Quartets for Four Solo Voices

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Published April 30, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Toward the end of his short life, Franz Schubert stated his artistic credo in a letter to his
brother Ferdinand: "I shall never turn my inmost feeling to personal or political account. What I
feel in my heart I give to the world and there is an end to it." By "the world," he first meant his
friends, who tended to be accomplished amateur musicians. One of the most beautiful vocal
quartets included on this new Arabesque disc is the heroic, and finally serene, "Gebet," or
"Prayer," a 10-minute song that Schubert wrote in a single afternoon at the request of the
Countess Esterhazy. The next night Schubert accompanied on piano as the Esterhazy family sang
"Gebet." The piece is tactful as well as exquisitely lyrical: Each singer sings a solo passage, the
men tending to stress their willingness to do battle for the Lord, and the women or the whole
quartet stressing the peace and tranquillity that will result from being the deity's messenger even "in the quiet of home."
The vocal quartet was one of the most popular musical genres in Schubert's Germany,
where they were sung at home and by various singing fraternities. Half of the pieces here are
sacred, or at least prayerful, even if the deity involved is something as romantic as the "spirit of
love" or "the Infinite One." No one but Schubert could have written the gracefully flowing
melody of the beginning of "Geist der Liebe" (Spirit of Love), with its gentle evocation of the
evening spreading over the fields. The spirit that "enthralls all things that tremble with life's
pulse" -- Schubert renders the trembling with repeated chords and a suddenly agitated
vocal line -- is eventually called upon to lead a youth to his love.
"Widerspruch" presents us with a common problem among romantics: the hopeless restlessness of a hero who exuberantly proclaims his yearning for eternity, particularly when he is stuck at home. (In the mountains, the singer feels small, overwhelmed by the majesty of the
natural world.)
The warmth, simple grace, heartfelt expressiveness and humanity of these pieces, and even the occasional humor found in the agitated sections of "The Nightingale," make it easy to account for their popularity in Schubert's day. But the genre disappeared with the 19th century -- this is the only current recording I know of these modest masterpieces, which are beautifully sung and well recorded. The only criticism of the production is that it would have been helpful if we had the original German texts as well as the prose translations that Arabesque provides. Every fan of classical music should hear these exquisite renderings of what Schubert felt in his heart and gave freely to his friends -- and to posterity.

By Michael Ullman

Michael Ullman is a jazz writer and lecturer in the music department of Tufts University.

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