As we come to the end of 2020, we may wonder. Where do we go from here? Now what?
It’s in that spirit that I invoke a Schubert song, “Wohin” from his cycle Die Schöne Müllerin.
First there was a poem written by Wilhelm Müller. Schubert makes a cycle of songs from some of Müller’s poems, including this one.
Ich hört’ ein Bächlein rauschen
Wohl aus dem Felsenquell,
Hinab zum Tale rauschen
So frisch und wunderhell.
I hear a creek rustling, from its source, descending into the valley so fresh & clear.
Ich weiss nicht, wie mir wurde,
Nicht, wer den Rat mir gab,
Ich musste auch hinunter
Mit meinem Wanderstab.
I don’t know what made me follow with my walking-stick
Hinunter und immer weiter
Und immer dem Bache nach,
Und immer heller rauschte,
Und immer heller der Bach.
Downwards and ever further, and always beside the brooklet, clearer, fresher…
Ist das denn meine Strasse?
O Bächlein, sprich, wohin?
Du hast mit deinem Rauschen
Mir ganz berauscht den Sinn.
Is this then my path? Speak to me little brook, which way? Your sounds intoxicate my senses.
Was sag’ ich denn vom Rauschen?
Das kann kein Rauschen sein:
Es singen wohl die Nixen
Tief unten ihren Reihn.
What do I say to the murmurs, that are the singing of the water-nymphs.
Lass singen, Gesell, lass rauschen,
Und wandre fröhlich nach!
Es gehn ja Mühlenräder
In jedem klaren Bach.
Let them sing, friend, and wander near. The millwheel goes in every clear stream…. And one may wonder where one can still find a clear unpolluted brook with a millwheel. Sigh….
So let’s listen to a version of Schubert’s song “Wohin”.
When baritone Thomas Quasthoff sings, it’s 2:14 in length.
Or there’s Mattias Goerne, much longer at 2:44. I prefer the more reflective pace, the river still intoxicating but the observer lost in thought.
When I was young I usually accompanied baritones (beginning with Peter Barcza) so it feels natural that baritone performances were and remain a starting point on the journey.
It’s not just because I’m a tenor that I prefer tenor versions, but this has come to feel more natural to me, perhaps because I emerged from the “cocoon” of my early role as an accompanist, to sing the songs myself (although with Schubert attempting to sing & play at once can be as slippery as the rocks in his little stream). But listen for example to Fritz Wunderlich who does it in 2:26….. Was there ever a prettier voice singing this?
Like Schubert, he died young.
Or Peter Schreier, 2.22 who recently left us.
Now of course Schubert lives on in other forms. There’s the inevitable piano transcription from Franz Liszt. Notice that Liszt seems to have the piano sing the song, so we have both the brook and the singing voice as though it were an observer of the cascades of notes: that originally flow through Schubert’s score, albeit with more subtlety.
Liszt regularly edits the songs in his transcriptions. For instance he chooses to repeat the line “O Bächlein, sprich, wohin?”…It is a stunning idea, really. The observer is paralyzed, wondering which way to go. Why not repeat it? And he’ll do the same thing at the last line of this middle section (“Du hast mit deinem Rauschen /Mir ganz berauscht den Sinn.”). Why not repeat that affirmation of the intoxicating powers of the stream? Liszt will add a bit extra towards the end as well. Part of me marvels at the new creation, its beauty & self-assurance: while the fundamentalist inside me proclaims that the original is still best…Schubert’s subtlety matching Müller.
How wonderful that we don’t have to choose. We have both.
And then later we’d get Rachmaninoff literally at piano. This is a piano roll of Rachmaninoff himself. It’s 2:06, much faster than the actual song. I doubt whether Rachmaninoff would play it this way in a live performance, with no space for reflection. There’s little romance when you’re showing off. But it’s a piano roll after all, the audience to applaud you is virtual.
Shades of 2020.
Let me find a more reflective reading of Rachmaninoff. I love this piece, and have even played it as a postlude in church a couple of times. The first time was at new years, aware that the song is really a meditation on the future & the possible paths we might follow.
Whatever paths you follow, whether you become intoxicated by beauty or keep a safe distance, I wish you a happy New Year.