About Schubert’s Arrangers: Mottl, Liszt, Brahms, Joachim

By Christopher H. Gibbs

Written for the concert Schubert Orchestrated performed on Nov 18, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The conventional three-phase division of an artist’s career by definition concludes with a last period and occasionally with a distinctive late style.” For Schubert, whose active composing spanned barely seventeen years and who was known in Viennese musical circles for not much more than ten of them, the final stage lasted only some twenty months (1827-28); it coincided, perhaps significantly, with the time between Beethoven’s death and Schubert’s own at age thirty-one.

The magisterial works from this brief but prolific period comprise the song cycles Winterreise and Schwanengesang; the three late piano sonatas; the Impromptus, Op. 90 and 142; the piano trios; and the String Quintet in C. Schubert also composed his finest works for piano duet, including the F minor Fantasy, D. 940 (1828). Since the advent of recordings the four-hand literature has lost much of its purpose and prestige, which had been to reduce operatic and orchestral scores for domestic consumption, to delight informal gatherings in the Biedermeier salon, and even to woo in rites of courtship. In Schubert’s day, however, his unprecedented and unsurpassed achievement in the piano duet won him an unusual number of publications, performances, and praise. Some of these duets are natural candidates for orchestration, especially the Grand Duo that closes tonight’s concert.

In the original form of this Fantasy, Schubert mediates between venues – the concert hall and the salon – combining elements characteristic of his large-scale keyboard and instrumental works with the more intimate domestic genres of the Lied and piano duet. More specifically, the four-hand Fantasy represents an intimate refinement of his earlier virtuoso Wanderer Fantasy (1822), heard next on the program this evening in Liszt’s orchestration. To open the duet, Schubert abandons the explosive bravura of the Wanderer in favor of an elegiac theme (played here by the clarinets) that is unforgettable upon first hearing.

Before the Romantic period the designation “fantasy” usually implied improvisatory material and structural freedom. But in his mature fantasies Schubert, following Beethoven, expands traditional formal designs to create tightly constructed works. He boldly merges four movements into one. At the same time, the four-hand Fantasy may be considered a sonata form, with the Largo and Scherzo (tonally in the Neopolitan region of F-sharp) serving as development. These middle movements prove Schubert a master of transition, as they flow seamlessly, almost inevitably, from what precedes. All sections are subtly related through the recurring appearance of dotted rhythms, the prevalence of the rising interval of the fourth, the characteristic Schubertian shifts between major and minor, and the prominence of ornamental trills. The coherence of Schubert’s progressive structure is unmistakable when the haunting theme that opens the work reappears at the opening of the fourth “movement,” both acting as a recapitulation and leading to a monumental, almost Beethovenian, fugue. The theme appears once more, as a coda – a final gesture of intimacy and longing before the heart-wrenching dissonances of the closing chords.

Some of this intimacy is unavoidably lost in its orchestral guise, while the formal architecture of the work is highlighted. For the Schubert centennial in 1897, composer and conductor Felix Mottl (1856-1911) orchestrated the Fantasy. Mottl is best remembered today for his close association with Wagner, whose operas he conducted at Bayreuth and elsewhere. (Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder are usually performed in Mottl’s orchestration rather than with the original piano accompaniment.)

Fantasia in C Major, arr. Franz Liszt

None of the other arrangers on this concert knew Schubert personally, and it is not clear whether Liszt ever met him even though they lived in close proximity during the years Liszt studied with Czerny and Salieri in Vienna (1821-23). Schubert and Liszt, representatives of early and high Romanticism, seem an odd pair. Almost all superficial features are at odds: life-span, nationality, social stature, public recognition, performance ability, and compositional style. At the beginning of his career, Liszt composed chiefly for piano, and was internationally renowned for his keyboard virtuosity and brilliance; Schubert’s relatively limited Viennese fame was primarily restricted to his vocal and dance music. Liszt’s keyboard wizardry, Romantic exuberance, and visionary innovations seem a stark contrast to Schubert’s style. And yet as pianist, conductor, arranger, editor, and essayist, Liszt was the central figure in the mid-nineteenth century promotion of Schubert.

When Liszt played Schubert during the 1830s and 1840s, he was frequently presenting a first exposure to Schubert’s music. The many reworkings of Schubert’s compositions are the most lasting evidence of Liszt’s devotion. He arranged or orchestrated nearly sixty songs, as well as many marches and dances. In 1852 Liszt composed the famous Soirees de Vienne – Valses caprices d’apres Schubert, and as late as 1871 set Die Allmacht for voice, chorus, and orchestra. His largest project was Wanderer Fantasy (1851), which provides the closest proximation we have to a Schubert piano concerto.

Fantasy in C, the so-called Wanderer Fantasy, was Schubert’s first large-scale composition to be published. The latter title, first applied long after Schubert’s death, derives from the famous song Der Wanderer that appears in the slow movement. Written in 1822, the work shares some of the formal innovations found in the F-Minor Fantasy. It is hardly surprising that Liszt was so attracted to the highly demanding work (Schubert allegedly couldn’t play it), and reworked it in various ways: in the orchestration we hear tonight, in a four hands arrangement, and in an enhanced solo version which makes the original more orchestral and technically dazzling. The significance of Liszt’s engagement with this particular composition goes deeper than flashy virtuoso appeal. Liszt learned from Schubert’s thematic transformation – the subtle metamorphosis of a few melodic and rhythmic ideas, and structural ingenuity – the possibility of combining four movements into one, an innovation that strongly influenced Liszt’s own piano sonata and symphonic poems.

Three Songs of Schubert, arr. Johannes Brahms

Like Liszt, Johannes Brahms expressed his passionate and enduring devotion to Schubert’s music in performance, editions, and arrangements. Brahms quoted Schubert melodies in a number of his own compositions, edited his symphonies and other works, arranged dances, and orchestrated seven or eight Lieder. In the early 1860s, during the period in which he was orchestrating the songs, Brahms first visited Vienna and wrote to a friend that the city was filled with “the sacred memory of the great musicians whose lives and work are brought daily to our minds. In the case of Schubert one especially has the impression of his being still alive. Again and again one meets people who talk of him as a good friend; again and again one comes across new works, the existence of which was unknown.” Brahms worried greatly about the safety of such non-reproduced unpublished works, and proved instrumental in getting some of them published.

Enlargements of the intimate Schubert Lied, from a domestic work for voice and piano to a concert piece for full orchestra, started with those by his older brother Ferdinand in the late 1820s. In the following decades countless composers and conductors followed suit, often at the prompting of singers eager to perform Schubert’s works in symphonic venues. In the early 1860s the eminent baritone Julius Stockhausen requested that his friend and recital partner Johannes Brahms orchestrate Lieder for concerts in Bremen and Hamburg. Orchestrations such as these were important historical predecessors of the orchestral Lieder of Mahler, Strauss, and others that flourished by the end of the century.

The three songs performed tonight provide a contrast in moods. “Memnon,” written to a poem by Schubert’s close friend Johann Mayrhofer in 1817, offers a melancholy and longing lament of the Ethiopian prince, Memnon, son of Eos, the dawn. The fiery spirit of “An Schwager Kronos,” setting Goethe’s dramatic poem, readily invites orchestration in its perpetual motion and sense of urgency. Finally, “Geheimes,” a miniature musical gem to another Goethe poem, seems a surprising candidate for orchestral treatment. Brahms sustains its intimacy by scoring it for reduced strings and French horn.

Sonata in C-Major, Grand Duo, arr. Joseph Joachim

Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), the foremost violinist of the second half of the nineteenth century, shared a deep Schubertian devotion with his friends Schumann and Brahms. His magisterial orchestration of Schubert’s Sonata in C for Piano Four Hands, the so-called Grand Duo, is a lasting testimony and provides a significant service to a lamentably neglected masterpiece. While Joachim’s version is the best known, other conductors and composers have made their own as well, including Felix Weingartner, Rene Leibowitz, and Raymond Leppard.

If any Schubert keyboard composition almost demands orchestration, it is this four-movement piano duet. Schubert composed the sonata during the summer of 1824 while away from Vienna, after a period of serious illness and personal despair. He sounds a Wordsworthian note in a letter to his brother, “do not think that I am not well or cheerful, just the contrary. True it is no longer that happy time during which every object seems to us to be surrounded by a youthful gloriole, but a period of fateful recognition of a miserable reality, which I endeavor to beautify as far as possible by my imagination (thank God).” As proof he cites the Grand Duo.

First published more than a decade after Schubert’s death, the publisher Anton Diabelli dedicated the work, as did Joachim when he orchestrated it nearly twenty years later, to Clara Wieck Schumann. In a famous review, Robert Schumann comments, “I regarded it as a symphony arranged for the piano until the original manuscript, which by his own hand is entitled Sonata for Four Hands’, taught me otherwise.” Schumann compared the composition to other Schubert keyboard works and remained convinced that this was a symphony in disguise: “We hear the string and wind instruments, tuttis, a few solos, the mutter of drums.” He suggests that Schubert may have felt he had a better chance of publishing the work as a sonata than as a symphony. In this same review, Schumann makes his famous comparison of Beethoven and Schubert as representing masculine and feminine traits: “Compared with Beethoven, Schubert is a feminine character, much more voluble, softer, and broader; or a guileless child romping among giants. Such is the relationship of these symphonic movements to those of Beethoven. Their intimacy is purely Schubertian. They have their robust moments, to be sure, and marshal formidable forces. But Schubert conducts himself as wife to husband, the one giving orders, the other relying upon pleas and persuasion.”

The prominent English critic Donald Francis Tovey, elaborating Schumann’s view, considered Joachim’s arrangement a “specimen of Schubert’s grandest symphonic style.” Speculation that this is a symphony in disguise was long fueled by the legend of a lost symphony, the so-called “Gastein Symphony,” which some argued might be the Grand Duo. Schubert scholars have determined, however, that there is no such missing work and that the one Schubert was composing at Gastein was the Great C-Major Symphony.