Friday, 24 October 2014

Schubert as Dramatist - Oxford Lieder Festival

"Schubert as Dramatist", a conference sponsored by the Oxford Lieder Festival at the faculty of Music in Oxford today, organized by Joe Davies, Sholto Kynoch and Susan Wollenberg. Details here.  Read the abstracts. Another event I've had to miss, alas, but as a long-term Friend of Oxford Lieder and contributor to the Schubert Circle behind this year's festival,  The thing about being a Friend, or indeed a friend, is making good things happen for everyone not just yourself. I'm there in spirit!

Wagner and Verdi may define opera in modern, populist terms but their values are misleading when applied to Schubert. To appreciate Schubert's operas, we need to understand the context from which they developed.  The keynote lecture in this conference is by Lorraine Byrne Bodley, whose article "Schubert, Goethe and the Singspeile: an Elective Affinity" can be read in full here. Singspeile springs from traditions that go right back into medieval popular theatre. Although Goethe tried to "improve" Singspeile, Mozart beat him to it, with Die Zauberflöte and Die Entführung aus dem Serail   

Oddly enough, there's hardly a mention in the conference papers of Carl Maria von Weber, whose Der Freischütz (1821) is one of the most influential opera of the period. Weber was only ten years older than Schubert, but so well known that it's unlikely that Schubert would not have been aware of him. Focusing on the relationship between Weber and Schubert would be an obvious, and possibly even more fruitful avenue of research. Weber, Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann had ideas of music drama in a different way to, say Donizetti and Rossini. Imagine if Schubert, Weber, Mendelssohn and Schumann had lived to a ripe old age, like Janáček. Arguably, Wagner (who lived in Dresden) might not have developed his ideas of German opera without them. Singspiele depends on spoken dialogue, which alienates those who think of music drama mainly in terms of tunes, and leaves non-German speakers cold.  But it's a good tradition with extra potential for meaning. Indeed, Hartmann and Zimmermann (both of whom I've written a lot about) bring this tradition close to the present day.  So perhaps one day someone will be writing "Beyond Singspiele", a study of the way Singspeile traditions infuse German opera and its Alpine hybrids.

Lieder and opera are distinctly different. Hence the labels "lyric" and "dramatic" It's hard to draw demarcation lines as many "lyrical" songs work because they're dramatic and some dramatic songs are intensely inward.  Der Zwerg, for example,  has a wildly theatrical narrative - it's Der fliegende Holländer in miniature. The dwarf quotes the queen, but essentially, it's his own monologue, a one-sided take on a much bigger story. Classic Lieder, like Der Wanderer (D 493) predicate on inner psychological drama.  Nature functions to amplify inner states. This connection between Romanticism and the creation of Lieder is absolutely fundamental.  To bypass Romanticism and Schubert from the evolution of Lieder is simply nonsense. The world did not stop with Mozart. The Romantic Imagination helped define the whole ethos of the 19th and 20th century. Lieder values are more inward, predicating inward, rather than outward towards the stage and a vast audience. Some Lieder are so beautiful that the very act of hearing them in an arena kills their intimacy. Schubert writes great swashbuckler ballads like Der Gott und die Bajadere D254 but they can't be performed in the same way, as, say, Gretchen am Spinnrade D118,  where the girl can't express her feelings except through manic repetitions. A psychological case study, before the word "psychology" was in common use. 

I could write loads more about Schubert as Dramatist,  a fascinating subject that opens whole new vistas on concepts of music theatre, but for now, just a link to my "Knights in White Satin" an appreciation of Fierrabras at the Salzburg Festival, an uncommonly perceptive production that goes right to the heart of Schubert's inspiration - literary,  not literal, the soul of the romantic Imagination. 

No comments: