The young Schubert, by Josef Abel

At the Center of the Musical Universe: Franz Schubert II

Greatness will invariably recognise greatness! And Franz Liszt’s efforts and commitment on behalf of forgotten masterpieces set a powerful trend in the 19th century. As such it is hardly surprising that Franz Schubert occupied a central place in Liszt’s transcriptions and paraphrases. Schubert published his first major piano work, an extended fantasia in C major, in 1822. This four-movement work of large dimensions sported some fiendish technical difficulties that the composer himself was unable to master. Schubert once remarked “Let the Devil play this stuff!” The emotional core of the work emerges in the central Adagio, which presents a set of variations on a passage from the song “Der Wanderer,” composed in 1816. The work quickly earned the nickname “Wanderer Fantasy,” and Liszt saw in it a “piano concerto without orchestra.” As such Liszt took the next logical step and gave the world a proper non-existent piano concerto by Schubert.

Transcriptions form an attractive and popular element in all manner of recitals. And that fact was clearly recognised by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), who fled during the tumultuous times of the Russian Revolution in 1917. To support his family and make a rudimentary living, Rachmaninov was forced to rely on his remarkable gifts as a pianist. The majority of his compositions for solo piano had been written in the years prior to the Revolution, and his recitals in exile invariably included a good number of transcriptions. We find all the usual suspects like Mendelssohn, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Kreisler and Bach, but also such popular tunes as the “Star-Spangled Banner.” His imaginative arrangement of Schubert’s song “Wohin,” from Die Schöne Müllerin dates from 1925, and it preserves much of the original melody over a new rippling accompaniment.

In the first decades of the 19th century Vienna was deeply enamoured with Italian Opera, and especially the works of Gioachino Rossini. This enthusiasm for all things Italian presented young and aspiring composers with the opportunity to take full advantage of this wave of unprecedented musical populism. On the advice of his teacher Antonio Salieri, Franz Schubert quickly composed three Overtures. And tellingly, Schubert’s brother Ferdinand quickly attached the catchy subtitle “in the Italian style” to these compositions. Ferruccio Busoni wasn’t a great fan of Schubert’s music, but when the Leizpig publisher Breitkopf & Härtel approached him for a piano compilation of Schubert Overtures, he reluctantly agreed. Nevertheless, as you can plainly hear, Busoni did take the assignment seriously and produced a gem.

When Adrien-François Servais (1807-66) unexpectedly died in 1866, Cologne newspapers described him as “the greatest artist on the violoncello produced by our century.” High praise indeed, but it was not entirely unexpected. Berlioz and Rossini had already referred to Servais as “the Paganini of the cello” during his lifetime. It is truly a shame that his name has been virtually forgotten. For one, he revolutionised the technique of cello playing, significantly expanded the expressive and overall range of the instrument. Most importantly, he combined a virtuosic left-hand technique with a virtuosic bowing method. And did you know that he invented the metal endpin now commonly fixed below the instrument? Trust me, these innovations come in really handy in the technically devilish set of variations on Schubert’s “Trauerwalzer.”

By Georg Predota. Republished with permission from Interlude, Hong Kong.