Listening for Resilience in Schubert and Beyond
Artistic Directors David Finckel and Wu Han on the Chamber Music Society’s 2022–23 season.
by Nicky Swett
Nicky Swett: How do you choose music for concerts on a season?
David Finckel: We can look at our repertoire through an almost infinite variety of perspectives. Our season opening is “Soloists in the Spotlight,” which highlights instrumental virtuosity. Or in April, there’s a concert with wind and string combos that points up relationships and dialogue between those two instrumental families. Often, we do composer-pair programs, like the one this season with Brahms and Arensky. When you bring two composers together, relationships emerge between their music and their lives, and certain connections form in the listener’s mind. We also have an ensemble lens, with concerts devoted to a particular group, and we have geographical focuses, like the “Voices of the Americas” program, which runs up and down the American continent.
One of the first things we concentrated on when we began presenting is how to organize this vast literature so that it inspires confidence in listeners who will then say “I can get a grasp on this. Now I know a little bit more about this person, or that kind of music.”
NS: How is programming the intimate Rose Studio concerts different from programming the mainstage season?
Wu Han: The Rose Series is wonderful to program because it mandates opportunities for discovery. It’s a little bit more like going to an art gallery than going to a concert. When you go to an art gallery, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to see. In the Rose Series, you can sample music you may never have heard in a major concert hall.
Artistic variety is important, surprise is important, contrast is very important. We’ll hear the Brahms B-major Piano Trio next to the Horn Trio of György Ligeti, written as an “Hommage à Brahms,” which is a huge contrast. You’ll hear a very interesting early work by Benjamin Britten called Two Insect Pieces for Oboe and Piano. He wrote lots of fantastic little pieces when he was young. You’ll also hear the really pioneering Piano Quintet in A minor by Florence Price, a work of great emotion and ingenuity, which is fast gaining ground on the concert stage today.
NS: CMS’s 22–23 season theme of “resilience” is inspired by the Winter Festival, which focuses on Franz Schubert. How do composers heard throughout the season display this quality in their biographies and in their music?
DF: When we select a subject for our Winter Festival, we always look at the rest of the season to see if there is any resonance from that idea in other programs. This season, we asked ourselves what composers might have had in common with Schubert in either his life or his music. Sure enough, Schubert’s considerable obstacles—and his ability not only to continue composing despite those obstacles, but in fact to turn them to his artistic advantage—are mirrored in different ways in the lives of many of this season’s other composers.
Prokofiev was up against the oppression of the Soviet regime. Schulhoff was imprisoned by the Nazis, and eventually died of disease in a concentration camp. Bach had an exhausting workload on his shoulders that practically never let up. Beach was up against her husband, who didn’t permit her to pursue the career she deserved. Mozart survived the life of a child prodigy with an overbearing father. Britten had a very visible composing career as a gay man in a country where homosexuality was illegal at the time. Coleridge-Taylor had to find success as a Black man in a historically white profession. These are all experiences that required incredible resilience.
Whether you can hear resilience in the music of these composers is a much trickier question. In Schubert, something that’s always impressed me is the vocal quality. His uncanny and instinctive ability to craft perfect, singing lines means that the emotive side of his music is always on display. Through it comes the hope and the suffering and the love he felt throughout his life. And one doesn’t have to scratch the surface very deeply to hear resilience in other composers in different ways. They gave us beautiful music amid difficult circumstances, and aren’t we lucky to hear it!
NS: What did you want to communicate about Schubert through your Winter Festival programming?
WH: In 1822, Schubert contracted syphilis, which was a death sentence in those days. He was a young man with all of this ambition, waking up to the fact that he did not want to be known just for little pieces like songs and miniatures. To leave a lasting legacy and be more on par with other renowned composers, he needed to write larger-scale compositions such as symphonies, operas, and substantial chamber works. We wanted to show how Schubert forced himself to become a mature composer before his time. He was writing music in his late 20s with the kind of sophistication and depth that artists don’t usually attain until their 50s and 60s. He had a self-accelerated maturity unlike anyone else’s.
On the “Grand Statements” program, we hear massive pieces—the String Quartet in G major, the B-flat Piano Sonata. These are Schubert in the late 1820s making huge statements, as opposed to the smaller pieces written for amateurs to play at home, which had previously brought him the bulk of his income.
A program called “From Song,” which features songs followed by instrumental pieces in which he used those songs, puts his vocal sensibilities on display.
Schubert did not play the violin, nor was he an accomplished pianist, but he knew how to write for the instruments so well—really virtuosic stuff. “The Virtuoso Tradition” shows Schubert commanding the height of instrumental skills.
DF: The “Into Eternity” program pairs Beethoven’s Op. 135 Quartet and Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, each work a final statement. Beethoven’s last quartet is whimsical, philosophical, and the end is very triumphant. Meanwhile, at the end of Schubert’s setting of Müller’s Winter Journey poems, it becomes obvious that the composer is writing autobiographically, in complete despair. Hearing these different takes on the end of life is very powerful.
Finally, the “Schubert Forever” concert explores how Schubert’s ethos can be heard in the work of composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Schubert died without hearing many of his greatest pieces ever performed. As his work was gradually discovered all through the 19th century, people would say it was as though he were composing from the grave. That sense of Schubert living on is awakened when we listen to music by composers like Korngold or Harbison, who owe to him that unmistakeable vocal sensibility.
Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.