Schubert: the secret of song

A musical revelation is taking place in Oxford

October 21, 2014
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Every October for the past 13  years, the Oxford Lieder Festival has been bringing classy performances of classical art songs to what used to be a rather unmusical town. I love it: great art taken seriously, mostly in the glorious intimacy of the Holywell Music Room, and without any pomp, artifice or unnecessary formality. But I must say I was rather dismayed when I heard what was planned for this year’s festival, which started a week ago: a complete survey of all the songs that Schubert ever wrote.

Schubert was, of course, the inventor of the classical Liederabend or song recital: the extraordinary musical institution that features nothing but a singer and a pianist, achieving, when all goes well, a thrillingly direct communication with their audience. And apart from inventing the institution, Schubert wrote the classics against which all subsequent efforts are measured—notably Winterreise and Schöne Müllerin, whose depth, variety, drama, animation and melancholy place them amongst the bare necessities of any possible desert island. But given that Schubert died at the age of 31 (in 1828) and that, apart from inventing the Liederabend, he composed in practically every other genre of classical music, you might think that he could not have written terribly many songs.

Actually he wrote more than 600, so the idea of a three-week festival featuring every single one is perhaps even crazier than you might have thought. A suitable event for anoraks, pub-quizzers and musical train-spotters, perhaps, but why should anyone who cares for the art of singing want to scrape the barrel for hundreds of minor works, rather than remaining with the tried and tested pre-loved masterpieces? And anyway, how could a modest, cash-strapped provincial festival even contemplate putting on a programme of more than 60 concerts, and dozens of supplementary events, involving more than 150 musicians (many of them huge international stars, others on their way), in an art form that has, it must be admitted, a rather small following and a rather problematic public profile?

One week in and my doubts have all been vanquished. It’s not just that we have had some world-class performances, with enthusiastic, considerate and attentive audiences; nor is it just that the "minor" works turn out to be pretty good after all, even if some of them are a bit preposterous or hearty or soppy or sententious. It’s that you get a sense of the magnificent originality of what Schubert did when he invented the Liederabend.

Singing a song might seem a simple matter, child’s play in fact—utter the words and hold the tune, and the job’s jobbed. But when you start attending to the range of Schubert’s output—from early works like Hagars Klage, written when he was 14, or the absurd melodrama of Adelwold und Emma or the serio-comic Kosegarten Liderspiel up to the twin peaks of Winterreise and Schöne Müllerin—it begins to look rather different. Music-making was, for Schubert, primarily a social activity: the composer and his friends messing about in notes, hamming it up in charades and amateur dramatics, putting on the agony and getting the giggles. But he was not just a force of nature: he went about his composing with an analytic intelligence that allowed him to break the act of singing into its component parts, and put it together again as a fully-functioning work of art.

In the first place, it was always a partnership between singer and pianist. The piano part will of course have the lion’s share of the notes, and often the monopoly if the opening and closing bars, and the audience will be looking to the pianist not only for technical skill and musical insight, but also for responsiveness and flexibility and generosity to the singer in the moment of performance. And as for the singer, the same flexibility and generosity are called for, of course; but on top of that there are probably half a dozen other things to worry about—getting the words across, acting out the character or characters in the poetry and telling the story, not to mention the quality of the voice, the technical skill, the musicianship, and perhaps above all the projection of personality (like the pianist, you must not be too vain, or too casual, and you ought to come across as huggable, deep and full of fun.)

In many of the so-called minor works all these aspects seem to function independently, and you can attend to them separately, as in an exploded-view diagram; but in a great performance of a great work the complexity is easily missed—you feel as if the singer really is the poet, who is indistinguishable from the jilted lyrical lover, laying bear a broken heart, contemplating suicide ("Don’t do it!"). Nothing else seems to matter: you are so absorbed in the singer who seems to be singing from the heart, that you are liable to forget the other elements, including the pianist’s part—it begins to recede to the status of background music ("Am I too loud?"), an "accompaniment" providing a bit of atmosphere and unobtrusive support for the main event.

But attend to the other works—think of all the messing about and the melodramas and the occasional misfires—and then listen again. You will realise how the seeming unity of the great performance is in fact a complex artificial structure with many moving parts. And you will realise that the seriousness of a serious masterwork may be spoiled if you take it too seriously, or if you take it seriously in the wrong way.

A musical revelation is taking place in Oxford: one week down and two more to go.

The Schubert Project runs in Oxford until 1st November. Book tickets here.