Five Ways of Looking at Franz Schubert
A Conversation with David Finckel and Wu Han By John Sherer
In the coming weeks, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents the Winter Festival: The Magic of Schubert, a kaleidoscopic look at the German composer’s work and legacy. I spoke with CMS Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han about the festival’s five programs. An edited version of our conversation follows.
John Sherer: Let’s begin with Winterreise (Winter Journey), Schubert’s monumental last song cycle, which appears on the first concert of this Schubert festival. Tell us about the background of this program.
Wu Han: Originally, we had The Magic of Schubert planned for the 2020–21 season. This was decided well before the pandemic; concerts like this are scheduled far in advance. Of course, it all got canceled, but very early in the pandemic we became absorbed in Schubert’s music.
Lincoln Center shut down all performances on March 15th, 2020. On March 16th, David looked at me and said, “This might be two weeks. But in case this thing is going to go longer, you should use this unplanned free time to get your Winterreise edits done.” I was so happy he said that, because when we started playing the Winterreise takes from the recording session I did with baritone Nikolay Borchev in 2019, I didn’t know if I should smile or cry. It was such a tremendously difficult time for everyone—for musicians, for audiences, for the world in general. And somehow Schubert’s music touched every aspect of what we were experiencing: the depth, the beauty, the love, the devotion to music, the incredible loneliness of the pandemic. This music was so insanely powerful. We spent about three months playing Schubert every day in the house, which gave us the strength to move forward. And we finished editing the recording. We knew that when we came back to live performances, it would be all the more important to do these Schubert programs. We wanted to provide the same kind of profound impact for our CMS community. And so, we moved forward with mounting this festival in 2022–23.
We decided to start the festival with a Beethoven quartet, Op. 135, because Schubert was deeply affected by Beethoven’s death. He was even a torch-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral. He knew that everybody was looking for who would follow in Beethoven’s footsteps, and he knew that although he was dying, he was the most logical successor. So combining the final Beethoven quartet with the last Schubert song cycle seemed like an appropriate way to start. That’s why the title of the first program is Into Eternity.
JS: I love this idea of beginning at the end, as it were.
WH: Exactly, exactly. And you know, if you look to the end of the festival, we will finish with the Schubert Octet. Do you know the context of that?
JS: Yes, it was Count Ferdinand Troyer who commissioned it; he was an admirer of Beethoven’s Septet and asked Schubert for something similar. So Schubert, in some ways, modeled the structure of the Octet and some of its stylistic elements on the Septet.
WH: Exactly. Schubert actually heard a concert with the Septet when he was writing the Octet. So at the very end of our whole festival, there is another connection between Schubert and Beethoven; the inspiration for the Octet is so incredibly poignant.
In the festival’s second program, Grand Statements, we are looking at Schubert’s contribution to the repertoire. His three late sonatas are iconic for pianists—the C minor, the A major, and the last one in B-flat major. So besides the last song cycle on the first program, we also have on the second program the final piano sonata as well as the last, and largest, string quartet. In the selection of the B-flat Sonata, we deliberately invited the great American pianist and longtime CMS artist Gilbert Kalish to perform. Gil has been living with this sonata his whole life, and he also has recorded it. The last time I heard him play it—you know, I’m very picky about who should play Schubert—about eight years ago, was really one of the greatest performances I’ve ever heard. I remember I was in tears sitting in the back of the hall. Gil is among the most senior artists on our roster. When you get to a certain age, you somehow own this repertoire; such in-depth interpretation can only come with age.
David Finckel: And the Quartettsatz, also on the Grand Statements program, is incredibly important as well. That was the beginning of Schubert’s ascent of the string quartet mountain. But it was left unfinished; he completed only the first movement and a little bit of a second movement and then put it aside. That was way back in 1820, eight years before he died.
WH: You can see his first attempt is already amazing, even just one movement. And you see the grandeur of the final quartet, the G major. So that was the idea behind this particular program.
JS: You mentioned the kinship Schubert felt with Beethoven, and his desire to continue that musical tradition. What steps did he take to assure his place in the pantheon of composers?
DF: For the last eight years of his life, Schubert struggled to attain a legacy that would be much larger than that of a composer known primarily for songs and miniatures. He particularly looked to Beethoven, who had become his idol and was composing huge works like the Ninth Symphony and the big string quartets. Schubert said to himself, I’ve got to figure out how to do this. At the same time, in 1822, he learned that he had contracted syphilis, a death sentence in those days, so he didn’t know how long he was going to live. In a miraculous way, before the age of 32, he developed a late style. Normally you don’t hear composers in their late 20s writing music of this depth, but my theory is that Schubert accelerated his own maturity in order to accomplish the kind of profundity that one would expect if he had reached his 50s and 60s. In the Grand Statements concert we illustrate this aspect of Schubert’s artistic mission, which was to achieve such heights as Beethoven did. His last quartet is every bit as profound as Beethoven’s late string quartets. The B-flat Piano Sonata is every bit as monumental as Beethoven’s late sonatas. These are not always the kind of statements we associate with him—we often think of the songs and the short pieces—but this program shows off that facet of his work.
JS: Let’s go back for a moment to the first program, Into Eternity. What’s the relationship between these two pieces in particular, Beethoven’s Op. 135 and Schubert’s Winterreise?
DF: The juxtaposition of the last Beethoven quartet and the last Schubert song cycle was just too irresistible a combination. They offer very different viewpoints of impending death. Beethoven takes a kind of whimsical, philosophical view towards his whole life, implying the question, “What did it all mean, and what was it for?” There’s no sense of despair in Beethoven’s approach; it’s humorous, it’s quirky, it’s mystical. It asks a very important question near the end: Muss es sein? (Must it be?) He wrote the words right in the score, and then he answers his own question: Es muss sein! (It must be!) No one knows exactly what he was talking about. But it’s lighthearted and fun, and it’s his going out in a good mood, having triumphed.
Schubert, on the other hand, was not able to bring himself to that kind of inner peace. My theory, and one that many others hold, is that he read his own life into these poems by Wilhelm Müller. At the very end of Winterreise, the speaker of the poems meets a hurdy-gurdy player who’s standing barefoot on the ice with his empty little collection plate, cranking the hurdy-gurdy. The text leaves it open as to whether he speaks to the man out loud or is merely mulling things over, but he basically asks, “Can I go with you into this snowy night? And will you crank your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?” How much more biographical can it get, with Schubert at the end of his life, thinking who’s going to sing my songs? The end of this thing is extremely powerful.
JS: Besides that striking last song, what else makes Winterreise so undeniably powerful?
DF: Winterreise is not only one of the great works of music, it’s one of the great works of art in western civilization. It is akin to the Ring cycle, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa. We’re talking about works of art that transcend their time, their culture; they become essential to many people’s lives. After spending a lot of time with Winterreise, I now understand why people say it becomes an addiction. It casts a spell which only strengthens with time. I was reminded of this when I came across an account by the great composer Benjamin Britten, who performed Winterreise quite often with his partner, Peter Pears. Britten said that every time he came back to working on the cycle, he was astounded not only by its beauty and craft, but by the renewal of its magic. And from that word, magic, we thought: what better way to describe Schubert’s music than “magical”? That’s why the entire festival is dedicated to the inexplicable magic that Schubert wielded as a composer.
WH: When Beethoven wrote his late quartets, few listeners really understood them. Even to this day, those late quartets are still quite mystical and have the same addictive quality. The more you listen to them, the more you are astounded by their depth. When Schubert wrote Winterreise and it was first performed for his friends, no one understood it. Only one listener liked “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree), which became the cycle’s most famous song. Schubert reportedly replied, “I like these songs better than all the rest, and someday you will come to like them, too.”
Last week, I finally got the music out—it’s been playing in the background again in our house before we go to bed, which is a bad thing because I can’t sleep after I’ve listened to the whole cycle—and I started playing. When I first played it at the age of 16, I did not understand any words of German and didn’t know what the songs meant, yet I was already in tears all the time. I remember playing the piano part for my teacher, who could speak German. He explained to me the structure of the piece, and I said, “I can’t play this, I’m just always crying.” His response was, “Then you shouldn’t play it. It’s too embarrassing, you have to control yourself.” Last week, I finally played through the whole thing, and I’m still a basket case! I need to play every day and detach myself. Now that I’m a little older, I understand it better.
JS: In a song cycle like this, the focus is so often on the singer. What can you tell us about Schubert’s piano writing in Winterreise? How does it support the text or add to the meaning?
WH: As in all of Schubert songs, on the surface, the piano part looks very simple. But as a pianist, it’s incredibly important to know the meaning of each verse, since each requires a different interpretation. The marking is often the same, especially when you repeat; it’s piano or pianissimo, and it looks simple. But when you really study, you see that for every verse that’s repeated, the piano part needs to change.
DF: At the end of the festival, on the From Song program, the first piece is “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), and that’s very early for Schubert. 1814–15 is when he had this explosion of songwriting, and it was with that song that he managed to connect the piano part to the text in a way that had never been done. People were astounded; they’d never heard anything like it. Throughout Winterreise and any other song in this festival, you will hear the piano expressing what’s happening in the text. Even at the very beginning of Winterreise, in which this guy is walking into a town and saying “I came here as a stranger,” you hear the trudging of his footsteps in the piano—boom, boom, boom. In “Der Lindenbaum,” the first thing you hear is the rustling of the branches with the broken sixths in the piano. In “Die Krähe” (The Crow), with the triplets in the right hand of the piano, you hear the crow flying around his head, haunting him. In every song, the piano part expresses the meaning of the text. Nobody had done that before Schubert, and by doing so, he changed and elevated the genre of Lieder.
WH: Yes, for pianists, the writing is so extraordinary. In “Der Lindenbaum,” the beginning and the end are exactly the same. But at the end, when the text speaks of resting under the tree (hinting at death), you cannot play the same rustling from the beginning. So it leaves pianists a lot of room to create a particular atmosphere for each song.
JS: Has your interpretation of the piece changed since you performed and recorded this piece with Nikolay Borchev in 2019?
WH: I first performed these pieces with Nikolay because he was recommended by a very important German presenter, whom we knew because CMS has a long history with the Mecklenburg Festival. This administrator was incredibly sensitive about how German Lieder should be sung, and this administrator recommended Nikolay as one of the best Lieder singers in Germany. Nikolay is from Belarus and studied voice in Moscow. At a certain point, his teacher said, “Your voice type is perfect for German Lieder, so you should go to Germany while Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is still alive and teaching and learn this stuff from him.” And that’s exactly what he did.
Our interpretation is always changing. At our summer festival, Music@Menlo, Nikolay arrived four weeks early to learn the piece with me, and we worked ourselves to death over every detail. His interpretation was so detailed; my music actually has many different markings, an analysis of the tempos of various recordings—Fischer-Dieskau with both Gerald Moore and Barenboim, plus Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten and Peter Schreier and Sviatoslav Richter. Nikolay’s interpretation was more intimate than the very dramatic one by Peter Schreier, which is more operatic.
DF: Wu Han and I grew up worshipping the interpretations and the singing of Fischer-Dieskau; I feel like I learned Schubert from him. When we heard Nikolay on recordings, it was almost like a reincarnation of that same spirit. He now lives in Germany, and his German is impeccable. And his beauty of tone, his nuance—I think for this music, it’s as good as you can find today.
WH: I can’t wait to find out if he has changed his view on the piece. That’s part of living with this cycle.
JS: At well over an hour, Winterreise is a large-scale piece, despite requiring only two musicians. How would you characterize the long journey?
WH: Winterreise conveys a sense of being inside the mind of this wanderer and seeing the world from all kinds of different perspectives. There is an overarching descent into delusion, madness, and despair, beginning with the first song, when he’s jilted by his girlfriend and has to leave town. It’s an emotional journey, though not a literal story. The songs also are incredibly different from one to another; when you turn the page, you’re confronted with a whole new idea.
JS: It may be news to some audience members that Schubert composed Winterreise in two parts, with 12 songs each, the second published almost a year after the first. Can you describe the relationship between the two halves?
WH: In the second half, the songs get more and more unhinged as the character loses his sanity: he passes by a graveyard that he thinks is a hotel; he sees three suns, which is a phenomenal moment, and so on. In performance, the way we treat the two sections is very much a singer’s decision; some singers prefer to offer the audience an intermission. When we did it at Menlo, we performed all 24 songs with no break, and that will happen this time as well. Nikolay has the endurance to do so. I think it’s more powerful to go through the whole thing in one shot because you can really sense the descent. For me, it’s very hard to interrupt this cycle; Schubert really needs the second half in order to come to a conclusion.
DF: Schubert only discovered that there were 12 more poems some months after he finished the first set. He must have looked at the second set and said, “Oh my god, I’ve got to do this too.” The second 12 songs begin very upbeat with “Die Post,” even though the character is disappointed because the post does not bring the letter he expects from his girlfriend. But it’s so pretty and as happy as Schubert can get. From there, the second half quickly falls into the character’s delusion. The first half is much more about him, his lost love, and so on; the second half is about the way he’s looking at the world and what he perceives the world is doing to him. There’s hardly anything about the girlfriend in the second half. It’s more about these weird experiences. And in the end, he connects to this guy on the street, this beggar, and thinks about going off into the night with him, or maybe actually does, depending on how you read the ambiguity. At any rate, it’s amazing, totally amazing.
JS: There’s still so much of this festival we haven’t talked about! What else can audiences look forward to?
WH: Our first two programs, Into Eternity and Grand Statements, are very serious. The last program, From Song, is much more lighthearted; we were trying to finish this whole festival with more of the unusual though important landmarks, but in a happier mood. David mentioned “Gretchen am Spinnrade” on that program. Two other songs on it are “Auf dem Strom” (On the River) and “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,” (The Shepherd on the Rock), each of which has an additional instrument besides piano. You usually cannot find Lieder from this period of history that include horn and clarinet. “The Shepherd on the Rock” has become one of Schubert’s most beloved works. Every time we program it for CMS audiences, there are only smiles and love in the air. So we needed to finish the festival on a happy note, especially after the pandemic. After such a dark time, I would love to give everybody a way out of that darkness.
JS: Just before the final concert is a program called Schubert Forever, featuring many composers other than Schubert. Tell us about that one.
WH: This particular program looks at Schubert’s influence on song, the influence of his singing quality on the the Germanic tradition, and how composers after Schubert have explored his legacy—from one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words to Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s “Die Forelle” to John Harbison’s November 19, 1828.
DF: That’s the day that Schubert died.
WH: John told us he had a dream that Schubert visited him, and he decided to write this piece. It’s a kind of mystical, hallucinatory fantasy about Schubert’s death and the days leading up to it, including the famous counterpoint lesson he took about a week before he died. In one passage, Schubert finds himself in a hall of mirrors in which everything is played back to him upside down. It’s one of John’s great works.
DF: There’s a funny thing about the history of Schubert’s reception. He was so little known while he was alive, except among his friends. And he wrote so much music that wasn’t played. Gradually throughout the 19th century his music became better known, piece by piece. It was not until, I think, the late 1890s that all of his music was finally published. But until then, the Cello Quintet was first heard in, I believe, 1850. The Unfinished Symphony—nobody even knew about it until the 1860s. And people said it’s as though Schubert was still composing from the grave because he had this “career” that was active for decades after he died.
It was Schubert’s music that taught us instrumentalists that we need to sing on our instruments. His music is so infused with song. If you can’t sing on your instrument, you shouldn’t play Schubert. And without Schubert’s art, I don’t think anybody on this program would have been able to write the music they did. Where would Mendelssohn have gotten the idea for Songs Without Words if it hadn’t been for Schubert?
WH: The late piano sonatas were not popular during his time at all. It was really not until pianists of Artur Schnabel’s stature started playing them that everybody started saying “wow.” Schubert’s career development and his impact on composers were like a gradual crescendo for all of us. So the Schubert Forever program demonstrates such impact.
JS: There’s one more program on the festival, right in the middle: The Virtuoso Tradition. What’s this about?
WH: Schubert heard Paganini perform, and he was inspired to incorporate virtuosity into pieces like the Violin Fantasy in C major. The First Piano Trio does something similar; it’s one of the most difficult instrumental pieces, not just in the piano part, but also in the string parts. So this program showcases how Schubert expanded the demands on instrumentalists well beyond what was expected in his day.
DF: What he required of instrumentalists, especially in terms of vocal quality, had never been asked of anybody before. Of course Paganini was writing his flashy concertos at the time, but no composer of Schubert’s magnitude had ever written a virtuoso piece for violin like this fantasy before. Schubert began a new tradition of instrumental virtuosity combined with profound and nuanced expression that would pass from him to Tchaikovsky, Korngold, and beyond. Even though the music on this program is extremely challenging for instrumentalists, it offers an opportunity for our audience to witness the extraordinary, seemingly effortless virtuosity of CMS musicians.
JS: Thank you both for taking the time to talk through all these programs!
WH: Thank you! We hope our thoughts about this project will reveal the uniqueness of these five programs, and how each approaches Schubert’s music from its own angle. The festival is a great opportunity to get to know this magnificent composer in so many different ways.
John Sherer is Editorial Manager at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. LEARN MORE ABOUT THE FESTIVAL