30 Apr 2020

Schubert 200 : in conversation with Tom Guthrie

‘There could be no happier existence. Each morning he composed something beautiful and each evening he found the most enthusiastic admirers. We gathered in his room - he played and sang to us - we were enthusiastic and afterwards we went to the tavern. We hadn’t a penny but were blissfully happy.’

So recalled Franz Schubert’s friend, the painter Moritz von Schwind (1804-71) - with, no doubt a liberal dash of nostalgia - when describing to the composer Ferdinand Hiller (1811-85) the convivial evenings during which Schubert’s fellow artists, friends and patrons had gathered to hear the composer and his musical companions perform his new songs and instrumental works. Forty years after Schubert’s death, Schwind began a sepia representation of a grand party of regular ‘Schubertiad’ attendees, writing in 1868 to the poet Eduard Mörike: ‘I have begun to work at something which I feel I owe the intellectual part of Germany - my admirable friend Schubert at the piano, surrounded by his circle of listeners. I know all of the people by heart.’

In this drawing, Schwind and his fellow artists, Wilhelm August Rieder and Leopold Kupelwieser, stand side by side behind the seated ladies. Literary circles are represented by Franz Grillparzer, Johann Senn, Johann Baptist Mayrhofer, Ignaz Castelli and Eduard von Bauernfeld, positioned on the extreme right. The host, Austrian nobleman Joseph von Spaun, is seated to the left of Schubert who, at the piano, accompanies baritone Johann Michael Vogl. The latter, chest somewhat pompously puffed out, extends one hand towards the music. The poet Franz Adolf Friedrich Schober, in the second row on the far right, flirts with Justina von Bruchmann (sister of the poet Franz von Bruchmann). Over-looking all, the portrait of Countess Caroline von Esterházy, the former student for whom Schubert nurtured an unrequited passion, peers down on the lively gathering. [1]

Schwind’s representation is undoubtedly idealised rather than documentary. But, the vivacity of the scene matches that in Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s sketch of 1827, which depicts soprano Josephine Fröhlich, Vogl and Schubert engaged in active, social and spontaneous music-making. Both images present performance contexts that are quite different from those familiar today and pose interesting questions. Who are the audience and who the performers? How do the performers and audience relate to each other?

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller .pngA pencil drawing of soprano Josephine Fröhlich, barítone Johann Vogl and Franz Schubert (1827) by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller.

Such questions are of great interest to director and musician Thomas Guthrie, who will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Schubert’s three great song cycles - Die schöne Müllerin (1823), Winterreise (1827) and Schwanengesang (1828) - with new arrangements of each cycle, using period instruments and puppetry to bring the cycles’ narratives to life:

“I have always thought that the genesis of the songs - and particularly the cycle - came about in a much more creative, spontaneous and relatable storytelling atmosphere than we’ve become used to. The sense you get from contemporary reports and paintings conjures a world where friends dressed up, recited and sang poetry, played different parts, brought different instruments. This Music and Theatre for All project will celebrate this historical approach, take it further, and help these songs to reach a wider audience.”

Vienna c1815.pngVienna, c.1815

Working with the historically informed performance ensemble Barokksolistene, Guthrie will record these new arrangements for Rubicon Classics during 2020 to 2022. Tours will then follow to coincide with the 200th anniversary of each cycle. The Schubert 200 project is supported by Music and Theatre for All , a charity founded by Guthrie in 2013 which aims to connect performers and public through transformative music and theatrical projects.

Discussing the Schubert 200 project with Tom, I ask him about its genesis and what he hopes to achieve. He explains that Schubert’s song cycles, especially Die schöne Müllerin, were works that he encountered and sang as a teenager, and that, as his own work has developed over the years since, so has his understanding of and response to these songs.

Tom first worked with puppets in 2001 when performing in a production of Purcell’s The Indian Queen. Schubert 200 was, in a sense, born three years later when Tom was asked to preparer =and direct a performance of Winterreise for New Kent Opera - for singer, puppet, guitar and piano - with animated drawings by Peter Bailey and puppetry by Mandarava. New Kent Opera’s 2004 Winterreise was presented at the Theatre Royal Margate, a Grade II listed theatre dating from 1787. Since then it has become well-travelled and internationally admired, a recent revival, in a new arrangement, taking place at Princeton in 2017.

Tom Guthrie.jpgTom Guthrie

Tom suggests that working in new contexts, with attendant practical and budget constraints, can excite the imagination in fresh ways. He also emphasises the opportunities afforded by preview performances which enable one to evaluate what ‘works’ and what doesn’t, and to amend and develop in response to audience reactions. “What do they hold on to? What doesn’t translate?” The notion of involving the audience in the act of creation is clearly an important aspect of Tom’s creative process and storytelling is paramount.

Performing with puppets, he believes, can change a performer’s perception of a piece, encouraging them to find new ways of telling stories and thus forge fresh dialogues with audiences. In 2014, MTFA supported a performance of Die schöne Müllerin at the Spitalfields Festival , arranged for two guitars, percussion, tree branch, double bass, violins and viola, directed by Tom and performed by Barokksolistene and tenor Robert Murray, with a puppet designed and made by Mandarava. At a Q&A session following a performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at the York Early Music Festival last year, Tom was asked why he had added things that ‘got in the way’ of the musicians? An ‘answer’ was provided by a blind audience member who declared that their awareness of new dynamics between the performers onstage - the ‘swish’ of the puppets’ costumes, for example - had made this the most enjoyable performance of Schubert’s cycle that they had experienced. Tom adds, “For puppets to work, the performance must compel the audience to imagine and thereby invite them into the work.”

Orfeo I fagiolini Ben Pugh.jpgMonteverdi's Orfeo, at the York Early Music Festival 2019. Photo credit: Ben Pugh.

Just as using puppets can make stories accessible in news ways, so creating new arrangements of these song cycles can create new opportunities for musicians to connect with each other and audiences. The orthodox formality of a singer standing beside a modern grand piano in the concert hall might be challenged in productive ways which facilitate new channels of communication and creativity. Tom describes how the Barokksolistene soloists gather to explore themes and colours, and that improvisation is an important element of the creative process. The forthcoming Rubicon recordings of Schubert’s song cycles will be similarly organic, built layer by layer as the performers respond to each other, and Tom emphasises that the value of working with musicians who are well-versed participants in such musical conversations cannot be overstated. Similarly, although the puppetry will be incorporated in the later stages of the project, Tom explains that the performers’ prior involvement with puppetry, in the context of these cycles, has undoubtedly shaped and changed their perception of the works. Moreover, live performances with workshops are planned as part of the creative process.

I wonder, though, about the problems that might arise when arranging Schubert’s setting of Wilhelm Müller’s Die Winterreise and creating new sounds, sequences and stories. Is our knowledge of, and familiarity with, the musical and psychological narrative of Schubert’s cycle too entrenched to be easily relinquished? Tom reminds me that there is an inherent creative flexibility in Schubert’s settings of Müller’s twenty-four poems one which invites re-consideration and recreation. Indeed, Müller’s Die Winterreise was first published as group of twelve poems in the journal Urania in 1823. Schubert came across and set these twelve poems in 1827, dropping Müller’s ‘Die’ in his Winterreise. Müller subsequently published a longer version, in the second volume of his poetry, interweaving twelve new poems into his original sequence, though the former were not scattered evenly. When he came across these new poems, Schubert was reluctant - presumably for reasons relating to the musical relationships between the songs - to change the order of the songs in his cycle, so his settings of the new texts were simply added onto the original sequence.

Much has been written about the relationship between the song cycle and the poem sequence, not least the altered order of the final songs in Schubert’s Winterreise: Müller’s ‘Die Nebensonnen’ is the twentieth poem and ‘Mut!’ and ‘Der Leiermann’ bring the sequence to a close; Schubert’s final three songs are ‘Mut!’, ‘Die Nebensonnen’, ‘Der Leiermann’ - something that pianist Graham Johnson has argued was ‘one of the greatest examples of necessity being the mother of sublime invention’. Others disagree, but such debates certainly seem to imply inherent tensions and energies which might invite and inspire creative reinterpretation.

Barokksolistene Tatjana Dachsel.jpgBarokksolistene. Photo credit: Tatjana Dachsel.

I ask Tom if Schwanengesang presents particular problems, given that it is not a ‘cycle’ in a conventional sense, rather a compilation of two different sets of songs - to seven texts by Ludwig Rellstab and six by Heinrich Heine - gathered together by the publisher Tobias Haslinger (who added a further song, ‘Die Taubenpost’, to a text by Johann Gabriel Seidl) three months after Schubert’s death. Did Schubert himself intend to combine these songs and if so, how? The songs don’t tell a story as such, though there are unifying poetic themes - nature and love’s trials being the concern of Rellstab’s poems, loss and despair the focus of those by Heine. Tom relishes the creative potential of the questions posed by Schwanengesang, and notes that if one places Schubert’s Heine settings in the order in which the poems were written, a narrative does emerge. Moreover, it is complemented by a compelling musical narrative, for this re-ordering reveals an extraordinary key sequence formed of semi-tonal shifts between the songs which culminates in ‘Atlas’ with a dramatic harmonic fall of a minor third. I can see that, for Tom, a story is forming! One perhaps founded, he allows, on coincidences; but, such coincidences can enable one to learn new things, see works differently and create new dialogues with audiences.

After my conversation with Tom, I reflect on my own CD collection - seven recordings of Winterreise by different singers, all accompanied by a modern concert grand - or of the countless performances I have enjoyed of Schubert’s songs cycles in the intimacy of Wigmore Hall during the past thirty years. Perhaps it is time to reimagine such modern orthodoxies. There has never been, and there is not, just one way of interpreting and performing ‘canonical’ classical repertory. Listening online to some early 20th-century recordings of Schubert’s lieder - German-born baritone and composer Sir George Henschel (1850-1934) accompanying himself in 1928, Irish baritone Harry Plunket Greene (1865-1936) singing ‘Der Leiermann’ at the age of 69 - I am struck by the way that the informal, conversational tone of these performances makes one feel closer somehow to the 19th-century song traditions of Schubert.

In his book Schubert: A Biographical Study of His Songs (1971), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau asks, ‘Should one perform Die Winterreise in public at all? Should one offer such an intimate diary of a human soul to an audience whose interests are so varied?’, adding that the songs are ‘not for that section of the audience which expects only a refined, aesthetic experience’ from an evening of lieder. Communicating to and connecting with audiences, involving them in the process of creation and performance, lies at the heart of the Schubert 200 project. And, I remember the words of Ferdinand Hiller describing the time when, at the age of sixteen, he first heard Schubert sing: ‘One song followed another - the donors were tireless, the receivers were tireless. Schubert had little technique, Vogl had little voice, but both had so much life and feeling, were so absorbed in their delivery, that it would have been impossible to perform these wonderful compositions with greater clarity or with greater sincerity. We thought neither of the piano playing, nor of the song: it was as though the music had no need of any material sound, as though the melodies were revealing themselves like visions to ethereal ears.’

Claire Seymour

[1] See Christopher Gibbs, The Life of Schubert (CUP, 2000)