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Benjamin Britten has called Schubert’s last days “the richest and most productive 18 months in music history”; the C major quintet, the two late piano sonatas, Schwanengesang or Die Winterreise, and the 9th Symphony, is a run of superhuman profundity and beauty. If I could grant 5 years of life more to any composer in history, Schubert would surely be near the top of the list.
His death – aged just 31, when most adults are just getting going – came when his creativity and inspiration seemed almost unstoppable.
Schubert composed around 600 songs, a towering achievement and a wondrous treasure house. There have been great composers of song since – Schumann, Mahler, Fauré – but Schubert’s genius for marrying poetry and music remains unsurpassed. How can we explain the enduring appeal of this music? In part, it comes from its beginnings as music for social gatherings, where Franz and his circle would come together to share their latest work. There is nothing highbrow about them: they are somehow pitched perfectly at the intersect of folky naturalness, melodic inspiration, and harmonic eloquence. The sheer quantity of material encompasses eternal themes: love, death, drink, loss, marriage, and so on. The world changes all the time, but human nature changes little; Schubert, like Rembrandt or Shakespeare, seems to have had an insatiable curiosity and sympathy for our condition.
Our programme is, in part, an attempt to reflect the range of Schubert’s songs. We begin with Im Frühling, a poem extolling the virtues of simple love on a Spring day. The music is full of genial charm – the crisp brightness of G major, with perfectly proportioned melodies that suggest all is well with the world. The music drifts towards the darkness of G minor as the clouds obscure the spring sun, but returns to the major as the poem addresses the promise of a summer of love.
Der Zwerg inhabits a different world entirely – the mist and menace of night are drawn in the trembling piano right hand, and a repeated motif in the left that sounds like a sinister cousin of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The story of a dwarf who feels compelled to drown his queen out of jealousy is as far from the carefree Spring as we can be, and the music is riveting in its representation of the disorienting danger of dim half-light and the power of the sea.
In the same A minor, Des Fischers Liebesglück is a different kind of watery gloaming, and an example of the composer’s genius for strophic songs – 4 verses of repeated music demands the most careful selection of musical material. Here the 6/8 time signature and the falling piano figure seem somehow to paint the whole scene: the undulating water, the oar’s easy pull, and the calm contentment of the poet’s heart.
Als ich sie erröten sah feels like a young man’s song – the rapturous verbosity that comes with the first flush of love and the the glances that are “drunk with wonder” pour out of the music. The piano’s racing heart and the excitable leaping of the vocal melody seem to reflect a naive marvel at the power of this unfathomable new emotion.
The contrast with Abendstern could not be more stark: the poem address the star, who shines alone in the sky. Why? “I am the star of love” he says, and people “hold themselves far from me”. It’s a model of economy and concision, and when the evening star replies, the music slides into the major, a compositional gesture of disarming and heartbreaking simplicity.
The final song is one of Schubert’s most famous, Ständchen, a serenade whose accompaniment sounds like a guitar prelude plucked beneath the window of the beloved. The poet sings “Softly my songs flies to you through the night…Let your heart be moved too… by these silver notes” and, in some ways, this serves as a kind of mission statement for the art of song itself, that tells us so much about human life, in music of infinite intimacy, breathtaking imagination, and eternal beauty.
Nicholas Mulroy, 2021
Born in Liverpool, Nicholas Mulroy was a chorister at the city’s Metropolitan Cathedral before studying Modern Languages at Cambridge and voice at the RAM. He has since been in constant demand both in the UK and further afield in a wide range of concert, recital and opera engagements.
He has sung at many of the world’s great concert halls: the Sydney Opera House, Boston Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, Berlin Philharmonie and the Salzburg Festival.
A committed recitalist, he has appeared regularly at the Wigmore Hall singing a wide range of repertoire including Purcell, both Bach Passions, Schubert, and the complete Britten Canticles. He has sung Janacek’s Diary of One who Vanished for Glyndebourne Festival Opera, for the Philharmonia at the RFH, and as part of the Aurora Janacek Festival, and given recitals at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and festivals in Maribor, Ludlow, Bath and Orkney. He continues to collaborate with regular partners John Reid, Joseph Middleton, Alisdair Hogarth, and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny.
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