Schubert & the Violin

Posted on December 21st, 2013 by

Over the next few weeks, I will be announcing details of ‘Schubert & the Violin’. This will be a long-term project of performances, recordings, research and writing looking at Schubert through his long term involvement with the violin.  In the past, I have done a lot of work (recording and performing) the early ‘concertante’ works for violin and orchestra, and the late quartets, quintet, and violin/piano works have long been central to the work . But I would like to recalibrate a little, and begin by fanning outwards from the three sonatas of 1816. These pieces, often treated as ‘sonatinas’, which they are not, provide insight into this composer’s complex relationship with string playing tradition which he grew up as part of.

But here’s a small beginning. Schubert’s only surviving work for solo violin, his 8 Ländler dated ‘February 1816’, the year of the three sonatas. Recorded with a wonderful ‘Cramer model’ bow, from the turn of the 18th/19th Centuries.

Franz Schubert-8 Ländler (1816)

Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Workshop Recording. Wapping 21 12 13

Cramer Model Bow, with my worked copy of Schubert's '8 Ländler' 1816

Cramer Model Bow, with my worked copy of Schubert’s ‘8 Ländler’ 1816

Playing Ernst's transcription of Schubert's 'Erlkonig', surrounded by the work of Meriele Neudecker, Tate St IVes, 2004. Photo: Richard Bram

Playing Ernst’s transcription of Schubert’s ‘Erlkonig’, surrounded by the work of Meriele Neudecker, Tate St Ives, 2004. Photo: Richard Bram


The View from the end…

Discussion continues within the Quartet as to where Schubert’s crazy late violin writing comes from. Imagine him handing the last movement of the G major Quartet to his violinist brother Ferdinand. One supposes that the initial reaction would have been: “What the hell is this?”! However, if we go back ten years, and look at the two major concertante works composed for Ferdinand, we will see that nothing had really changed. Judging by the coda of the giant Rondo for violin and strings, the two of them share a long-term predeliction for really nutsy arpeggio writing in awkard keys.

Schubert’s early relationship with the violin has been largely over looked. There are three concertante works for violin, dating from the second decade of the nineteenth century, and two of them, the well known Rondo for violin and strings, as well as the Konzertstuck, which is to all intents and purposes, a violin concerto, use the violin in startlingly brilliant manner. In fact, this kind of writing is sprinkled all across Schubert’s output, bespeaking an anticipation of virtuosity from his leaders, which perhaps sits a little uncomfortably with the pseudo-democratic notion of chamber music with which later observers and critics applied to the Viennese tradition. The flashing scales of Schubert’s Quartettsatz of 1820, clearly belie this, and speak of an expectation of transcendent playing; this may help to explain Schubert’s later rapture over Paganini.

Not much is known about Ferdinand Schubert as player, or his training. He was an amateur musician, that much is clear. But amateurism was a status which certainly did not necessarily indicate lower standards, and to a degree, with the demise of patronage, and the rise of a new type of concert giving, many musicians were forced into other professions who otherwise would have been able to live as salaried artists.

In 1826, Schubert met for the first time with the Bohemian violinist Josef Slawik. Slawik was not in Vienna to meet with Schubert, whose fame had scarcely penetrated the confines of the city. Slawik had come to the city to try and obtain composition lessons with the one time second violin of the Schuppanzigh Quartet, the Polonaise King, Josef Mayseder. Mayseder was one of the most highly regarded performing composers in the city; Beethoven himself would describe him as “The Genius Boy.” Mayseder was too busy-this was the height of the Polonaise craze, and this no doubt left him not needing, and probably disinclined to give lessons, which were usually the way that a starving composer without a benefactor kept the wolf from the door. So Slawik had to settle for the less desirable option of playing chamber music and studying with the 29 year Schubert. Mayseder never travelled, but this was not a measure of some weakness of musicality or technique. Ehrlich pointed out that “Paganini, who heard in in Vienna, quickly recognised his brilliant technique and stule of playing.” [Erhlich 69]

When Chopin met Slawik for the first time in 1830, he was similarly impressed:

  “I met Slawik, a fine violinist, though still quite young; 26 at the most. I liked him after Paganini, better than anyone. He also to a fancy to my noble self, and we agreed to write a piano and violin piece together. An idea which occurred to me in Warsaw. He is a great violinist of real genius.”

In December of the same year, he wrote:

 “Since Paganini, I have heard nothing like him; he can take 96 notes staccato on one bow, and so on; incredible-then I started getting homesick for the piano and come back with the intention of writing out the Adagio  if the variations on a Beethoven theme, which we are writing together.”

In 1831:

  “Slawik is one of the few local artists whom I enjoy and with whom I get on. He played like another Paganini, but a rejuvenated Paganini, sometimes surpassing the first one. He strikes his hearers down, he makes people weep; more he makes tigers weep.”

It is quite impossible to imagine the last string quartet of Schubert, or more particularly, the string quintet, which was completed in the last few weeks of his life, without the impact of these new breed of virtuosi being recognized. I feel that I need to say new breed, as Paganini was very much prima inter pares; there were many emerging, beginning to supplant the lyrical discipline of the post revolutionary French violinists with a new kind of romantic rapture, and to a degree, gothic oddity. They were truly the violinists of their time.

One of the great tragedies of the violin repertoire is that Chopin and Slawik never wrote, or maybe never completed, a work that they were discussing writing together. This would have been a set of variations for violin and piano, on a theme by Beethoven. Of course, Chopin did write a joint work , his Introducion and Polonaise , with the cellist Auguste Joseph Franchomme (1808-1884); to reiterate, this is not a piece by Chopin, but a piano part by Chopin and a cello part by Franchomme-both hands appear in the manuscript. This was the type of collaboration that the Pole and the Czech had in mind, but they never actually did it. Or so it was thought. Manuscripts in Chopin’s hand of an uncompleted work for violin and piano have surfaced in the Pierpont Morgan library in New York. Tantalisingly, these were owned by Franchomme at some point; but it is too soon to tell.

However, Slawik’s arrival in Vienna, as a proto-Paganini, before and after the fact, and his presence there at the time that Paganini was in the city was a crucial force in Schubert’s approach to the violin. The impact of his transcendent virtuosity can be felt, not only in his approach to the violin, but also for the piano. This resulted in three important pieces, the B minor Rondeau Brilliant, the C Major Fantaisie, and the almost unplayable violin part of the last string quartet, the G major-Minor quartet, which was premiered with Slawik leading, and Schubert himself playing the viola part.

Slawik’s influence primed Schubert for the arrival of Paganini. Schubert had a benefit concert in Vienna, the night thatPaganini was making his much anticipated debut. Schubert was less upset by this than one might have expected; it is worth noting that the receipts that Schubert netted from his were roughly 30 times less than the amount that Paganini raked in from his performance.

The following day, Schubert wrote to his friend Bauernfeld: “I tell you, you have to come-you shall never see the fellow’s like again. And I have stacks of money now, so come on!” As a result of his performance, Schubert was able to buy tickets for Paganini’s expensive concert.

It had been as a result of Paganini’s diplomatic contacts in Rome that he eventually found his way to Vienna. The Temple Bar magazine remembered:

“ While he played the greatest violin authorities known in Vienna, violinists of European fame like Mayseder, Boehm etc, stood there perfectly annihilated, the head drooping, the tears in their eyes, as if the revelation of Paganini’s playing had  shown them how small they were, and Boehm said to an old friend of mine, how often afterwards repeated it ‘ I should consider myself wanting, not in modesty but in common decency, if I ever played in public again.’” (This from the violinist who Beethoven entrusted with the true premiere of his Op 127 in 1825)

Such was the wild enthusiasm that Paganini’s playing aroused in the Austrian capital, that a medal was forged to honour him, much to the disgust of the correspondent of the Hamburg  Borsenhalle. The inscription on the medal read: “Vienna 1828. Perituris sonis no peritur a Gloria. “ (Whilst the sounds might perish, the Glory, never…)

The Hamburg ‘Borsenhalle’ 20th December, 1828:

         ‘Oh foolish world ! O marvellous taste of the enthusiastic Viennese !  Never have I fallen so suddenly from my heaven as through this – virtuoso.  I cannot understand how people who have heard Romberg, Rode, Spohr, Lafont etc., can lend their ears for a single moment to such Harlequinades as these.  I attended one of his concerts, and never again will he see me at another.  He possesses great facility in the left hand, which can be attained by practice, without possessing talent, genius, spirit, feeling, or understanding, it is a purely mechanical facility. The principal features that are repeated indefinitely are an unbearable squeaking near the bridge which is no well-regulated tune at all, but only a chirping of sparrows-and then, at the end of each variation, a rapid pizzicato with the left hand, consisting of six notes; something that every fiddler, if he desires to learn so useless a thing, can acquire with half-a-year’s practice.           His compositions (and he plays only his own, which he has probably performed two thousand times in the last fifteen years) are beneath all criticism.  The so-called ‘Campanella’, over which the Viennese almost went insane, what is it?  The following: – In the orchestra someone strikes a small bell twice, ‘pik, pik’.  He goes up there, takes an harmonic on the E-string and moves his bow from the lower part upward, so that the result exhibits a very distinct resemblance to the tone of the bell; but which, after all, only sounds like two harmonics on the violin.  His solitary pair of notes, which almost every violinist here imitates – this is the whole ‘Bell-Rondo’. His bowing is the most miserable conceivable; there is not a single musician here to whom it would ever occur to break his violin in despair (as has been said was done in Vienna), but they laugh at him and at the Viennese. His facility in a few useless and unpleasant artificialities will be acknowledged, and after that – ‘Basta!’

It was even suggested at the time that Paganini may himself have been responsible for the above article to raise voices in his defence, but it didn’t have that effect.  This unpleasant review was printed, and that was the end of the matter as far as Paganini was concerned.

The most consistent distinguishing feature of the beginning of Schubert’s performing and composing life was his collaboration with his brother, the violinist Ferdinand Schubert. It is very clear that Ferdinand was no mean violinist, as anyone who has performed the early Rondo in A for violin and strings knows; this is extremely knotty, even awkward violin writing. Perhaps Schubert’s late encounter with these two extraordinary violin virtuosi reminded him of his early excitement as to the excitement, the power of instrumental brilliance. In many ways, the lyricism of the early and late Rondos, the Fantasie, and the last quartet  arises from putting the players in extremis, ‘throwing them off the side of a cliff.’ It would be left for Wilhelm Ernst to take the implications of this to the maximum, with his notorious, and wondrous, version of the Erl-King!

Schubert-B minor Rondo

Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin (Stradivari 1714 ‘Maurin’)
Aaron Shorr-Piano
Live Performance-Svendborg ‘Guldsalen’ 1996