Old Friend Notes


Our friendly December show is right around the corner, and here's your chance to read up on what we'll be performing before you even walk in the door! We have a note from Gabriel on his new piece and a "fantasia" on Schubert and his last quartet by our resident musicologist, Kathryn Bacasmot. (The notes for all the songs will be delivered from the stage, Schubertiade-style!) 

Gabriel Kahane: Freight and Salvage

Freight & Salvage, for string orchestra, is an exploration of the relationship between my work as a songwriter on the one hand, and my work in more formal musical environments, e.g., the concert hall in which you are sitting, on the other! As much as Freight & Salvage sounds little like Schubert or Mahler, it is nevertheless deeply indebted to both of those titans, in the sense that as master songwriters, they found ways to re-use and deepen material from their songs in larger instrumental works. In writing this piece, I thought a great deal about Schubert's journey that led him to his final instrumental masterpieces, and in particular, the last three string quartets, piano sonatas, and the cello quintet.

From an architectural standpoint, however, Freight & Salvage is much more indebted to Bartok, who was a great proponent of the arch form, which is the structure I've used in this piece. To understand an arch form, imagine that a mirror is held up to the first half of a piece, so that the second half resembles the first half, but with the themes or sections played in the opposite order in which they first appeared. In this case, the form is A-B-C-D-C-B-A, followed by the coda, and the entire form (excepting the coda) is a mirror image of itself. The outer most part of the form (A) is a chaotic, fragmented paroxysm of scattered bits of information that nevertheless contains all the DNA for the whole piece. This is followed by a lyrical section (B) that gradually picks up steam until we reach (C), an energetic tune with a bit of a lilt. This is followed by (D), the figurative center-of-the-onion, after which the sections re-appear in reverse order (C - B - A), finally giving way to the coda, in which the original (song) source material is revealed. 

- Gabriel Kahane


Franz Schubert: String Quartet in G major, D. 887

He was the son of a schoolmaster who auditioned for Antonio Salieri and gained membership in
the imperial Hofkapelle (now the Vienna Boys Choir). Despite his training and opportunities, 
and the support of a music-loving family with whom he played chamber music as a child, his
need for income guided him back to the family profession: school teaching. That proved
unsatisfying, and he embarked on a lifetime of composing and wandering, never really having a
stable home—but perhaps never really wanting one. Schubert was never going to be the kind of
person who would schmooze with the aristocracy. He seemingly preferred the company of his
“Bildung circle,” a small group of friends who pursued intellectual and cultural self-
improvement together, and his Schubertiads where his works could be performed in an intimate
setting being heard by people who were more interested in actively listening than being
entertained. He was apparently a man of extremes; cordial and jovial, yet haunted by deep
melancholy and a snap of temper, and whenever he was flush with money he immediately spent
it on things like drinks and concerts with friends (on one occasion he bought tickets to see

At age twenty Schubert had written an astonishing amount of music, including five symphonies, 
hundreds of songs, and a host of other works—but had no public recognition at all. The sheer
volume astonished Beethoven who apparently was shown scores of Schubert’s pieces on his
deathbed. By then Schubert was thirty years old, and the amount had swelled to nine symphonies
(in varying levels of completion), six hundred songs, dozens of chamber works, multiple masses
and more. For perspective, by the time Beethoven was that age, he was premiering his first
symphony. One year after Beethoven’s death a concert was held on the exact anniversary date of
his passing. The music would be entirely by Schubert, the first time he presented an entire
evening of his own works for the public. Included on that program was the first movement of
what would turn out to be his last quartet, the G major. Coincidentally the work was performed
by the Schuppanzigh quartet (minus Schuppanzigh, himself, who was indisposed that evening), 
the same group that premiered Beethoven’s last quartet, the op. 135. Strangely, both final
quartets were written the same year, in 1826. Eight months after the concert Schubert was dead, 
too, at age thirty-one. Though their respective last quartets were linked by circumstance, there is
no record that the two composers ever met in person, though they lived and worked in the same
city, Vienna, for Schubert’s entire life. 

In Schubert’s final song cycle, Winterreise, the protagonist address a lonely organ grinder to
whom “no one wants to listen, no one looks at...” by pondering in the last stanza: “Strange old
man, shall I go with you? Will you grind your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?” It begs us to wonder if
Schubert feared his works would go unrecalled by future generations, his name forgotten. 
Though he certainly had brushes with notoriety during his own lifetime, his submissions to
publishers were sometimes returned with the excuse that the musical language was “too difficult
for trifles,” and that “...the public does not yet sufficiently and generally understand the peculiar, 
often ingenious, but perhaps now and then somewhat curious procedures of your mind's
creations.” What did the audience think hearing the stark major/minor chords that open the G
major quartet for the first time? How did they hear it when their ears were used to the likes of
Mozart and Rossini? How fitting that the memory of Beethoven was in the space when Schubert
unveiled the scope and drama of the quartet. It was, after all, thanks to these two men that the
genre was pushed out from private quarters and private entertainment and forced to encompass
entire emotional worlds, and contain the potency of the symphonic realm within the confines of
limited players. For that, among many other reasons, Schubert will never be forgotten.