The love of my loved one is on the other shore.
An arm of the river lies between us,
And crocodiles lurk on the sand-banks.
––Ancient Egyptian love song, 18th Dynasty (c1570-1293 BCE)
For millennia, humans have been singing songs of love. And no love has been more poignant, more poetically fulfilling, than love denied. Whether lovers are separated by crocodile-infested waters or a high garden wall, songs of impossible love have captured human hearts and imaginations across the ages. To the Romantic generation of poets and composers, love songs were ideally suited to the twin principles of intense introspection and powerful expression that beat at the heart of their aesthetic ideals. Yet of the many composers who tried their hand at Lieder (the German word for “songs”), few made as profound a mark upon the style as Franz Schubert (1797-1828), who, in a shockingly short life, composed over six hundred individual Lieder and laid the cornerstones for the nascent genre of the song cycle.
In contrast to earlier collections of love songs, the Romantic “song cycle” was defined by a single perspective or narrative unity across the work. The first such cycle to be published with the moniker was Ludwig van Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (“to the distant beloved”) of 1816, but the real watershed moment came in 1823, with Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (“The Lovely Miller-Maid”), which set to music twenty poems by the German Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827). This effort was followed in 1827 by Winterreise (“Winter Journey”), a cycle of twenty-four songs based, once again, on poems by Müller. These two cycles, the only two that Schubert would compose, stand as defining moments in the history of the genre. On January 31 (Schubert’s birthday!), NOVA will feature the monumental and heartbreaking Winterreise, sung by Michael Chipman with Kimi Kawashima at the piano.
Schubert was born in 1797 in the Viennese district of Himmelpfortgrund. His father was a parish schoolmaster, his mother the daughter of a Silesian gunmaker-cum-locksmith. Schubert’s years as a composer, though tragically few, were tremendously productive, and his vast output would bring together the refined affectation of the late Classical period with the sentimental turbulence of the Romantic era. Yet Schubert’s life was not easy: success was elusive and he was often mired in poverty; his health was poor; and it was whispered that he nursed an unrequited love for a young countess who was his pupil. The young man’s unconquerable melancholy left its mark on his late work, which is often markedly lugubrious. Yet even within these sombre late works, occasional rays of light do shine through, all the brighter for the surrounding darkness. Winterreise offers not only a journey through an icy landscape, but also a journey through the deepest reaches of the hero’s burning soul.
A caricature of the baritone Johann Michael Vogl (left), and Franz Schubert, by Schubert’s friend Franz von Schober. Vogl, a famed baritone, was one of Schubert’s main proponents in Viennese music circles; his many performances of Schubert’s music included a complete performance of Winterreise in 1840, for the twelfth anniversary of Schubert’s death.
Longing, separation, distance: all of these themes appear in Michael Hicks’ quartet “of the,” a work for string quartet commissioned by NOVA which will also appear on the January 31 concert. Yet in this case, the “distant beloved” is not a person, but home, broadly conceived. Hicks writes:
When asked to write a string quartet that explores the theme of "longing for home," I thought, "But isn't that what all music does?" We think of the "tonic" chord of a piece as "home"; all dissonance "longs" for resolution. So my mind shifted to ways in which one might feel distanced from home or driven to longing. I was drawn to the idea of a house of mirrors, in which one sees reflections distorted in ways both comedic and grotesque. In my imaginary house of mirrors, though, the glass is sometimes shattered and sometimes even liquid. As I considered this image, I also heard in my mind's ear a catalogue of sound sources, surreal in its diversity, from insects to slot machines to Hebrew cantillations to—Schubert. Indeed, the quartet begins with a quotation from the last measures of Schubert's last string quartet, then moves through various hallucinatory scenarios and enclosures, always returning to that house of mirrors, in which the Schubert fleetingly reappears from time to time. The title "of the"—a preposition and article detached from subject or object—conveys a feeling of alienation and longing for, if not home, at least some kind of belonging. Nevertheless, the quartet concludes by quasi-heroically transcending the sense of longing, unexpectedly, yet, I believe, convincingly.
Hicks, an award-winning composer, performer, and scholar based at BYU, is particularly well suited to a program that also features one of Schubert’s song cycles, as he is himself a published poet.
-Kamala Schelling, 1.24.16