The pianist as illusionist

If talking and writing about Schubert’s music has always seemed a difficult task, playing Schubert is almost an art of its own.
Being a musician requires you to be a storyteller, a dramaturg, a mood painter, you need to get hold of an unbelievable range of feelings - without necessarily having experienced all of them in real life. Clarity of vision, doubts, constant questioning, vulnerability, self-consciousness, boldness, humility, balance, unbalance and a constant self-exploring are things that come to my mind: musicians have the invaluable chance to create a world of their own. More specifically, being a pianist turns you into an illusionist: you create and give a sound to feelings, a sound that is never really a direct result of a single action on our instrument, but is rather the organic result of multiple actions and sequences of actions that create the impression of legato, of having a real line, of crescendo, of holding notes, of vibrato, of a multitude of instruments playing.

In contrast to all of this, Schubert seems at first sight disarmingly simple. His music appears not to have too many notes; much, maybe most, of Schubert’s soul actually hides “between the notes”.

How to approach this calculated absence has always been the question. Having such apparently “simple” material to work with requires a certain consciousness that is not always immediate. To be in control? Or to allow oneself to be enchanted (at the risk of getting lost in his endless tonal pastures!)? How to express, with so little, what is so clearly there? There is no big curtain of notes to hide behind; and Schubert gives us few written-out instructions on how to interpret his music. This sometimes intimidating self-denial is especially the case, of course, in the piano part of Die schöne Müllerin.

I had my very own epiphany, after years of going back to his Impromptus, having the frustrating feeling that something was always missing. I had been at sea for ten whole days: what that does is extraordinary, the lulling embrace of the waves (when the weather is good…!) calming mind and body, everything slowing down. Then I found a piano. I thought of Schubert, I played all his Impromptus. It had never felt so right. The first necessary thing to do is to give up all barriers and defences, to tune out all mental noise and get closer to his essence.

The sort of mental state that being on the water creates has so much in common with one of the most striking aspects of Schubert’s music. Everyone that has experienced one or the other must know the feeling of losing orientation. As a child I used to wonder why Schubert so much loved “repeating things”. We all know that repeating words or sentences can have a hypnotic power. Schubert uses repetitions and reiterations as an expressive device, from the smaller strophic folk-like songs of Die schöne Müllerin — which surely has its own watery motions — to the master architecture of his last piano sonatas, quartets and symphonies. His music has been often criticized for his “endless repetitions”, a part of what Schumann, one of Schubert’s biggest admirers, characterised as his “heavenly length”.

Schubert takes his time. Reiterations invite you to lie back, to give up resistance; the music starts to bring you around, circling and circling, small circles, big circles, until you get “used to it”. Your brain relaxes: “what else could happen?”. That is when a change happens, catching you absolutely unprepared, causing an extremely strong emotional reaction. Something small which may act as a catalyst or a dramatic pathway that can lead to an intensely dramatic atmosphere. In the case of repetitions in strophic songs it is up to the performers to create this change, responding to the different words of each verse, through different emphasis, articulation, voicing, phrasing etc.

There was never a time where I listened to the last song of Die schöne Müllerin, ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’, without tears in my eyes; what a heavenly farewell from human troubles it is! There is something apparently inconsolable but at the same time oh-so soothing about Schubert’s music. He shines a light that seems to come from across “the other side”, something that sometimes — miraculously — seems to offer almost a glimpse of a view of “how it could have been”.

© Saskia Giorgini 2019

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