My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Images of snow and ice, images of a frozen heart - "Wasserflut (Floodwater)" & "Auf dem Flusse (On the River)"

Franz Schubert was a master at using keys and their relation to one another to create specific atmospheres and to link material together. In a song cycle, these types of connections have the same effect as a leading sentence at the end of a thrilling book's chapter has - it makes it almost impossible not to turn the page, or in music, to continue with the next song. Such is the case with the last song I wrote about, "Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree)" and the following two songs in Winterreise, "Wasserflut (Floodwater)" and "Auf dem Flusse (On the River)."

"Der Lindenbaum" begins and ends in D major. With the exception of the brief winter wind that sweeps through it, to me the song represents comfort and peace. But with the start of the next song, "Wasserflut," that warmth is immediately frozen with the simple change of one note, F# into F-natural. We are now in the key of D minor, a much darker, icier key and I can picture this sudden subtle change in the face and heart of our traveler. How appropriate for a song that talks of frozen tears falling into snow, ice breaking apart, burning woe, and burning tears; for a song in which Schubert indicated several times that the voice part should be sung "stark," which translates to "driving, violent," or "intense."

Schubert further highlights this changed atmosphere by pitting two rhythms against one another repeatedly - slow triplet eighth notes and dotted rhythms.

These rhythms bring us to a major question of interpretation which I've been grappling with for the past weekend and am just now coming to my own opinion.  (Thank you Twitter friends for voicing your opinions!)  In a lot of music before Schubert, when dotted rhythms were placed alongside triplet rhythms, the custom was to play the dotted rhythms so that the sixteenth note at the end would line up with the final triplet note, thereby reducing the snappiness of the dotted rhythm.  In my music for this piece, there is actually a note stating that the composer's autograph copy indicates that this practice should also be followed in the case of "Wasseflut." If I chose to do this, here is what the introduction and the beginning of the first verse would sound like this:

Many performers, however, don't follow this practice, preserving the dotted rhythm as written which to my ears, creates a powerful tension between the two rhythms.  Here's the introduction again, played this way...

So what am I going to do? I'm going to try the latter version but of course I will need to keep the singer's preference in mind when we put it together. This is also one of those things that might change with each performance, causing just a bit of anxiety as I constantly wonder which way is most effective. With that question solved, at least for now, we come to the end of "Wasserflut" and wonder what will come next. Here is the transition between these songs...

We're still in the same key of D minor but with the simple piano introduction, it seems as if our french-horn player has found enough will within him to start walking again. While he walks, his mind and heart mirror the frozen stream that is beside him. After two brief verses in D major, as he remembers his beloved again and their first moments together, the piano comes to an abrupt pause, a cliff-hanger, before returning to the plodding, sorrowful march for the last verse.

I believe that Schubert reveals his genius yet again in this final verse of "Auf dem Flusse." The opening material returns but the voice's melody is now taken over almost entirely by the piano part and is played in the left hand. Why does he do this? Well, I like to think that the piano part is the reflection of our main character in the frozen stream...

My heart, do you now recognize
Your image in this brook?
Is there not beneath its crust
Likewise a seething torrent?

The piano part takes over the storm and pain that runs beneath the frozen ice, leaving the voice part to become a spectator, only stepping in to join the river when the pain becomes too much to bear.

Brilliant. Utterly brilliant.
I am starting to get it.

I have to turn the page. How about you?

Here are videos of tenor Ian Bostridge performing these two songs with pianist Julius Drake. Don't forget to breathe...they are breathtaking!


"Auf dem Flusse"

Click here to see translations of these songs.

Other posts in this Winterreise series:
Finding a place of comfort: Winterreise's "Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree)"
"Sturm und Drang" encapsulated in song:  Winterreise's "Rückblick (Backward Glance)"
No rest for the weary: "Irrlicht (Will-o'-the-wisp)" and "Rast (Rest)"
Experiencing a lucid dream through music: Winterreise's "Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring)"
On the edge of a dream: "Einsamkeit (Loneliness)"
Lifted above despair: Winterreise's "Die Post (The Post)"
Choosing a different path: "Der greise Kopf (The Grey Head)" and "Die Krähe (The Crow)"

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