Schubert’s stories

I was at a piano recital the other day which ended with Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. ‘Oh I love this piece,’ I whispered to the fiancé during the tell-tale opening bars. (You can listen to it here on YouTube – try and ignore his too-short shorts.)

When the concert was over I started chattering about the music. ‘I love that bit near the end,’ I said. ‘Where the big evil troll is stomping around and then all the little birds get startled and fly off.’

The fiancé looked blank.

‘You know – bam ba-ba baaam, ba bam ba-ba baam …’ (It begins just before the nineteenth minute on the YouTube clip.)

‘Oh.’ An eyebrow was raised. ‘How did you describe it?’

‘The bit with the stomping troll and the scared birds flying around.’

‘Do you really think about that sort of thing when you’re listening to music?’

Now, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that it isn’t normal, when listening to music, to imagine stories. What else can one think about?

Well, the fiancé, apparently, doesn’t think about much, when listening to music. His mind wanders. His musical brother says his mind wanders too, but that sometimes he thinks about what’s going on musically.

I’d love to think about what’s going on musically. To think – aha, this is where it’s shifting into the relative minor. Or, oh, yes here comes the Development Section. Or, what a good use of the Imperfect Cadence. (Incidentally, here is an earlier post I’m quite fond of about cadences and books.)

Unfortunately, I’m not nearly well-versed enough in musical lingo, and I don’t have remotely enough musical nouse to be able to pick up that kind of thing from listening to something. Yes, occasionally I’ll think oh the tune’s come back, but it’s higher up this time. Or, it’s quite fugal here. And I suppose it makes me feel slightly smug – similar to the feeling when using words like ‘alliteration’ and ‘enjambment’ to write about poetry. But it’s not particularly meaningful.

Perhaps the fiancé might have understood me better if I’d described the bit with the evil troll as where the left hand plays a variation on the theme in a minor key, loudly and threateningly. But, frankly, I feel that ‘evil troll stomping around’ captures the spirit of the piece much more accurately.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t spend the entire piece spinning out one single narrative. That evil troll at the end isn’t the culmination of a fairy-tale plot involving toll-bridges and witches and the like.

The opening makes me think of a young man, running over the hills, bursting with excitement desperate to tell everyone his news. Occasionally he jumps and skips, while trying to say what’s going on. There’s an (inaudible) person listening to him, telling him to calm down and go through everything from the beginning, more slowly. And then that’s when it sort of starts again, more softly (after 40 seconds on YouTube), but every now and then he gets overcome by excitement and has to jump up and down on the spot (1 min 10 or so). But the music swiftly gets too complicated to fit with this rather basic scheme. Then, I suppose, my mind wanders. It still feels quite pastoral. Definitely hills and flowers and sunshine – perhaps a little stream somewhere. And then there’s that element of danger around 2 min 50. Perhaps then it’s like floating along a gentle stream in which there are suddenly rapids, or a sharp rock.

But once you get to 3.40 or so, it’s not like that at all. Then it’s more of a gentle, playful dance. In fact this, swiftly followed by the loud chords (4.30), makes me think of a farmboy and a milkmaid messing around on haystacks and then a big angry farmer bursting in on them, followed by a farcical chase around the haystacks.

I find it really difficult to listen to the piece without imagining any scenes from stories taking place. They don’t link up, but little snippets are definitely brought to life. And I think it happens with any piece. Let’s stick to Schubert for now, as his music is particularly beautiful. But take his Piano Trio in E-flat. According to YouTube the bit I particularly love was used in Barry Lyndon. But here it is, in any case.

This is set in the very early morning, just before sunrise. It’s somewhere in the Orient – perhaps Constantinople – and a young lady, wrapped up in a travelling cloak, is looking out from a window, or possibly a rooftop, at a soldier’s camp. It’s quiet and cold and barely light, but the soldier she’s in love with is keeping watch, marching very steadily to and fro.

And what about Schubert’s String Quintet? One of my all-time favourites. It’s here on YouTube.

The opening feels like the scene’s being set for a fight. Walking twenty paces, drawing swords and then … just after the minute mark WHOOSH – bam BAM. Then the fight really starts. At this point, it feels more like a couple having a horrid fight. The woman keeps getting hysterical – the shrieking violins, and the man gets thunderously cross, and then suddenly it melts away at 1.50 and they remember why they’re in love. Perhaps the man says it first (the cellos) and then the woman agrees when the violins take up the tune at 2.27. The piece feels quite nostalgic, as though perhaps they really do spend the whole time going over their relationship – the beautiful highs and the more threatening horrible bits (4.20). It’s the sort of argument that could only take place late at night, when tired, and endlessly tempted to just forget it, make friends and cuddle up and fall asleep together. Which, I suppose, they do by the time they get to the second movement (here).

If only it worked the other way round too, and that while reading I thought of the perfect soundtrack. Then I’d probably have an incredibly high-flying career with a film studio, scoring out music for feature films. I’d be played on Classic FM. But I’m not too unhappy about the current situation, just getting a bit over-excited when listening to music.

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One Response to “Schubert’s stories”

  1. Do the Reggae « EmilyBooks Says:

    […] problem is that I love lots of classical music (see my post here about making up stories to it, especially to Schubert) and tend to find that whenever I listen to […]

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