Saturday, December 19, 2009

Young Schubert

Browsing through my Dover edition of Shorter Works for Pianoforte Solo by Franz Schubert, edited by Julius Epstein from the old Breitkopf & Härtel edition of his complete works, I realized that I had never taken a look at his C major andante movement from 1812, to which Otto Erich Deutsch assigned the number 12. I recalled that, in the early days of CD distribution, I had encountered a disc entitled The Young Schubert, featuring performances by pianist Leonard Hokanson. (Alas, according to, this CD has been "discontinued by the manufacturer;" and, while the Goliath profile of Northeastern Records indicates that they are still in business as of November 5, 2009, I am not sure I believe that claim!) I had discovered Hokanson through my vinyl-collecting days as a member of the Musical Heritage Society when I encountered a boxed set of the complete piano trios of Ludwig van Beethoven for which Hokanson was performing on a period instrument. (That may have been my first purchase of a period instrument recording, and I was immediately attracted to the sound.)

Hokanson used a modern piano for these Schubert recordings, which were made in the Houghton Memorial Chapel of Wellesley College in December of 1985; but, even without an "authentic sound," this CD did much to expand my horizons for listening to Schubert. Here is how Mark DeVoto introduced the booklet of notes:

We normally measure Franz Schubert by the masterpieces of his maturity, and there are a good many of these – more, perhaps, than anyone might expect from one who died at thirty-one. Yet even this genius who never reached middle age had a youthful apprenticeship, and the works on this recording are good evidence of both his originality and his early-acquired mastery. Indeed, much of this music is worthy of comparison with the best of his time.

DeVoto continues by then elaborating on that apprenticeship:

Five of the works here date from the year 1815, when Schubert was eighteen. Tow years earlier, when his voice changed, Schubert had dropped out of the Stadtkonvikt, the training school for boy singers in the choir of the Viennese imperial court. To earn a semblance of a living, he became a teacher in his father's private elementary school, taking lessons with Antonio Salieri when he could, and perfecting his skills as a composer at a feverish pace.

Even before his exposure to Salieri, however, Schubert knew how to draw upon models and take them in new directions. As DeVoto observes, his sources for models began with Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and eventually progressed to Ludwig van Beethoven. Furthermore, there is evidence that he was able to use his resources in Vienna to seek out less familiar resources. Thus, in the third and fourth measures of that 1812 andante, it appears that Schubert was struck by the progression that introduced Mozart's glass harmonica adagio (K. 356), which may well have first appealed to him for the oddity of its setting. It is almost as if this one progression triggered his own imagination to conceive of an entirely new (and far more ambitious) composition. Did he see himself as "rescuing" the most interesting passage from a work that may have had little more than novelty value in Mozart's time, only to be thrown away after the novelty passed? This kind of tinkering may not be "worthy of comparison" with the far more ambitious things Schubert would do with the piano in later years; but it provides an interesting window into how his inventive mind was beginning to work.

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