Thursday, December 18, 2014

Everything You Need to Know About Schubert's Songs

Graham Johnson’s opus is the definitive work on Schubert’s vocal music with piano.
Photo: Yale University Press
 by Rodney Punt

The world of music this autumn celebrates the 200th anniversary of Franz Schubert’s first masterpiece, “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” Its composition by the 17-year-old composer on Oct. 19, 1814, might as well signify the arrival of Romanticism in music. Renowned piano collaborator Graham Johnson describes the moment:

“It was Shakespeare who had liberated the young Goethe from the narrow precepts of his predecessors, and it was Goethe who performed the same service for Schubert. ‘Gretchen’ is his first Goethe setting and it was love at first sight. There had been dalliances with the idealized Elisa, Adelaide, and Laura of Matthisson but these were ‘nice’ girls; in Gretchen, who is on the brink of being engulfed by her own turbulent emotions and the strictures of a cruel world, the composer recognized the new frank reality of the romantic age, his own reality perhaps, and the full implications of his song-writing destiny.”

Insights like these have enlightened music lovers and practitioners for some years, at least those whose eyes could scrutinize the tiny print of thick liner notes for the Hyperion Records set of complete Schubert songs. Curated and recorded by Johnson with over 60 solo singers and choristers on the London-based label, its 37 award-winning discs were released one by one over an 18-year period beginning in 1987. The set was reissued with the songs in chronological order in 2005. Since then, new revelations from a veritable cottage industry of Schubert scholarship have sparked interest for a more comprehensive survey of his songs in a more handy format and in larger typeface. At long last, it has arrived.

Yale University Press has just released Johnson’s Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs. One of the most ambitious books on the lyric arts ever written by a single individual, the scope of Johnson’s accomplishment is remarkable. The three-volume set of nearly 3,000 pages contains more than 700 song commentaries with musical incipits for each, parallel poetry texts in German and English (by Richard Wigmore), biographies of 120 poets with details on poetic sources, a cornucopia of period iconography and modern drawings on the world of Schubert, and general articles on such related topics as pianists, singers, contemporaneous composers, dedicatees, accompaniment, opus numbers, chronologies, and much more.

The three-volume set is, by a wide margin, the definitive work on Schubert’s vocal music with piano. It's eminently readable, easy to navigate and entertaining, at one stroke the indispensable reference for singers, pianists, musicologists, lovers of music in general, and fans of Schubert in particular. As such, it is both the logical outcome and final summation of the earlier Hyperion Records survey.

Read more on Schubert and this publication on Classical Voice North America.


Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

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