss, piano. Only the part songs left any room for criticism because of flaws in intonation and ensemble—a sign of the obvious fact that these singers don’t perform in this kind of ensemble on a regular basis.


In a program entitled The Song Cycle as Drama: Winterreise, Tyler Duncan, baritone, eloquently accompanied by his wife, Erika Switzer, who teaches at Bard, sang Schubert’s great masterpiece of his final year. The composer is said to have proofed the score on his deathbed. Duncan took on the cycle with a big operatic voice and gestures appropriate to the very large scale of the Metropolitan Opera stage, where he has performed. His interpretation was forcefully dramatic. His tone was severe and occasionally slightly rough, in keeping with his interpretation. Through most of the cycle, he seemed driven by the anger of the rejected young man. Only in the last few songs Duncan’s voice seemed to relax and acquired a warmer, softer tone. This was carefully, occasionally powerful reading of Winterreise, but also a limited one, lacking much of the inwardness which is an inherent part of this portrait of mental dissolution. I’d even say Mr. Duncan was misguided, since his concentration on externalized emotions directed our attention away from deeper qualities in the music. And he expressed what he expressed with the stock gestures common to comprimarii in run-of-the-mill large opera house productions. Tyler Duncan’s approach gave no indication that he has been studying the documented styles of the singers Schubert knew, above all Johann Michael Vogl, as Nicholas Phan clearly did. It is said that Vogl’s style was “dramatic and operatic,” but substituting current large-house practice isn’t enough. And for that matter Vogl’s approach did not meet with universal approval, as we know from the writings of Leopold von Sonnleithner, who was equally close to Schubert and his songs. I once heard the baritone Richard Giarusso apply his studies of Vogl to the Schwanengesang with outstanding success. Matthias Goerne reached an extreme in his emotive singing of Winterreise, but, while this can project to a Stern Auditorium crowd at Carnegie, it is not standard Met fare either. It is refreshing to hear how deeply Gerhard Hüsch and Hans Hotter could move us with a more restrained, poetic, and inward treatment. I’ve also been impressed by the excellent recent recording of Winterreise by Thomas Meglioranza. I’ll be very much interested in hearing what Nicholas Phan, who is now a Bard Festival regular, does with the cycle, when he gets to it.

The “Unfinished” Symphony: In Search of the Lost Schubert

The Saturday evening orchestral concert, Mythic Transformations, included the “Unfinished” Symphony as well as later arrangements of sketches and piano works by Joseph Joachim and Felix Weingartner to create “lost” symphonies. There were also interesting orchestral arrangements of Schubert songs by Berlioz, Liszt, Brahms, Offenbach, and Webern. The first group, most appealingly sung by Rebecca Ringle, whose voice had settled very nicely into place by then, even in Sosnoff, and Andrew Schroeder, baritone, an especially sensitive and intelligent singer, consisted of some of the most famous of Schubert’s songs, “Ständchen,” and, once again, “Erlkönig.” Maestro Botstein left it to the audience to divine which setting was by Berlioz and which by Liszt. A lot of people, including myself, got it wrong. Here is the answer.

It is still not clear why Schubert left his B Minor Symphony unfinished, with only 20 measures of the scherzo written in after the Andante, after which he wrote the inscription, “Vienna, 30 October, 1822.” It seems plausible, since that was exactly the time he contracted syphilis, to conclude that the physical and emotional ravages of the incurable disease caused him to break it off. On the other hand, late 1822 and 1823 turned out to be a very busy period for him, with ambitious stage works in progress. Some six months later, in April 1823, he was made an honorary member of the Graz Musikverein. He sent the manuscript to the president of the society, Josef Hüttenbrenner, as a personal gift, who gave it to his brother Anselm. The latter put it away in a drawer, and it was not until 1865 that the conductor Johann von Herbeck discovered the score and premiered it on December 17 of that year, the same year that Heinrich Kreißle von Heilborn’s biography of Schubert appeared, the first serious account of his life, over 600 pages in length. The Great C Major Symphony had been known since 1840, when Mendelssohn conducted it at the Leipzig Gewandhaus after Schumann had obtained the manuscript from the composer’s brother Ferdinand in early 1839, but beyond Schumann, Mendelssohn, and their circle, where Schubert was already regarded as a cult figure, a precursor of their Romantic aesthetic, the work was largely misunderstood, considered, ironically, devoid of melody. Schumann’s famous review is one of the few positive assessments of that time. The melodies were easy to identify in the B Minor, and it was praised by Eduard Hanslick, immediately taken up by orchestras and the public as a true precursor of Romantic expression. That, and the mystery surrounding its unfinished status made it one of, if not the most often played work in the symphonic repertoire until late in the twentieth century, when a dryer musical taste prevailed. Leon Botstein’s essay on Schubert’s reception—actually a second, posthumous career—quoted Brahms’ amazing statement that “one has the sense that he is still alive.“ (p. 307)

Leon Botstein led the ASO in a well-centered performance which did full justice to the symphony’s seriousness and melancholy. This is surely the kind of performance the work needs, rather than a self-indulgent exaggeration of its dynamics and expression, an egregious example of which, conducted by Christoph von Eschenbach befouled the Vienna Philharmonic’s recent series at Carnegie Hall. The most satisfying performances, like Botstein’s, focus on the music, rather than the conductor’s gesticulations. Inner voices were clear, and the loudest tutti still had detail in them, with differentiation of woodwinds and brass. The bittersweet melodies were all the more affecting when phrased with some restraint.

One cannot blame nineteenth century listeners if they came to the conclusion that Schubert had reached his limit in the “Unfinished,” and that the grand symphonic gesture, bungled in the Great C Major, lay beyond his skills. On the other hand there were sketches which documented his activity in the genre, even some that seemed performable after some reconstructive work, and then there were truly grand works for piano, either solo, four hands, or for two pianos, which seemed unpianistic to a generation accustomed to Chopin, Liszt, and Rubenstein and rather more symphonic, as if Schubert would have scored them as symphonies, if he’d only had a chance to get them performed. Brahms’ close associate and friend, the virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim, orchestrated in 1855 Schubert’s “Grand Duo” Sonata in C Major for piano four hands (written 1824, published 1838 with a dedication to Clara Wieck). Robert Schumann himself first recognized a symphonic character in the work. The dedication of the orchestral score, published in 1877, read “Frau Clara Schumann widmet diese Bearbeitung des Franz Schubert’schen Op. 140 dédié [sic] à Mademoiselle Clara Wieck in Verehrung und Freundschaft Joseph Joachim.” Joachim’s orchestration, rather favoring the strings, as one might expect, is convincing and successful as an orchestral work. Botstein, who has performed the score in the past, produced a splendid performance from the ASO, beautiful in timbre, melodically flowing, and structurally coherent. Joachim’s arrangement is a most enjoyable hommage, which should be played more often.

By contrast Felix Weingartner’s arrangement of sketches for an E Major Symphony of 1821 failed to convince. Botstein conducted only two movements, the best supported by autograph material, the opening Adagio-Allegro rather more than the Andante, which seemed almost bizarre at points.

Goethe and the Lied

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828. Oil.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828. Oil.

I have already discussed Lieder, Goethe, Schubert, and the Schubertiaden in other contexts in this review article, but two further concerts and presentations went deeper into the character of these artistic evenings as well as other aspects of Schubert’s song writing. One was Program Four, a revelatory performance with commentary by Susan Youens, Goethe and Music: the German Lied (Sunday, August 10, 10 am) and Program Eight, The Music of Friendship (Saturday, August 16, 1 pm), with a talk by John M. Gingerich and a recreation of a Schubertiade hosted by the pianist and Bard Festival stalwart, Piers Lane.

Susan Youens is renowned for her books on poets and the Lied, including Heinrich Heine and the Lied, Retracing a Winter’s Journey: Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin, Schubert’s Late Lieder: Beyond the Song Cycles, and Schubert, Müller, and Die schöne Müllerin, Singers build recital programs and recordings around Goethe settings fairly often but this program went far beyond any other in exploring the range of Goethe’s presence in the Lied beyond the famous names of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf. All of these were included in the program, but, as in Program Two, The Path to Erlkönig, we had an ample opportunity to hear from Schubert’s impressive predecessors and contemporaries: Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752–1814), Luise Reichardt (1779-1826), Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg (1760–1802), Václav Jan Křtitel Tomášek (1774-1850), Conradin Kreutzer (1780-1849), Carl Friedrich Zelter (1788–1832), Carl Loewe (1796-1869), and Josephine Lang (1815-80), in addition to the Mendelssohns and Beethoven. Professor Youens’ program note, essentially a summary of her comments during the concert, is available on Issuu (click here to access the book). We have already seen how Schubert turned to Goethe at the beginning of his career as a song writer in “Erlkönig” and “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” taken from Goethe’s “principal occupation,” the play in two parts, Faust. Goethe became a German institution even at a fairly young age, and his many-faceted output exercised an almost universal influence on every aspect of German Bildung. The adulation of Goethe made as much of an impression on the atmosphere and practice at the Schubertiaden as the ideals Mayrhofer and his writers expressed in the Beyträge zur Bildung für Jünglinge. Vogl’s passion for classical antiquity shows one aspect of this. The program followed a selection of the areas Goethe’s verse embraced: Faust settings, philosophical poetry (“Meditations on Time, Life, and Death”), and the Antique, in addition to groups of pre-Schubertian settings, and the activities of the Mendelssohns and their circle. The performances by Sari Gruber, soprano, Teresa Buchholz, mezzo-soprano; Scott Williamson, tenor, Andrew Garland, baritone, accompanied by Judith Gordon, and Sarah Rothenberg were consistently excellent.

A Schubertiade Reenacted

The lighter, more social side of the Schubert group’s interests came to the fore in Piers Lane’s recreation of a Schubertiade. Ieva Jakubaviciute filled in for Benjamin Hochman with her usual elegance in a set of Schubert waltzes and the Hungarian melody, followed by a group of Schubert songs based on texts by his friends, including Mayrhofer, Spaun, and Senn, as well as part-songs and humorous scenes by Mayrhofer, Seidl, Schober and others. There followed a set actually composed by friends of Schubert and contemporaries, including the melancholy Swedish song which Schubert developed into the principal theme of his E Flat Trio, Op. 100, one of his greatest works, which occupied a central place in another program. This one closed with works by Schubert’s posthumous friends, Liszt, Clara Wieck, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Once again, there were fine performances by Deanna Breiwick, soprano, Rebecca Ringle, mezzo-soprano, Paul Appleby, tenor, Andrew Garland, baritone, with Laura Flax, clarinet, Marc Goldberg, bassoon, the Horszowski Trio, Piers Lane, Ieva Jokubaviciute, and Reiko Uchida, piano. Of the singers Andrew Garland distinguished himself by his powerful, well-balanced, and flexible baritone and the perception and feeling of his interpretations, not that Deanna Breiwick and Rebecca Ringle did not continue to delight us.

Schubert’s Illness: Grief, Ambition, and Hard Work

The last five years of Schubert’s short life was dominated by his tragic infection with syphilis (which, as is commonly known, amounted to something worse than a death sentence before the development of antibiotics in the 1940s) some time in late 1822 or early 1823, when he was hospitalized for a time. The primary and secondary phases of the disease hit him hard, it seems, and not only was he feeling extremely ill and in pain, he was acutely aware that his health was ruined for life, however long that might prove to be. Furthermore, he was forced into seclusion by the disfiguring lesions and hair loss caused by the disease, depriving him of the social life on which his emotional well-being depended. It has been thought that the illness, or the depression that accompanied it prevented his from finishing his Symphony in B Minor. On the other hand, he was at work on the “Wanderer” Fantasy at the same time, wrote much of Die schöne Müllerin in his hospital bed, wrote the A Minor Piano Sonata, three ambitious stage works, the operas, Alfonso und Estrella, Fierrabras, and the incidental music for Rosamunde, in addition to the lighter Singspiel, Die Verschworenen. In other words, this period following the first phase of his disease was one of his most ambitious and active—the height of his efforts to succeed as a theatrical composer. Opera was the most esteemed and the most lucrative genre for a composer at the time. Perhaps it was this heightened awareness of his mortality that spurred him on to this concerted push. Of these, only Rosamunde was produced. In response Schubert gave up composing opera and incidental music and turned to large-scale piano sonatas, chamber music and the symphony. One of the most important insights gained from the festival was a realization of the systematic way in which he developed the genres he attempted. And there can be no doubt that his music became emotionally deeper in addition to its ambition.

Program Five, Unspeakable Illness: Before and After, introduced by Byron Adams in a passionate lecture about syphilis, addresses this alteration in Schubert’s creative work. The first half of the program consisted of light chamber and solo works, culminating in an early masterpiece, the Quartettsatz (1820), which adumbrates some of the characteristics of his later work, for example the rapid, repeated figures running through extensive harmonic transformations. The virtuosity of the Dover Quartet enabled them to produce one of the most satisfying performances I have heard, excelling in intonation and precise ensemble, qualities essential to a successful performance of this difficult unfinished work. After the break, Andrew Garland and Anna Polonsky gave eloquent performances of two songs from Die Schöne Müllerin, following by pair of important individual songs of the period. Then Scott Williamson, tenor, took over for “Ganymede” by Goethe, and “Der Zwerg” by Collin. These were interspersed with piano four-hand music, winningly played by Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss. The beloved Marche Militaire could not have been more delightful. The climax of the afternoon, however, occurred in Danny Driver’s monumental rendering of the “Wanderer” Fantasy. The work, one of Schubert’s greatest, is fiendishly difficult, and its sophisticated harmonic construction and concentration as a monothematic single-movement work suggesting the pattern of a multi-movement sonata requires the utmost concentration over some 25 minutes. Even the young, fit Danny Driver, who gave a consummate performance, both technically and expressively, breathed a weary sigh at the end, as the audience applauded with loud enthusiasm. This was also one of the great performances of the festival, which I shan’t soon forget.

Moritz von schwind, The conclusion of Schubert's Die Verschworenen, flanked by Erlkönig and Der Fischer, watercolor and gouache, study for the Vienna Opera.

Moritz von schwind, The conclusion of Schubert’s Die Verschworenen, flanked by Erlkönig and Der Fischer, watercolor and gouache, study for the Vienna Opera.

Schubert on Stage

The Sunday evening concert, Program Six: Schubert and Viennese Theater, was the first of two programs devoted to Schubert’s serious, but unsuccessful attempt to break into the stage world. Like Carl Maria von Weber, whose Euryanthe was the great revelation of the summer, Schubert was drawn to German opera, and Vienna, like other European capitals, was mad for Rossini and Italian opera. Italianate taste had dominated Vienna since Mozart’s time. Mozart at least had a flair for Italian language and verse, so fluently provided him by Lorenzo da Ponte. Schubert clove to the German tradition, where his operatic talents, such as they were, lay.

For the first half of the program Bard offered Die Verschworenen, a one-act Singspiel based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Schubert took the libretto from an ready-made text. Its author, Ignaz Franz Castelli, published it in late 1822 as a challenge to German composers, who complained about a dearth of German texts to set, and Schubert wasn’t the only composer to take it up. During these post-Congress years the government actively discouraged political and intellectual debate, and censorship was strict. In this case the original title, which means The Conspirators, had to go, in favor of Der häusliche Krieg (The Domestic War) and the adaptation of Aristophanes, via an 1802 French adaptation by François-Benoît Hoffmann, Lisistrata, ou Les Athéniennes, Comédie en un acte et en prose, mêlée de vaudevilles, is mild enough. It is set in a castle in the Middle Ages, where the knights and nobles are about to return from a Crusade, for the purpose of protecting their land and their women and bringing honor upon themselves and their families. The warriors wives are fed up with their long absence and decide to go on a sex strike until their men agree to give up fighting. In Aristophanes the women win by this strategy. In Schubert’s little opera a lower class pair of lovers, a page and a house maid, discover the women’s plan and warn the men, who are then able to get the upper hand. Through compromise and good will, the two sides in the battle of the sexes get what they want. The men give up war and they all live on in peace together. Schubert’s music is by no means weak, and thoroughly charming. I enjoyed this gently satirical operetta-like show quite a lot. There was no crisis, however, to create a real turning-point in the story. None of the characters came in danger of being hurt, and the conflict was resolved through a common goal—a mutual desire for sex—and common sense, not to mention the guiding force of male superiority. There is no evidence here that Schubert really thought dramatically, the way Weber did.

The cast, partly consisting of the singers who had worked so creditably through the weekend, Deanna Breiwick, Paul Appleby, and Nicholas Phan, were joined by Marc Molomot, tenor, Nathan Stark, bass-baritone, and Camille Zamora, soprano. They sang with style and attractive tone and acted with humor and enthusiasm. In the semi-staged production, designed and directed by Eric Einhorn with lighting design by Jeanette Yew, the costumes, above all the women’s recalled those of the Summerscape production of John Banville’s adaptation of Kleist’s Penthesilea, making it a sort of light satyr-play to that gory tragedy, an entertaining touch that gave some unity to the summer and rewarded those of us who had seen the play. The ASO under Leon Botstein played with both energy and lyric flow. They were occasionally a little loud for the singers, whose voices were occasionally blanketed over.

Nicholas Phan and Deanna Breiwick in Franz von Suppé's Franz Schubert. Photo Cory Weaver.

Nicholas Phan and Deanna Breiwick in Franz von Suppé’s Franz Schubert. Photo Cory Weaver.

To cap off the first weekend, there was Franz von Suppé’s one-act operetta of 1864, Franz Schubert, which was a great hit in Vienna in the wake of its premiere, eventually disappearing from the stage as audiences lost interest in it. It fell into such neglect that a score had to be reconstructed from archival materials. Musically it is a pastiche of tunes, drawn mostly from Schubert’s Lieder, above all, “Erlkönig,” which begins the show in a brassy orchestration of Schubert’s famous song. The curious thing is, is that none of the song tunes function in the way Schubert wrote them, so that Suppé’s score seems almost like a burlesque. The story foreshadows the kind of plot that might grace a Hollywood film of the 1930s. Rejected by the father of a young noblewoman he was proposed to, Schubert decided to get out of Vienna and get over his disappointment in rure. He is also at work on Die Schöne Müllerin, and, far from the hospital bed in which he actually wrote the music, he sojourns in a village by a brook, so that he can hear the rush of the water and the turning of the mill’s wheel. In order to get close to this, he agrees to help the miller’s apprentice to woo the miller’s daughter, by taking over his duties at the mill. Meanwhile Schubert’s friends from Vienna have come up to pass the time with him, make handsome job offers, and fetch him back to the city. You don’t really need to know more. Once I got over the shock of hearing Schubert’s melodies in this trivialized form, I began to enjoy the performance very much. The operetta is also a prime document of how the mid-century Viennese viewed Schubert as a composer of the people, with talents for substantial religious and symphonic music, who chooses to remain with the people for his inspiration. His music then will exist to cheer and support the moral fiber of the Volk. He is also a nice guy, who is happy to help out young lovers. Not everyone agreed with me at the time, but I thought Bard performed a handsome service in restoring this entertaining document of Schubert’s Nachleben. And a spirited, generally well-sung performance it was. The men who sang the parts of Schubert’s cronies had great fun, the miller’s apprentice was a nice role for Nicholas Phan, and Maestro Botstein donned a rustic straw hat to play the spoken part of the miller, which he did with humorous bemusement.

Weekend II: Schubert the Pioneer

Now for the second weekend, entitled A New Aesthetics of Music. The great composers of the past have proven fertile ground for the makers of popular art, from candies, trading cards, and beer steins to movies. There is a rich cinematic tradition of sentimental films about Schubert, and it might have been highly entertaining to see one or two of them, but instead Bard chose to show Fritz Lehner’s 1986 mini-series for Austrian Broadcasting, Mit meinen heißen Tränen.

The music struck up again on Friday afternoon with Schubert’s great Octet in F Major (1824). Modeled closely on Beethoven’s Septet for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, which had been extremely popular since its premiere in 1799. Ignaz Schuppenzigh, the violin virtuoso who led this first performance of the Beethoven (later leading the string quartet which premiered most of Beethoven’s, creating the first modern professional string quartet), was to include Schubert’s Octet in the prestigious instrumental concert series he founded in Vienna in 1823, after his return from a long absence. The work was commissioned by Ferdinand Count Troyer, an outstanding amateur clarinettist, and the Octet was first performed in his Vienna apartments by the Schuppanzigh group, with himself playing the clarinet part. As for the official Schuppenzigh concerts, the Octet was postponed until the final concert of the 1826-27 season, continually preempted by Beethoven’s ever-popular Septet. Schubert’s response to Beethoven’s example was ambitious. His unique work retains the six-movement form of a divertimento, but departs from its light-hearted style in the first and last movements as well as the Adagio and moves into grand symphonic discourse, which includes Hoffmannesque interludes of dread and terror, like the third movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and “Ghost” Trio. The daring experiment was successful, at least to later ears. The performance by Bard Conservatory students and faculty was superb, showing a fine sense of the Viennese performance tradition without slavishly imitating it. I only wished in places that rests were observed more attentively and the music given more room to breathe. The quality of the playing by the individual musicians was consistently outstanding, in spite of this. Schubert’s Octet is not an easy work to perform.

There followed Schubert’s Kosegarten Liederspiel. Morten Solvik, Scholar-in-Residence at the 2014 Bard Festival, has established that the twenty songs Schubert wrote in the summer and autumn of 1815 on texts by the poet Gotthard Ludwig Kosegarten, belong together as a Liederspiel, a group of brief songs which as a group tell a story. This would have been performed informally by the attendees of a social gathering as a mixture of song, verse, and acting. For more, see Solvik’s article in the Bard essay collection: “Schubert’s Kosegarten Settings of 1815: a Forgotten Liederspiel.”

The Friday evening concert , Program Seven: Beethoven’s Successor? recreated a public concert Schubert organized on March 26th, 1828, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death. He avoided calling it a memorial concert, because it consisted entirely of Schubert’s own music and was intended to present him as Beethoven’s successor as the foremost composer of Vienna.

Following Schubert’s original program Bard began with only a single movement, the Allegro, from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. The wonderful Harlem Quartet (Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violins, Jaime Amador, viola, and Matthew Zalkind, cello) performed this with all the energy, warmth, elegance, and precision which have built them an enthusiastic following in recent years. Too bad Herr Schubert deprived us of more of their playing! It is not certain exactly which quartet was played at Schubert’s concert. Most authorities think it was the G Major. This was followed by six of Schubert’s songs, four serious ones sung by Andrew Schroeder, baritone, the 1827 “Ständchen” for soprano and four-part male chorus sung by Sarah Shafer, and “Auf dem Strom,” for tenor (Paul Appleby), horn, and piano. The Piano Trio in E Flat, Op. 100, which followed the intermission, was the centerpiece of the concert. Christopher Gibbs devoted an important article to this piece in the essay collection: “Schubert’s Tombeau de Beethoven: Decrypting the Piano Trio in E Flat, Op. 100.” The Horszowski Trio gave this an expansive, deliberate treatment, which was received by the audience with warm, lengthy ovations. I have to declare myself in a very small minority in being rather less than transported by this performance. To my judgment it was a little too ponderous and overly conscientious in its stress of every interesting modulation and striking detail. There is no doubt the work is a masterpiece (although one teacher I respected most emphatically preferred the B Flat Trio, Op. 99), but it is better served with a little more lightness and grace. Andrew Schroeder then sang, most eloquently, “Die Allmacht.” The concert concluded with the Bard Festival Chorale singing “Schlachtlied,” a violent battle song by Klopstock, which aroused considerable discomfort in the audience for a variety of reasons, but was splendidly sung by the Bard Festival Chorale, directed by James Bagwell.

One doesn’t really review academic panel discussions (NB. The Bard panels are intended for their serious and well-informed public.), but I have to mention Panel Two: Music’s “Far Fairer Hopes”: Originality and Influence, because it was truly outstanding, one of the most successful offered at the festival. Scott Burnham, Kristina Muxfeldt, and Richard Wilson, with Morten Solvik as moderator outdid themselves for the quality of their work. Richard Wilson’s close analysis of Schubert’s great A Major Sonata, showing the intervallic and harmonic relationships which unify the entire sonata, was truly memorable for its intelligence and fine wit. To quote a popular phrase, “he nailed it.”

Schubert’s Religious Music

Program Nine: Late Ambitions consisted of choral works Schubert wrote in his last year, especially the Mass in E Flat. He did not write these religious works to reconcile himself with his Maker in anticipation of an early grave, but to show his mastery in as many major genres as possible. His incurable illness may have depressed him deeply, but it also fired his ambition either to succeed before his death or perhaps at least to leave a legacy. He wrote the E Flat Mass without a commission, unlike his setting Psalm 92, in which he set the Hebrew text for a new Vienna synagogue, the Temple in the Seitenstettengasse, where the rabbi and cantor were keen to overhaul the music program. Sara Shafer, Rebecca Ringle, Paul Appleby, Andrew Garland, and the Bard Festival Chorus under James Bagwell, director, gave a spirited, suitably devout, and well-balanced reading. There followed an extremely rare performance of “Mirjams Siegesgesang,” a setting of a Grillparzer text, in its orchestration by Franz Lachner, a friend of Schubert’s who did the work at his behest. Its Handelian style is like nothing else one hears in Schubert. Its stirring brass won over the audience, who applauded warmly.

Schubert also left behind sketches for a Symphony in D Major. Botstein and the ASO recognized this in a performance of Luciano Berio’s Rendering (1990), in which he weaves together an independent composition from Schubert fragments—a haunting, engrossing work, performed by Maestro Botstein and the orchestra with conviction. Berio’s quotations and the way he works them are macerated in twentieth century nostalgia for the Classic-Romantic era.

The Mass in E Flat received a fine performance, with polished, committed singing from soloists and chorus.  Dynamic markings were nicely observed and executed, so that the contrasting passages of grandeur and intimacy could make themselves felt. This was another of the most successful performances of the festival, warmly applauded by the audience.

In writing this Mass without a commission, Schubert felt free to cut out some phrases in the Latin text which which he presumably found objectionable, making the Mass unperformable in the course of Roman Catholic liturgy without some modification. Earlier in life Schubert wrote other, very beautiful Masses on commission and with the approved text, but none of his output in this genre has been accepted into the repertoires of church and concert hall to the extent of Masses by other composers. That is true and significant, even though the nature of ecclesiastical programming and the records of it make it difficult to track this data. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, because of its solemnity and difficulty, is a special occasion in concert programming, Mozart’s Masses are not common either, nor are even Haydn’s which are at the core of the post-Baroque literature. The textual alterations and Schubert’s human scale in feeling and writing (although he was working hard on counterpoint studies in his last months) make them a part of the secularized religious music of the Romantic era, beginning with Beethoven’s Mass in C, which the Patron, Prince Esterházy, rejected, reacting, I suspect, to the cerebral quality which makes it unsympathetic to the rite, and continuing with the Missa Solemnis, the religious music of Berlioz, Gounod, Verdi, and Brahms. Bruckner by contrast was able to express himself in the old spiritual mold.

Schubert and the Männerchor

Schubert drinking Heuriger with friends, by Moritz von Schwind. Pen and ink.

Schubert drinking Heuriger with friends, by Moritz von Schwind. Pen and ink.

There was one genre, on the other hand, which was extremely important in Schubert’s oeuvre, which has almost entirely fallen out of musical life since the Second World War, at least outside of Germany, where it has at least shrunken considerably. These are the part-songs and songs for male chorus. The latter, which were an inherent part of the Schubertiaden, where the solo Lieder were performed, have no place in modern concert life, although virtuoso groups like the Calmus Ensemble are beginning to build an audience for it again by combining repertoire from the Middle Ages with the Romantics and twentieth and twenty-first century pop music—all sung with hair-raising precision and disarming with. Lieder have of course almost exclusively become the province of star singers in widely publicized concerts.

During Schubert’s childhood a few musical leaders, in the idealistic spirit which followed the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, founded male choral societies, as much social clubs as performing groups, which exercised a profound and pervasive influence on German society—in hindsight not always for the better. The model for these was the Berliner Liedertafel, founded in 1808 by Carl Friedrich Zelter, Goethe’s friend and Felix Mendelssohn’s teacher. Carl Friedrich Fasch followed with the Berliner Singakademie. Both of these exclusive societies cultivated intellectual idealism and patriotism, and were particularly conscious of the intrinsic character of German art and the need to preserve it. The place of music in general Bildung was another concern. Such organizations appeared in Vienna quite a bit later. In October 1838 August Schmidt founded the Wiener Männergesang-Verein on the model of the Berliner Singakademie. Schubert’s music only began to appear on their programs around 1850, but it quickly took over a major part of their programs. Beyond the Gemütlichkeit of the music itself, it evoked what  men saw as the simpler, honest ways of old times. In 1863 another society joined it, the Schubertbund. The dual function of these groups in providing male fellowship as well as in promoting the ideals of Bildung and patriotism endowed them with a particular repertory all their own. Wine, women, and song complimented repertoire about life and death, the Fatherland, and military valor. Hence the Männerchor tradition includes songs any listener today would consider among Schubert’s most profound as well as some many people would find bitterly repellent.

Program Ten, The Fellowship of Men: the Male Choral Tradition provided a rich survey of a repertory already sampled in earlier events. In it the high and low roads intertwined. Beginning with Schubert’s setting of Psalm 23 and his evocative “Nachthelle,” the program included Mozart’s Freimaurerkantate, one of the last pieces he wrote, for his lodge’s dedication of a new building, hunting songs by Schubert and Mendelssohn, drinking songs by Michael Haydn, Mendelssohn, Zöllner, and Marschner, and nature poetry set for chorus by various composers. The high points were Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s philosophical poem “Gesang der Geister über den Wassern” and Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, which was especially interesting to hear within a clearly defined genre, rather than as part of a symphonic concert season. These Sunday morning concerts by members of the Bard Festival Chorus under James Bagwell are always keenly anticipated, and this one didn’t disappoint. The precise ensemble, fine intonation, and clear textures served this diverse material splendidly. Teresa Bucholz sang the Alto Rhapsody to a piano accompaniment with intelligence and musicality.

During the afternoon there was Program Eleven, The Final Months with late piano works and songs, including the great A Major Sonata, “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,” and selections from the posthumous Lieder collection called Schwanengesang. Unfortunately, like the Kosegarten concert, I could not attend this. Larry Wallach will report in a separate review.

Schubert's Fierrabras at Bard. Photo Cory Weaver.

Schubert’s Fierrabras at Bard. Photo Cory Weaver.

Schubert and German Opera

Program Twelve, Schubert and Opera concluded the Festival with a single work, Fierrabras, Schubert’s attempt at a full-scale German opera in the manner of Carl Maria von Weber. It is set in the time of Charlemagne and concerns wars between, “the Architect of the West” and one Boland, a fictitious Prince of the Moors. The libretto by Josef Kupelwieser, brother of Schubert’s close friend, Leopold Kupelwieser the artist. Josef, a poet and translator, who was secretary of the Kärntertortheater, where Schubert hoped to get the opera performed. It was rejected, because of the Italianate trends in Viennese taste and Schubert’s poor box office with his previously produced stage works. One of the main themes of the Festival was to stress the importance of stage music to Schubert at this stage of his career, and in this there was also a mission to impress us with the quality of Schubert’s operatic work. This was unsuccessful, I regret to say, the elaborate projections did little to clarify or stimulate interest in the rather muddled libretto, and the music, while ranging from the attractive to the very beautiful, and typically Schubertian, did not really express character or dramatic situations, either through structure or orchestration, in such a way as to seem anything more than a fairly static oratorio. The contrast with Weber’s brilliant psychological progressions and orchestration was all too palpable.

Fierrabras, a Moorish hostage of the Christians, suffers under a false accusation, but gains his freedom in the end, only to be rejected in love for Charlemagne’s daughter, Emma, who is in love with the treacherous knight, Eginhard. Schubert, who could express the agony of unhappy love more powerfully than any composer in his songs, could not bring it off in opera. The most interesting parts concerned Florinda, like Fierrabras the child of Boland, whose passion for the Christian knight Roland almost leads her to join him at the stake. There was some intensity there, largely thanks to Cecilia Hall, the most dramatic and musically capable of the singers, not that the male singers were not more than satisfactory. There was also some interest in the complex, evil-doing, but eventually redeemed Eginhard, but his story failed to emerge from the general activity. One of the chief liabilities of the performance was Sara Jakubiak, who sang the role of Emma with wooden acting and a penetrating voice which, with its screechy upper register, seemed almost a caricature of grand operatic style.

The stage devices and projections employed to strengthen the dramatic impact did just the opposite by distracting the audience with annoying lights and fatuous images while accomplishing nothing in clarifying the story. There was an enormous cube on which there were projections of close-ups of the singers in glum, ghostly guises alternating with ridiculous images of toy knights riding towards cut-out castles. This was positively the worst thing I have ever seen at a Bard Festival, at which one sees very few disasters of this nature. Straight subtitles would have been more helpful. Likewise, the overdesigned projected titles and Doug Fitch’s quicky sets for Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Perséphone last year were neither helpful nor enjoyable, although not nearly as bad as this. Bard should give up these attempts at creating the illusion of a full staging. Dramatically satisfying concert performances, like the ASO’s Marschner’s Vampyr at Carnegie Hall or any of the Caramoor performances (with the notable exception of Ciro in Babilonia, which fell into the same trap as the present performance.)

Things were much better on the musical side. The ASO played with enthusiasm, with good balance and clear textures, and the Bard Festival Chorus sang with precision and handsome tone. The large forces on stage made it difficult to produce much dynamic variety and singers were occasionally covered by the orchestra. Schubert’s orchestration may bear much of the blame for this.

Bard achieved a major triumph in Weber’s Euryanthe, which was splendidly sung and acted, evocatively decorated, and brilliantly directed by Kevin Newbury. After that, Bard can afford a few experiments that don’t work out, and Fierrabras is to be commended as just that—an honorable experiment. An almost parallel production at Salzburg also seems not to have made the case for Fierrabras either. Ruth Berghaus’ typically weird but interesting production under Claudio Abbado can be seen on You Tube.

On the whole this twenty-fifth anniversary Festival was one of the best ever, thanks to Messrs. Schubert and Botstein, Irene Zedlacher, Robert Martin, Christopher Gibbs, Morten Solvik, as well as the many musical and academic participants in this unique and indispensable service to music and culture…or let’s say it, Bildung, which still has a place in certain circles in Germany and some parts of the rest of the world. Bard College and its Festivals are exemplary in this. If you don’t think this is important, I invite you to consider the alternative, for example this horrific NPR piece on “Gretchen am Spinnrade”—a revolting exercise in condescension and stupidity.

And, to follow up on Brahms, Schubert is still alive, very much so. I saw him one afternoon sunning himself on the grass, ogling the young women as they passed.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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