A cold morning. The sun about to rise. The river almost motionless. The first bars zen-like. A meditation. A look at the present – the positive, the negative aspects. Incrementally melancholy creeps into the melody. The inevitable look back. The look forward. Forced optimism. Life has to go on, but it feels like dancing with a reluctant partner. The first three of Franz Schubert’s “Moments Musicaux”, D.780 grant us a look into the composer’s soul and testify of his musical genius. Schubert managed to achieve maximal expressiveness with minimal means: lean melodies, a subtle play with dissonance to introduce the languishing moment, the slight flicker of pain, the heavy sigh.
The fourth piece is more dynamic, quick-paced, more forceful, but the melancholic look back seems to remain an obstacle to real progress, to overcome paralysis. The fifth “musical moment” is the long-awaited breakthrough. Schubert’s melody has a distinctly clear and light-hearted allure. It lasts only two minutes and comes to an brutal stop – the contrast to the beginning of the slow last piece is radical. Its detachedness is like a purification – a look into the rising sun, a warm feeling of contentment, the mind has come to a rest, and thus Schubert concludes this cycle with a return to the spirit of the first piece. The cycle of emotions, the cycle of life: innocence, regret and fear, the power of will, the fight against adversity, overcoming life’s difficult moments, peace finally.
The Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires has a long-standing affinity for Schubert’s piano music and developed a great sensitivity for Schubert’s ability to translate emotions into notes and melodies. She certainly is one of my favourite pianists and I should recommend her recording of the “Moments Musicaux”.
Schubert wrote the six pieces between 1823 and 1827. The title wasn’t coined by the composer, but by the publisher in 1828 at a time when Schubert was, as the scholar Blair Johnston puts it, “fighting a losing battle for his very life”. Some have deemed the title inappropriate, since several pieces last more than five minutes and would hardly qualify as moments. However this discussion seems rather academical to me once you consider the double meaning of the word “moment”: It can express a specific i.e. short duration in time or a specific period in man’s life, regardless of its duration.
Considering the different emotional expressions of the pieces, the publisher, well aware of the prevalent Romantic mood in Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, may well have known what he was doing. He was a salesman, and Schubert would probably not have cared. Such things would have appeared to him most trivial in the light of the emotional depth of his music.
© Charles Thibo