Schubert: Instrumental music and the Lied
In the 18th Century, vocal music still enjoyed a higher status in European culture than did instrumental music. This balance between vocal and instrumental was to change with the advent of Romanticism in music, which saw a rise in the status of purely instrumental forms. This did not mean, however, that the instrumental music of the romantic composers did not maintain a fundamental connection to vocal style. The piano music and pianistic styles of Liszt, Chopin, and many others are unthinkable without the human voice, which represented an ideal that they constantly sought to emulate. This program, containing three songs and their corresponding instrumental works, illustrates clearly the intimate relationship between vocal and instrumental music in Schubert. Like Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, and many others, Schubert’s art is founded on the human voice.
The three large-scale works on offer here are all directly based on songs Schubert himself penned, but they illustrate another aspect of Schubert’s art as well. They are outstanding examples of the essential link between vocal music and instrumental virtuosity in the 19th Century. Although Schubert’s music is often difficult to perform, it is not generally seen as showy. But these works are different, in that they often contain more demonstrations of sheer virtuosity than is customary with this composer. The result is music which sometimes approaches transcendental difficulty. In transcribing these three songs for instrumental forces in such a manner, Schubert began a long tradition which saw his songs being transcribed by others, above all by Liszt. Virtuoso treatment of Schubert’s songs continued well into the 20th Century with outstanding examples from the early modern era by Rachmaninoff and Godowsky.
The Variations for Flute (1824) are an important contribution to the slender 19th Century solo repertoire for that instrument. The work begins with a long quiet introduction that leads to the theme proper. The first variation features running passages in the flute, while the second variation is notable for its punishing left-hand octaves in the piano. After a quieter 3rd variation, the 4th dazzles once again with continuous virtuoso arpeggios in the piano. In the next variation, it is the flute’s turn to astound. Variation 6 is more moderate and the final variation, with its dotted variant of the theme, ends the work on a cheerful note/mood.
With the Wanderer Fantasie (1822), we encounter one of the peaks of the virtuoso piano repertoire. The basic rhythmic motive of the song itself provides the thread which ties the four movements of the Fantasie together. A driving opening movement leads without interruption to the extraordinarily beautiful slow movement, where the full extent of the original Wanderer theme is most obvious. A rapid scherzo with its hazardous, quick-silver, leaps and arpeggios leads directly to the final fugue.
The Wanderer Fantasie is in cyclic form, a technique which sees the same theme being transformed from movement to movement. This is a technique that Schubert pioneered, and it is used again in the late Fantasie for violin and piano (1827). Here a slow introduction leads to a moderately quiet section in A minor. This is followed by a slow section of glowing beauty in A flat major where we encounter the original song directly, just as in the Wanderer Fantasie. Variations on the theme follow, after which there is a brief recollection of the slow introduction. This leads directly to the rousing finale and the work ends in a blaze of violinistic virtuosity.