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Sublime lyricism and elegant writing marks the music of Schubert, born January 31

Sublime lyricism and elegant writing marks the music of Schubert, born January 31 featured image

The original score for “The Shepherd on the Rock”

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 totally stumped over the question. It was an embarrassing moment for me, the daughter of the well-known Vancouver music theory/history teacher, Keiko Parker, not to be able to answer this immediately. I think I put down “he was seriously both.” Turns out I was well-justified, for while Beethoven was considered firmly classical while looking ahead to the Romantic era, Schubert is considered firmly Romantic, but often looking back to the Classical era.

Schubert really 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. Schuber was quite short, not considered attractive, had no major relationships; he sat at home, composing day in and day out. When he wasn’t composing, he played and listened to music, avoiding life, and fully engaging 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 some concertos for piano, violin, and cello – they would have been beautiful.

Another memorable encounter I had with Schubert at the university level was the first time I recall hearing “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (“The Shepherd on the Rock”), sung by a beautiful soprano named Maggie Brockington who was a few years ahead of me. The music starts out murky and dark, then opens up into glorious tunefulness. I couldn’t believe my ears, the melody and her performance were so exquisite. I’d also never heard a soprano, clarinet, and piano combo before. Composed near the end of Schubert’s life, it tells the short tale of the shepherd on a mountain top, listening to the echoes rising from below. The shepherd expresses grief and loneliness, before expressing hope for Spring and its rebirth.

Featured here is soprano Barbara Bonney, clarinettist David Shifrin, and pianist Andre Watts, with an unnamed page-turner.

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

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