Walter Pater defined Romanticism as “the addition of strangeness to beauty,” and the Romantic artist’s obsession with passion, poetic reverie, melancholia, and the mystical journey was never so achingly expressed as in the lieder of Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). Schubert wrote more than 600 lieder, revitalizing an old art form with harmonic inventiveness, and his beautiful melodies are as enchanting in our own time as they were back in the early 19th century. But Schubert didn’t just compose lyric masterworks; in fact, his reputation as a genius composer of an exquisite but minor musical form has served to obscure the wider scope of his ambitions, aspirations that were cut short by his untimely death at age 31. “Schubert and His World,” the theme of the 2014 Bard Music Festival, which is the centerpiece of its annual SummerScape, presents both the familiar and unfamiliar works of the composer in the context of both his time and his aspirations through a series of performances and talks scheduled from June 27 through August 17.
As it happens, Christopher Gibbs, the festival’s co-artistic director and a Bard professor, is an expert on Schubert ; in this case, SummerScape’s scholar-in-residence happens to be in-house. His fascination with the composer is rooted in his student days: “I was in graduate school writing a paper on a topic that my professor and advisor suggested I explore more,” he said in a recent phone call from Vienna, where he was traveling. “While lots of grad students write about obscure things and spend many years in a company you don’t want to keep, I got to work on one of the première composers of Western music, which was a complete pleasure.” The topic stuck, becoming a life-long study.
Schubert built a fantastic career in his twenties based on his lieder and simpler “partsongs,” which were widely published and performed in homes and at public theaters all over Europe, said Gibbs, who will present several of the music festival’s talks. But as a contemporary of Beethoven, who was 27 years older and the preeminent musical composer of the time, Schubert “aspired to do even greater and bigger things.” His output was astonishing: besides 600 songs, he wrote nine symphonies, 22 piano sonatas, numerous short piano pieces for two and four hands, six Masses, 35 chamber compositions, and 17 operatic works, including one full-length opera, Fierrabras, which will be performed at Bard on the final day of the festival, August 17. While most of this music, with the exception of the lieder, was never performed in his lifetime, it was discovered and orchestrated in subsequent decades by a new generation of composers. “It was as if he had lived throughout the 19th century as Berlioz, Schumann, Mendelsohn, Liszt, and Brahms became his great advocates,” said Gibbs.
Who was Schubert the man? Much of his life remains a mystery, Gibbs said. The son of a schoolmaster, he lived in Vienna his entire life and was destined to be a schoolteacher until his extraordinary talent became evident. He attended “a fancy boarding school and met a lot of friends who helped promote his career,” Gibbs said. Because he didn’t travel much or live very long, there aren’t many letters, and he didn’t keep a diary. He was unmarried and there is no evidence of any great romantic love. While some scholars have speculated he was homosexual, “I’m not at all convinced of that,” said Gibbs, though “he was primarily involved in a homo-social situation,” boarding with wealthier friends and their families since he had exceedingly modest means. He contracted syphilis six years before his death and was often sickly before succumbing to typhoid fever. Nonetheless, “it was a sudden death, which surprised his friends,” Gibbs said. “After 10 days in bed, he was dead.”
The SummerScape festival, which besides the lieder includes samples of his symphonic work, chamber music, sonatas, operas, partsongs and “four-hand” piano pieces, showcases two sides of Schubert: the music by which he was known in his lifetime, including performances of pieces and types of music that are now obscure, and the composer he aspired to be, including pieces unknown to his contemporaries but familiar to classical music lovers today.
The former category — popular pieces in his day that are now unfamiliar — include the vocal chamber music Schubert wrote for two baritones and two tenors, similar to latter-day barbershop quartets, Gibbs said. While some of these “partsongs,” as they are called, consist of drinking songs and other relatively trivial subjects, others are “fantastically moving.” The partsongs will be woven into several of the Schubert programs.
Also very popular in Vienna in Schubert’s day was dance music — mainly waltzes, of course, of which Schubert wrote hundreds — and intimate music called “four-hand” pieces, played by two people sitting side by side at the piano. (Such music was almost a courtship ritual, as recounted in the novels of Jane Austen, Gibbs noted.) Some of these pieces are among Schubert’s most impressive compositions and are 40 minutes long. Rondo in A Major for piano four hands will be part of the program, “The Final Months,” on the afternoon of August 17, while a sampling of his dances, songs and partsongs will comprise the program, “The Music of Friendship,” on the afternoon of August 16.
The obscure will be counterbalanced by the familiar and much loved, which besides lieder (the subject of the talk and performance, “Goethe and Music: The German Lied,” on the morning of August 10, with a selection representing Schubert, his contemporaries, and those influenced by him) includes the Unfinished Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, performed by the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bard College president Leon Botstein, on the evening of August 9, in the “Mythic Transformations” program. Another masterpiece, the String Quintet in C Major, which was composed the last year of Schubert’s life, will be performed as part of the first program, “The Legacy of a Life Cut Short,” the evening of August 8.
SummerScape will also present a selection of songs, arias and other works from Schubert’s contemporaries and near contemporaries, including Mozart, Gluck, Salieri, and Rossini (Program Two, “From ‘Boy’ to Master: The Path to Erlkonig” the afternoon of August 9), along with his one-act Singspiel Die Verschworenen, a short comic opera that’s “quite delightful,” according to Gibbs, paired with a rare, 1864 operetta written about Schubert — the 19th century equivalent of a film biopic — which was never published (“Schubert and Viennese Theater,” the evening of August 10). Schubert even wrote sacred music, samples of which will be performed the evening of August 16, in the program “Late Ambitions.”
Schubert’s one full-length opera, Fierrebras, which was never performed in his lifetime, will be presented in a semi-staged performance on August 17. It’s about a cross-cultural love affair set in the time of Charlemagne that bridges east and west, the Christian and Moorish worlds. Despite possible weaknesses of the drama and libretto, “the music is really fantastic, with great choruses,” Gibbs said. Because it was written in German, it likely never had a chance in 1820s Vienna, which was overtaken with Rossini mania, according to Gibbs. There had been an unfortunate precedent: the popularity of Italian opera across Europe — the best singers were Italian and even the London-based Handel composed many of his operas in Italian — was probably responsible for the lackluster reception of Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe, which premiered in Vienna in 1823. “It was another blow” from which German opera didn’t recover until a decades later, with the advent of Wagner, Gibbs said.
A full production of Euryanthe will be performed at SummerScape July 25, 27, 30 and August 1 and 3. A story of chivalry, betrayal, innocence, and love imbued with the supernatural, as befits the Romantic sensibility, Euryanthe was ahead of its time, and its innovative, recurring musical motives anticipated Wagnerian technique. Hailed by NPR as “Weber’s greatest masterpiece,” the opera has not been performed in the U.S. since the Metropolitan Opera’s staging 100 years ago, in 1914, so the Bard performance is a significant event. Its setting is Victorian Gothic, as tightly corseted as the lead character, a wife who is accused of infidelity by a jealous would-be lover, according to director Kevin Newbury.
“Wagner knew the opera very well,” said Gibbs. “He was a shrewd semi-plagiarist. The plot and other aspects in Lohengrin show he’s thinking about the Weber opera.” Euryanthe also reflects “the Italian predominance” as well as Weber’s preference for instrumental music: “it’s a very orchestral opera.”
Gibbs said this year’s SummerScape should finally give Schubert his full due. “Because the melodies are so good, he’s been easy to trivialize. Beethoven dominated everyone, except Brahms and Liszt, for whom Schubert is nearly as important: they knew his music so well and arranged and edited and performed it.” That legacy highlights Schubert’s role as an innovator. “Beethoven studied with Haydn and came out of a more classical tradition,” Gibbs said. “Schubert being a generation younger does different things. His types of modulation and harmonic devices were a revelation to those later composers. His harmonic language is more experimental and unusual, pointing in new directions.”
SummerScape will also be presenting a play, Love in the Wars, by John Banville, which has an association with Schubert: the composer participated in a reading group, one of whose favorite authors was Heinrich von Kleist, a near contemporary — he died in 1811 — living in Germany whose poems, plays and novels soon fell into obscurity and were subsequently rediscovered by Rilke, Thomas Mann, Kafka, and other early 20th century modernists. The production is the world première of Banville’s play, which is a version of Kleist’s Penthesilea, a romantic drama loosely based on Homer that recounts the meeting between its eponymous heroine, Queen of the Amazons, and Achilles. Love in the Wars explores the tragi-comedic nature of the passion between the leaders of the two warring factions and is one of three that Banville has adapted from Kleist’s plays. It will be performed July 10 – 13 and 16 – 20 and is directed by two-time Obie winner Ken Rus Schmoll.
Kleist, who like Schubert died young, only wrote eight major plays but is regarded as the Shakespeare of Germany, according to Gideon Lester, professor of drama at Bard and director of the college’s theater programs. His plays haven’t been produced in English because of lack of good translations, although in Banville, winner of the Man Booker prize in 2005, the German Romanticist has finally found his match: Lester noted that the two writers “both play games, they both love to pair the very serious with the very trivial, to slam tragedy and comedy into each other, to write in a high poetic style and take language from the street.” Love in the Wars recounts “the downfall of one of the world’s greatest generals in a series of fast-paced surprising themes. It’s highly theatrical. Banville’s use of language is sophisticated and surprising, which is sometimes very arch and very beautiful.”
The production is “very stylish, in the way that high fashion draws inspiration from haute couture from past centuries,” Lester said. “It’s also very elemental, with storms, wind, rain, fog and mud. It’s exciting and dangerous. The cast consists mainly of pretty young actors and they’ve got a lot to sink their teeth into.”
Rounding out the Schubert and German Romantic theme will be a film series, featuring movies with memorable use of the composer’s music — examples are Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden—as well as films commemorating the centenary of the July Crisis in 1914 and World War I, including Grand Illusion and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The series runs from July 3 through August 3 on Thursday and Sunday evenings. And the magical Bard Spiegeltent will liven up the summer from July 3 through August 16 with cabaret by Justin Vivian Bond, Molly Ringwald, Martha Wainwright, Joey Aria, Amanda Palmer, and other outstanding performers and divas. Don’t miss “Weimar New York,” in which downtown NYC performance artists conjure up Berlin nightlife between the wars. Late-night DJs and live music is scheduled weekend nights starting at 10 pm, and tango, salsa, and swing dancing, complete with instruction, is back by popular demand.
For a complete schedule of all SummerScape events, please visit: http://fishercenter.bard.edu/programs/
For tickets call 845 758 7900 M-F 10 am to 5 pm or visit:
For Spiegeltent visit: http://fishercenter.bard.edu/spiegeltent/