Schubert Wanders through a Landscape of Sounds

Schubert remains one of my favourite composers. © Charles Thibo
Schubert remains one of my favourite composers. © Charles Thibo

“There are still so many beautiful things to be said in C major”, the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev once remarked. So true. Schubert’s piano piece “Wanderer Fantasy” in C major, Op. 15 D.760 for example. Take the opening: Massive accords gradually diluted in a lovely melody for the right hand… beautiful! If you care to look at the score, you may wonder how many fingers the pianist needs to play all those notes in any given time! To put it mildly, it requires a certain degree of virtuosity… of which I can just dream!

Multiple contrasts

The Russian-Canadian pianist Viviana Sofronitsky has mastered this challenge and her recording released in 2012 lets you discover all the nuances and surprises that Schubert has hidden in the score. The piece alternates between forte and piano, between light and dark, sad and joyful, delicate and forceful – true to the title of the piece, the pianist wanders in the four movements through a landscape of sound with infinite and small, but detectable variations. Listening to this piece is always a real pleasure for me, and at the time of writing this post (November 2015), it definitely helps to overcome a grey and rainy day.

The title “Wanderer Fantasy” is derived from a song that Schubert has composed with the title “The Wanderer” (D.489) in 1816 and revised in 1821. The slow movement of the piano piece takes up the melody of the song. Schubert wrote the “Wanderer Fantasy” around 1822, at a time when he started many piano sonatas, but finished few of them.

Personal crisis

A couple of years after the “Miracle Years” 1814-15, marked by an immense output of compositions, Schubert let an unsteady existence with no permanent fixed employment, an excessive style of life, few financial means and ran – at least for a short time – in trouble with the police of Vienna because of one of his friends was associated with radical plotters! He traveled around Upper Austria to take advantage of the hospitality of friends, wrote a couple of songs, but all this cannot cover up the fact, that Schubert had lost himself actually.

Schubert was born in 1797 in Vienna, his father was the head of a local school and his first music teacher. Music was of central importance in the Schubert family and performing together in the family circle a recurrent element of family life. When Schubert turned seven, his father sent him to an audition by the composer Antonio Salieri, and the young boy became a member of the imperial music ensemble. In 1805 learned to play the violin, the organ, counterpoint and figured bass (a musical notation technique) and apparently started composing right away: quartets, songs, piano pieces. However, the earliest surviving compositions date probably from 1810.

Burst of creativity

When Schubert’s voice broke in 1812 he enrolled in a vocational school to become a teacher like his father and his brothers to make a living. The teaching job he assumed gave him enough time to pursue his studies with Salieri and to compose. In the summer of 1814, his confidence and creativity reached a first pea. Up to the autumn of 1815, he composed three masses, two symphonies, dozens of songs, at least for pieces of incidental music, many quartets, trios and shorter piano works.

The following year several other works saw the light, but gradually Schubert ran out of steam. Around the time he composed the “Wanderer Fantasy”, he realized that he had contracted syphilis, as we have seen in the post about the piece “Death and the Maiden” (1822). Schubert experienced another creativity peak shortly before his death. November 19, 1828: Exit Schubert. Except for Tchaikovsky and Mozart, no other composer has moved me so deeply with his works. Schubert forever!

© Charles Thibo

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3 thoughts on “Schubert Wanders through a Landscape of Sounds”

  1. Great post! Two versions of the Wanderer that are absolutely worth checking out are Evgeny Kissin, and Maurizio Pollini, both on DG if I’m not mistaken.

    1. Thank you. Romantic composers are a constant source of pleasure and inspirations. I am currently working on a piece about Schumann’s “Papillons” scheduled for late spring… The recording by Andras Schiff is so nice.

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