Friday, June 12, 2009

Misreading the Metaphor

Tomorrow night I get to attend the final concert in the San Francisco Symphony's festival of the music of Franz Schubert and Alban Berg, presented under the title Dawn to Twilight. From the very beginning of this festival, I have been wrestling with the signification of that metaphorical title and have found that most of my listening experiences benefitted from my putting it aside and just paying attention to the performances. However, after reading Joshua Kosman's account of this week's concert for the San Francisco Chronicle, I now feel that my "quest for the signified" may have been pursued in the wrong direction. My original assumption, which seemed to align with both written and spoken commentary, was that Schubert and Berg served as "bookends" for nineteenth-century romanticism. Furthermore, not only did they serve parallel functions in the broad flow of music history; but also there were parallels to be examined in their respective achievements.

Now I realize that much of the "journey" of the festival itself tended to involve a "biographical journey" through the achievements of its two subjects. Thus, the first concert in the series began with early efforts of each composer; and this week's concert presents two works, each from the final year of each of them. Berg is represented by his violin concerto, published in 1935, the year of his death; and the Schubert offering is his final setting of the mass, in E-flat major (D. 950), for solo voices, mixed chorus, and orchestra, which dates from his prolific final year, 1828. We were given a preview of this end-of-the-road parallelism in the Schubert/Berg Journey program offered at the beginning of this month, which coupled Schubert's pastoral Lied for soprano, clarinet, and piano, "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen" (D. 965) with a suite of movements from Berg's unfinished opera Lulu. If we look beyond the fact that, in the opera, our first image of Lulu has her posing for a painting in the costume of a shepherdess, the coupling of these two works would seem more than a little odd. However, as the Deutsch number indicates, the Lied is even later than the mass; and Berg died before completing Lulu. So it would not be out of place to think of both couplings in valedictory terms.

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