Sharps and Flats

By Michael Ullman
May 30, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)
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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.)

Michael Ullman

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

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