Thoughts About the Music

Saturday, June 19

Franz Schubert – Selected Songs

During his tragically short life, Schubert composed over 1500 works. Included in these works are 600 songs and nearly as many piano pieces. Schubert, who suffered from severe mood swings due to cyclothymia, found solace in his compositions, all of which shed light on his emotional states. Often reveling in nature-centric poetry, many of his songs are poignant appeals to nature and its creatures.

Die Taubenpost
“I have a carrier pigeon in my pay, devoted and true; she never stops short of her goal and never flies too far. Each day I send her out a thousand times on reconnaissance, past many a beloved spot, to my sweetheart’s house. I no longer need to write a note, I can give her my very tears; she will certainly not deliver them wrongly, so eagerly does she serve me.”

This is the last song written by Schubert before his untimely death at age 31. Even though the song is in a major key, Schubert displays a depth of emotion that breaks its confines, evoking moods of sauntering optimism tinged with a wistful, heartbreaking uncertainty. This mastery of compositional skill is one of the many reasons scholars have deemed his works miracles of their kind.

Die Sterne
“How brightly the stars glitter through the night! I have often been aroused by them from slumber. But I do not chide the shining beings for that, for they secretly perform many a benevolent task. They wander high above in the form of angels; they light the pilgrim’s way through heath and wood. They hover like harbingers of love and often bear kisses far across the sea. They gaze tenderly into the sufferer’s face and fringe his tears with silver light. And comfortingly, gently, direct us from the grave, beyond the azure with fingers of gold. I bless you, radiant throng! Long may you shine upon me, clear, pleasing light! And if one day I fall in love, smile upon the bond and let your twinkling be a blessing upon us.”

This song features delightful interplay between the soprano and the piano, recalling the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in its steady, rhythmic drive brooding with energy. The lively spirit reflects the inner mechanisms of the universe with a stable yet thrilling vigor. Here, Schubert explores multiple keys, shifting on an axis of thirds from Eb to C, C flat to G, and back to Eb again. This pattern of shifting centers and eventual return to the “home” key could be said to represent the cyclical nature of the universe, with its seasons and solar cycles all being guided by a steady rhythm in the piano, a divine nature of sorts crafted with the human touch of Schubert’s mature wisdom.

Nacht und Träume
“Holy night, you sink down; dreams, too, float down, like your moonlight through space, through the silent hearts of men. They listen with delight, crying out when day awakes: come back, holy night! Fair dreams, return!”

The one and only dynamic marking in this song is Pianissimo, instructing the players to remain extremely soft throughout the entire work. The piano plays mostly the same rhythmic patterns for the entire song, shifting between broken chords and faster, repeated 16th notes. Despite these simple, unchanging features, Schubert creates a tender, intimate atmosphere, evoking moods of solace and reflection.

“Are these all the flowers you have, spring? Can you not shine brighter, sun? The beloved Millermaid is mine! Mine!”

The poem in which this song is based centers around a protagonist named Miller, who is convinced that he has acquired a Maiden. Interestingly, the character of Miller is very similar to Schubert in his manic emotional nature, and Schubert skillfully displays this disposition in the song. The song combines deep, muddy chords in the piano beneath agile, lyrical melismas in the soprano that scatter themselves throughout the work before the piece comes to a flourishing finish.

Jean-Philippe Rameau – La Poule for solo piano

Jean-Phillipe Rameau was an imaginative French Baroque composer who lived from 1683-1764. His compositions contain a broad spectrum of innovative compositional techniques all rooted in traditional Baroque styles. One major influence on Rameau’s creativity was his obsession with birds and birdsong. Birdsong is a highly complex form of communication that varies in structure from species to species as well as dialect and “accent” depending on the birds’ location. Rameau composed a variety of pieces on the concept of birdsong, including his “Le rappel des oiseaux” (the conference of birds) in which he imitates bird calls on the harpsichord. Another is his piece “La Poule” or “the hen” for solo keyboard. The piece features the heavy use of repetitions on one basic melody built into sequences. In addition Rameau intersperses short motifs to imitate “clucking” patterns which are varied throughout the work. As lighthearted as this may sound, the piece is no comedy. Rather, Rameau constructs a deeply emotional drama. The passionate styles utilized in this piece shed light into the depth of expression that lies within traditional Baroque methods of composition.

Helen Grime – Aviary Sketches (after Joseph Cornell)

Helen Grime is a Scottish composer who began her career at just 12 years old, creating a variety of different works often centered around visual art. Her work Aviary Sketches was composed after the work of Joseph Cornell, a reclusive shadow box collage artist whose works showcased tiny glimpses into the aviary world. Many of Cornell’s works centered around nature, specifically birds. In Aviary Sketches, Grime composed the trio in movements based on specific works by the artist. Therefore, each movement is strikingly different, each containing its own miniature world. The movements cater to the ensemble in entirely different ways, with the first movement featuring two distinct characters as groups of themes gradually shifting against one another. Recalling Ravel’s “Oiseaux Triste”, which Ravel described as “birds lost in the torpor of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer”, the piece contains rapidly moving lines amidst a poignant melody. The second movement, “Aviary: Parrot Music Box” is more mechanical in nature, with plucky cello lines that begin to spread throughout the whole ensemble before they diminish in length until one single note remains. The next movement features captivating solo viola lines that are interrupted by the fluttering of cello and violin. These two characters converge in a flurry of sound until the viola takes the lead once again. The fourth movement is a rush of energy, with hushed ethereal backgrounds being overtaken by billowing squalls across the ensemble, gaining suspense until a final release of tension. The fifth and final movement, “Toward the Blue Peninsula”, features a psalm-like melody that is interrupted by what can only be described as flourishing, energetic songbird lines that furiously weave amongst one another as they lead up to a passionate climax. The piece comes to a close with a whispering contemplative end.

Antonín Dvořák – Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor “Dumky”

While Dvorak gained much fame and success for the pieces he wrote while in America, with an inspiration that grew from the sounds of New World, his roots lie grounded in the folk music of Bohemia. His working-class father would occasionally play the zither (a Bavarian stringed instrument) at weddings and other ceremonies. After the Czech independence movement, the sounds of Dvorak’s youth became reinvigorated. While Dvorak never transcribed any preexisting folk tunes, his compositions incorporate rhythms and harmonies influenced by these ancestral melodies and exemplifying the true nature of the Czech spirit. His Piano Trio No. 4 is subtitled “Dumky” which translates roughly to a brooding lament. The piece is divided into 6 movements. Each movement alternates with fast and slow tempos, all while retaining the overall dark, impassioned aura of the work. The first movement establishes this mood with a dramatic melody first played by the cello. Then, the music shifts into a rocking dance-like section before returning to its original darkness. As the music shifts into the second movement, a mournful mood comes to the forefront, shifting into that of peaceful solace. The third movement is characterized by a more joyful section that is quickly tainted with a crestfallen dance. A feeling of deep sadness permeates the fourth movement, with its nostalgic march-like sections. After a mournful pause, the next movement showcases a driving Allegro energy, with the first and last sections being quicker and more energetic than the middle section. Finally, in the last movement, the spirit of the Dumky returns with a vengeance, featuring an ominous, melancholy mood that shifts into a violent dance before rising to a fervent climax.

©2021 Nicole Martin