Tuesday 24 April 2018

Hooked by Schubert's fishy tale Genius: Franz Schubert

The piano was tinkling as the passengers boarded the flight. One of those tunes that you know you know, but maybe can't quite place. It's catchy, it darts about, a bit like a fish in a stream. Which is how it should be, for this was Schubert's 'Trout' ('Die Forelle').

It's one of his most popular pieces, deceptively simple but with the kind of subtle complexity that makes it memorable. What we were hearing was Franz Liszt's transcription for keyboard.

'The Trout' began life as a song, one of over 600 lieder that Schubert composed. He took as his starting point three verses by Christian Schubart (no relation).

The scene is the bank of a stream. There's a trout darting about in the clear water. And there's a fisherman. But the trout is safe, for it can see him.

Not for long though. The angler muddies the water with his rod, blinds the fish, and gets what he came for.

The music quite brilliantly reflects the arc of the story.

'The Trout' was just one of Schubert's huge hits, when he was making his name as a songwriter. A top opera singer of the time, an Austrian by the name of Johann Vogl, took the young composer under his wing.

Back in Vogl's home place, there was a businessman with plenty of money who loved his music, and played the cello in his spare time. Sylvester Paumgartner was his name. He loved 'The Trout', and reckoned it could be expanded into a full-blown entertainment for his drawing room.

So Schubert worked away, and came up with a quintet. It was unusual in having five movements. And unusual, too, in the combination of instruments it used -- violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano.

Normally, there would be just a cello to play the low notes, and no bass. Maybe this was Schubert giving Paumgartner the paymaster the chance to enjoy some of the glory by joining in with the melody on his cello, while a journeyman bassist would play the bottom line.

When the piece was delivered, Paumgartner and his little band struggled to play it. The score was stashed away among other stuff that didn't work, and that might well have been that.

But when Schubert died just 10 years later, and they couldn't get enough of his music, the quintet got published. With the beautiful song as its anchor, it's a wonderful example of his music, bright and joyful, but never far from the darker shade.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning. ghamilton@independent.ie

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