Milton Moore: Happy birthday, Franz Schubert!
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It's hard for me to hold the music of Schubert at arm's length to assess it, because his music is the most personal, the most narrative, the most descriptive of a living character of any composer I know. So on his birthday, Jan. 31, 1797, I offer this playlist (embedded below) with a sense of how arbitrary it is. Of my thousands of CDs at home, my Schubert stack is the biggest.
For those of you who don't know about Schubert, he was a strange-looking little man who pretty much did nothing in his short life but sit at a desk and write music. In his final year, as he was dying at age 30, he wrote a torrent of masterpieces, perhaps the most astounding output of any artist … ever. Some of his biggest works, such as his Symphony No. 9, were never performed in public in his lifetime, yet they are performed steadily today. The Schubert tale, like his music, is rife with dramatic twists.
Schubert's music was fresh and original, entering amazing harmonic territory, partly because he was relatively unschooled, and he used the contrasting happy/sad themes of sonata form to write dramas in musical abstraction. In his late works, he had the chilling ability to simulate death in slow movements, when tempo and key would become so vague that you felt as if it were all slipping away from you. His tunes are endless, and most of his compositions are just plain long.
It's a fool's errand to edit down a playlist. How could I leave out one of his 600 songs? How could I omit the "Death and the Maiden" quartet? All those dozens of piano four-hand compositions? But I'll be the fool, and offer these:
Track 1: I open with the last of his six Moments Musicaux for piano, so operatic, so vocal … how often can you sing piano music? Beautifully played by Maria Joao Pires …
Track 2: This is something of an oddity, a section from the Mass in E Flat, one of those final year miracles. The weave of solo voices here is both radical and fresh compared with the masses of Haydn and Beethoven, so utterly Schubert's voice.
Tracks 3-6: The only full multi-movement work I'm including, this piano trio is most famous for its songlike second movement, but the dancing third movement always makes me smile and gets stuck in my head. This Beaux Arts Trio recording is one of the best-known in the entire chamber music catalog.
Track 7: Fasten your seat belt for a ride through the ether! This is the final movement from Schubert's final symphony, discovered a decade after his death, Schubert clearly revering Beethoven. The dotted rhythms race on and on, and a 4-note pulse runs through it. At the end, when the entire orchestra throbs C – C – C – C, it feels tremendously affirmative to me. This very fine recording is Ivan Fischer leading his Budapest orchestra.
Track 8: I end with the opening movement of Schubert's final piano sonata. Schubert's last sonatas were symphonic in scope – and length – and this B Flat sonata has been recorded endlessly, but Radu Lupu's keeps coming back as the most searching. The movement opens as a sturdy little theme steps out into the world with an ominous, growling figure stalking it, for a prolonged musical adventure. Here you get to experience why Schubert movements are so long: he uses such a wealth of thematic groups to develop, it seems the journey can go on forever.
I left out so much … what did I miss that is your essential Schubert?
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