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Why Schubert challenges me … and always will

Why Schubert challenges me … and always will featured image

I remember answering a music history quiz as a young piano student, and I had to list which era to which Franz Peter Schubert’s music belonged. I couldn’t believe it – I wasn’t sure if he was a classical or romantic composer, and I was stumped. It was an embarrassing moment for me, the daughter of a well-known Vancouver music theory and history teacher, Keiko Parker, not to be able to answer this immediately. I think I put down “he was seriously both.” I hope I got a mark for it (I bet if I ask #TheMatriarch, she’ll deny giving it to me). While Beethoven was considered firmly classical while looking ahead to the Romantic era, Schubert is considered a Romantic looking back to the Classical era.

Schubert was the melody craftsman. For a guy who didn’t have an exciting life, and always unrequited in love, he wrote page after page of gorgeous, tuneful melodies that sound completely inspired by love and happiness. Schubert was short in stature, not considered attractive, had no major relationships, and sat at home, composing day in and day out. When he wasn’t composing, he played and listened to music, avoided a social life, and fully engaged in the world of music. And thank goodness, too, because he composed as if he knew he would only live until age 31. Years after his death, more and more great works emerged – scores stashed in cupboards of his brother, or a friend’s attic; it was composer Robert Schumann who found the C major Symphony.

Schubert was the master of the song cycle, writing series of songs that are part of the standard repertoire today. He treated every instrument like it was the human voice, infusing them with lyricism. He also wrote symphonies, piano pieces, sonatas, and chamber music, notably “The Trout” piano quintet, and the “Death and the Maiden” string quartet, composed when Schubert was increasingly ill. I wish he’d written concertos for piano, violin, and cello – they would have been beautiful.

Schubert isn’t my favourite composer, but sometimes I’ll be listening to his music, and then the most heartachingly stunning melody will caress my ears and make me drop everything to listen actively. That’s what happened when I first heard the Fantasia for Piano in F minor, for 4 hands (duet at one piano). I was attending the Vancouver Chamber Music Festival in the late 80’s, I think. This festival, created by Leila Getz, introduced me to a whole world of chamber music when I was a young student, and I’m forever grateful. My brother Jon played this Fantasia with Yuri (Lily) Funahashi, and I was floored this piece wasn’t way better known. I love duets – all these added layers with four hands instead of two, and hearing two artists work in close proximity. Here are Radu Lupu and Murray Perhia featured in this masterpiece. They are both winners of the Leeds Competition, along with Jon, who won it about fifteen years later after they did.

Franz Schubert was born on January 31, 1797, in Vienna, Austria, and died November 19, 1828, in Vienna.


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