Monday, May 27, 2013

800 Words: Pop Schubertiade

(Letitia Vansant - this clip doesn't do her justice)

On Saturday night I went to a private concert at the beautiful Lake Montebello house of La Cohen. The quality of the music was variable, it always is at these things; ranging from a performer too drunk to hold his guitar to Letitia Vansant - the WTMD darling herself whose final song reduced the guy sitting next to me to tears. But the atmosphere was just right. Thirty or forty of us sat on the floor of an enormous basement while acoustic, and relatively mild electric, performers entertained us for well over five hours. This is almost inevitably the way the musical experiences we remember on our deathbeds are presented. Most music shows are a mass performance, in which you’re indistinguishable as an audience member from hundreds and thousands of others - an anonymous face in a hive which processes music interchangeably. But in the ‘drawing room’ atmosphere of a small gathering frees up both good performers and good listeners to engage one another like a musical conversation. I’ve had many great experiences in concert halls and rock venues, but the musical experiences which inevitably mean the most to me are the ones in which I was listening alone to a recording or playing violin with a few friends.

(Wintereisse - Winter's Journey) 

It was somewhere in the middle of Letitia Vansant’s set that I realized that we were sitting in the modern equivalent of the Schubertiade. I’ve been to private house concerts before, but never had the setting felt so appropriate to the music to which we were listening. I was instantly put in mind of what those original Schubertiades must have been like.

Perhaps Schubert was the original musical bohemian, spending his twenties sleeping on friends couches and living upon their generosity so he could write as many as eight songs in a single day. His friends were well aware that this 4’11 chubster was a divine genius who happened to live in their midst, and they circulated his works among themselves even though nearly all of them were rejected by every publisher in town. Every so often, they would gather in their living rooms to listen to and play Schubert’s latest compositions.

Shortly before Beethoven’s death, he looked through Schubert’s work and realized that Vienna housed another genius. But Schubert never had opportunity to call on Beethoven, and shortly thereafter, Schubert was dead himself. In his barely thirty years, Schubert may or may not have become the greatest of all composers (probably not, but he was damn close). And if he wasn’t the greatest, then he was certainly the most human in the same way that Chekhov is perhaps the most human writer, and Rafael the human Renaissance painter. There was something too fragile about all three of them to live past their youths. It’s often said about Schubert that we’re listening to his most private thoughts expressed in sound - no composer ever made himself more vulnerable. Schubert was a fine symphonist, sometimes a great one, he had a sure way with grand choral music, and had he lived longer he doubtless would have written some cosmically wonderful operas. But it was in music of a small scale that Schubert revealed his true magic. No composer, not even Mozart or Beethoven, demonstrated greater genius in the intimate forms - art songs, song cycles, short piano pieces, piano sonatas, four-handed piano pieces, piano trios, string quartets, quintets, octets, vocal ensembles, and works for all sorts of odd instrumental combinations.

It is a shame that people so well disposed to the sort of environment where Schubert most thrives will never experience his music in such an atmosphere. I’ve been to a number of classical house concerts in my life, and inevitably, I find that there’s something about doing classical musicale in one’s house that feels entirely too stuffy, too 19th century, almost pathetic - as though we’re taking classical music’s pretense to the bygone era still far further than we usually do.

But Schubert’s music remains with us, and its fragile expression is made of far more durable stuff than we are. An Die Musik and Standchen will be alive long after we all are dead - and people will still listen to him with understanding even if most Americans don’t.

But maybe all is not lost for us. Schubert is so direct, so easily assimilated, that perhaps there’s another way. The intelligent, music-loving public is as large as it’s ever been in world history, yet a smaller percentage of them care about the ‘classical tradition’ than at any point in the tradition’s history. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a way to pull off a Schubertiade for today’s Indie Rock audiences, without them even knowing it.

What if somebody made an English translation of a bunch of Schubert songs, perhaps even one of the song cycles - Wintereisse or Die Schoene Mullerin. to sound like old English/Irish folk songs. Tell them that these were songs written by an anonymous medieval bard, perhaps a recent discovery made by some amateur musicologist in the North of England who works as a tax collector by day. Perhaps you could then transcribe the piano part for a classical guitarist to play acoustic. When the singer performs it, don’t sing it with an operatic lieder voice, just sing it the way an older Irishman would sing a folk song in a pub. You’d be pulling a fast one on an indie rock crowd who’d walk across the street to avoid even Fischer-Dieskau himself busking with the Erlkonig. And they would love every minute of it.

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