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Franz Schubert – a Programatic Composer

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    “Franz Schubert was a programmatic composer”. Discuss this statement with reference to two pieces studied and refer to three of the concepts of music in your answer. Composers of the Romantic Period were attracted to programme music – music that provides a story, idea or scene. Franz Schubert, one of the earliest 19th Century composers, was very much so, a programmatic composer.

    In a short lifespan of 31 years, Franz Peter Schubert composed 600 lieder, (plural for ‘lied’, the German word for ‘song’, pronounced ‘leed’); 9 symphonies; operas; liturgical music; a large amount of chamber music, including 15 string quartets; copious piano duets and 22 solo piano sonatas. Schubert was an Austrian composer born in Vienna on 31st January 1797 and died there on 19 November 1828. Schubert grew up in a poor family but a very musical one.

    His father was a schoolmaster, and he taught his young son to play the violin, and then Franz’s older brother gave him piano lessons. At the age of nine he began to study with a local organists, Michael Holzer, and two years later was accepted as a chorister in the Court Chapel of Vienna. He then moved on to conducting and writing for his school orchestra, a perfect way of learning how to be a composer. He then studied to become a teacher but later decided to devote himself to composing music.

    Schubert’s lieder were often performed in gatherings in front of his friends, called ‘Schubertaids’, who supported him all throughout his short career as a composer, one of whom was the famous singer J. M. Vogl. Majority of Schubert’s compositions are named programmatic music as the pieces express an extra-musical idea, narrative or pictorial image by a piece of literature added to a piece of instrumental music and how his music responds to the German words. Schubert wrote his lieder compositions to be sung by one voice, accompanied by the fortepiano, where the piano has an equal role to the voice.

    Two of Schubert’s works that provide evidence that he was a programmatic composer, are the lieder Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkonig. Through the use of melody, duration and dynamics, Schubert successfully expresses the ideas and narratives of each lied. Gretchen am Spinnrade translated to English is ‘Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel’ and it was written in 1814 when Schubert was just 17, written for piano and a female soprano voice. The German lied, said to be a masterpiece, was set to a selection of text from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s drama Faust.

    In this particular scene Gretchen is at her spinning wheel, a device for spinning thread or yarn, and she is troubled by her feelings for Faust – a man who she just met. It shows the special qualities that mark out Schubert as a songwriter and as a programmatic composer through the ability to illustrate poetically in his music, something non-musical (the spinning of the wheel) and to link with this expression of the words, so that the wheel itself seems to display the expression of Gretchen’s unhappiness.

    This song shows that at 17, Schubert could be considered a mature and original composer. The melody line in the treble clef of the piano vastly imitates the spinning of the wheel whilst the harmony of the piano accompaniment also expresses the cycle of Gretchen’s thoughts and the intensity or her romantic and sad feelings. This is evident in the tonality of the piece as well as the modulations to and from several different keys, as each key change is a symbol and exploration of her feelings.

    For example, the tonic of the piece is D minor and thus the beginning of the piece from bar 1 to 6 is in D minor, and then in bar 7, the melody quickly changes into C major with some elements of C minor, as shown in the excerpt below: This tension between D minor and C major/minor is a reflection of the restlessness of Gretchen’s inner feelings. Quick harmonic changes occur often in the piano and voice melodies to display the agitation of Gretchen just like the lyrics do.

    The illustration of the spinning wheel comes from the continuous sixteenth note pattern in the treble clef of the piano, with the semiquavers moving up and down by third, fourth and semitone intervals and the repeated rhythmic pattern in the left hand suggests the motion of the treadle. This creates the image of Gretchen leading the spinning wheel round and round with her hands whilst she sings and voices her most inner desires, as her mind moves along with the rhythm of her hands.

    A dramatic moment in the piece occurs in bars 66-68 (excerpt show to the right), where the harmony moves from G minor, A-flat minor and then to B-flat major. As she obsesses over kissing her lover in these three bars, she looses control and the accompaniment pattern of the semiquavers stop, suggesting that she has also stopped the wheel, while she strains for the highest note so far, on the words “and ah, his kiss” stopping on a diminished-seventh chord in bar 68. The musical concept of duration in Schubert’s lyrical drama Gretchen am Spinnrade depicts the story of Gretchen at the spinning wheel brilliantly.

    First of all, the tempo ‘Allegro non troppo’ (fast & lively but not too much) that starts at the beginning of the song is carried on throughout most of the piece. The time signature of the piece is in compound duple time (six-eight time), which provides the 12 semiquaver notes in the treble clef of each bar. These sixteenth-note ostinatos maintain the constant motion of the song, suggesting the rapid whirr of the spinning wheel as well as the agitation and speed of Gretchen’s troubled thoughts.

    The only times when the tempo of the piece differs from allegro, occurs in bars 66 to 68 and also at the end of the piece. For example, the second climax of the piece is when Gretchen completely gives into her fantast of kissing Faust. After bar 111, the second time the phrase “I would be lost” is sung, the piano begins to slow down with the instruction of the Italian term of ‘ritenuto’ in bar 113. The reduction of speed until the end of the piece creates the feeling of fading away, as Gretchen’s thoughts have no where to go as she is continuously lost in her day dream.

    The effect of dynamics and expressive techniques in Gretchen am Spinnrade emphasizes the emotions of Gretchen, connecting to the lyrics that she is singing. Throughout the lied, the dynamics match the notes of the voice melody. When the melody notes rise, the dynamics rise, and when the notes step down, the dynamics decrease. There are many examples of this, one being when the song begins with the piano playing pianissimo (very softly) and the soprano voice enters in bar 2 also very softly as her notes range from F to A.

    But then from bars 7 to 10 there is a crescendo leading up forte (loud) to the highest note of the piece so far, a high F. Then in bar 11 there is a decrescendo back to the pianissimo in bar 13. As well as the melody and duration, the dynamics of the climax in bars 66-68 are the loudest of the piece, as it leads up to when she reaches a high G note in bar 68, with sforzando accents at the start of each bar to further emphasis the dramatic lyrics and the point in the story when she looses control of her thoughts and the loss of herself in her fantasy.

    But once she regains her focus on the spinning wheel, the music decrescendos and the rhythmic and harmonic patterns begin once again. Just like the speed at the end of the piece reduces, so does the dynamics. A decrescendo is present in bar 112 (left excerpt) and another diminuendo is stated in bar 118 (right excerpt) leading up to the pianississimo in bar 119 just before the final chord of the song. Composed a year after Gretchen am Spinnrade, was the lied Erlkonig (in English, the ‘Erlking’).

    Another of Schubert’s most well known songs was this narrative ballad telling the story of a father carrying his sick child, riding on horseback through a forest in a storm, whilst trying to ward off the evil spirit of the Erlking who appears to the fevered child and eventually kills him. Der Erlkonig is a poem written by Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Schubert’s work for the poem was composed for solo voice and piano. ‘He [Schubert] paced up and down several times with the book; suddenly he sat down, and in no time at all there was the glorious ballad finished on paper. – A friend of Schubert’s tells how he saw the eighteen-year-old composer reading Goethe’s poem. To capture the galloping of the horse, the tension of the story and the frantic anxiety of the father as he rides, Schubert has used pounding, rapid octave triplets in the treble clef and a dissonant harmonic, menacing bass motive in the bass clef to depict the tragic events and the boy’s terror. (Example shown below: bars 1-3). Also shown in this excerpt is the speed, Schnell (fast). This tempo is affective as the fast speed vividly colours the dramatic quality of the poem and the horror of the tale.

    The lied is in simple quadruple time (or common time) and consists of many triplet quavers in the piano part and less notes per bar in the vocal line (varying from quavers to semibreves). The piano’s relentless triplet rhythm unifies the episodes of the song and suggests the horse’s gallop. The haunting and dramatic climax of Erlkonig occurs in the last bars of the piece, bars 146 to 148. In the narrative, the father and son arrive home and the galloping accompaniment gradually comes to a halt.

    As the heavy sounds of the triplet octaves have stopped, every word is able to make its impact as the narrator sings, “In his arms, the child… was dead. ” Shown below are the final bars of the piece, the climax that is said to be ‘a masterpiece of declamation in itself! ’ In the Erlkonig, Schubert has characterized in a remarkable manner, the three actors in the drama – the father, the scheming Erlking and the terrified child with just one singer, sounding like the different characters in this miniature drama.

    The boy sings in a high register in a minor key, whilst the father sings in a low register, also in a minor key and the Erlking in a coaxing tone in major keys. The beginning of the lied is the piano introduction of rapid octave triplets and the bass motive in the key of G minor. The narrator is the first ‘voice’ to sing in bar 15. Three times during the poem, the boy cries out, “My father, my father. ” Each time, rising a tone higher to represent the mounting anxiety of the frightened child. These three phrases occur in bars 72-74, 97-99 and 123-125, as shown below:

    The reassuring father sings in a low register that contrasts with the high-pitched outcries of his son. All of the dynamics in this piece support exactly what the melody and duration are trying to convey. For example, the fast triplets and the menacing bass motive at the very beginning of the piece are played forte (loud) as this further creates the suspense and tension of the story. When the Erlking sings in bars 57-73 and 86-96, the voice and piano are played in pianissimo (very soft) as the Erlking is trying to persuade and seduce the boy into his evil hands, by acting sweet and charming.

    But when Erlking sings in bars 116 – 123, he is saying that if the boy is not willing, then he shall use force, thus the music is forte (loud) to create the anger of the Erlking. The son and fathers lines are mostly in forte or towards the end of the piece, fortissimo (very loud) as the climax of the lied approaches. The lieder Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkonig are only two fine examples of the 600 lieder that Franz Schubert has composed in his lifetime, with his style of lyrical quality and harmonic colours. Franz Schubert has even been named ‘the greatest master of the lied’. There is not a song of Schubert’s,” Brahms said, “from which we cannot learn something. ” Schubert’s songs express all shades of emotion, without losing direct simplicity. What makes his lieder so popular is that they offer rewards for both the singer and the pianist as the accompaniment throws the words in their full meaning into sharp relief. Therefor, Franz Schubert was, without a doubt, a programmatic composer. Bibliography: Books: * Kamien R. ; (2011); Music: An Appreciation; 10th ed. ; McGraw-Hill; New York, United States of America. Latham A. (ed. ); (2002); The Oxford Companion to Music; Oxford University Press Inc. ; New York, United States of America. * Grout D. J. ; A History of Western Music; (1960); 3rd ed. (1980); Penguin Books Canada Ltd; Printed in the United States of America. * Rushton J. ; Classical Music – A Concise History from Gluck to Beethoven; (1986); Thames and Hudson Ltd; London, United Kingdom. * Palisca C. V. (ed. ); (1980); Norton Anthology of Western Music – Volume 2: Classic to Modern; 4th ed. (2001); W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Printed in the United States of America. * Pogue D. and Speck S; Classical Music for Dummies; (1997); IDG Books Worldwide, Inc. ; Printed in the United States of America. * Mann W. ; (1982); Music in Time; Mitchell Beazley Publishers and RM Productions; Printed in London, United Kingdom. * Latham A. and Sadie S. (ed. ); The Cambridge Music Guide; (1985); Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge; Printed in Great Britain. * Hurd M. ; (1979); The Oxford Junior Companion to Music; 2nd ed. (1991); Oxford University Press; London, United Kingdom. Unger-Hamilton C. (ed. ); The Music Makers; (1979); Harrow House Editions Limited; London, United Kingdom. * Hindson M. , Barbeler D. and Blom D. ; Music Composition Toolbox; (2007); Science Press; Marrickville, Australia. Websites: * David Brensilver; All Music Guide; © 2008; Classical Archives LLC; site viewed on 28th July; 2012, http://www. classicalarchives. com/schubert. html#tvf=tracks&tv=about * Brenda Malvini; Blogspot – Google™; created 9th December 2008; site viewed on 30th July 2012; * http://behindthespinningwheel. blogspot. om. au/ Sheet Music: * ‘Erlking’ sheet music from: http://www. free-scores. com/download-sheet-music. php? pdf=8495 * ‘Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel’ sheet music from: Palisca C. V. (ed. ); (1980); Norton Anthology of Western Music – Volume 2: Classic to Modern; 4th ed. (2001); W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. ; Printed in the United States of America. Music: * CD giving in class including the track: Gretchen am Spinnrade, D. 118 / Kin Te Kanawa & Richard Amner * Listened to on Spotify: Erlkonig, D. 328 / Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

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    Franz Schubert – a Programatic Composer. (2016, Dec 17). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/franz-schubert-a-programatic-composer/

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