Great Music: Chapter 11
This week Great Music returns to the Classical music world. The performance of Franz Schubert’s Impromptu Opus 90, #3 in Gb Major
In the Classical period of music, composers did not give their musical compositions a name, like popular music does. Each piece of music is usually identified by it’s key signature, in this case Gb Major which uses 6 flats (Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb and the infamous Cb). The reason I call Cb infamous is most flats your drop down to the next black note but with Cb one drops down to the next white note, a B natural. The term opus refers to a collection of musical works with this particular piece being opus 90 and the third piece in that collection of four impromptus. For any given composer the opus number is normally a chronological catalog of music. Opus 90 means this is Schubert’s 90th book of music of the 128 opus collections he produced in his lifetime.
Franz Schubert was born in 1797 and died in 1828 only 31 years old. The particular musical piece I have chosen to showcase Schubert was written in 1827, a year before his death from Typhoid fever or mercury poisoning or Syphilis, controversy remains. Typical of the period, his father was a teacher in a local Vienna music school and Franz early musical training was from his father, When older, he became a music teacher in his father’s school but absolutely hated the grind of teaching. But in order to support himself he had to continue teaching while trying to sell his musical compositions. It was a difficult way to make a living and Franz wrote literally hundreds of pieces of music to barely support himself. He never married having been turned down by as a suitor by the tough marriage laws of the time which required proof of the man’s ability to support a family, something Franz could never prove.
In this particular Impromptu, Schubert uses a rolling chords in the right hand to provide an musical environment for simple single note melodies. This is a technique that Liszt later adopted in his piece UN SOSPIRO. Liszt came to Vienna after Schubert died and may have been influenced by Schubert’s work. The performer I have chosen to showcase Schubert is a Polish pianist, Krystian Zimmerman who in my mind is the best interpreter of Schubert’s music.
The reason for the picture of a Steinway piano to headline this article is to make a point about pianos, specifically Steinways. Steinway has two factories producing its pianos, the original one in Hamburg, Germany and a new one to serve the U.S. market in Brooklyn. Zimmerman’s concert grand is one from Hamburg and to trained musical ears, one can tell the difference between Hamburg and Brooklyn Steinways, Both factories produce exquisite, hand built, awesome, but expensive pianos. However, in Europe there are still many old growth trees to harvest where the wood is more dense than in the United States where old growth trees are much rarer and difficult to obtain. The dense wood in the Hamburg pianos produce a soundboard with a richer deeper sound than what U.S. forests produce. We are fortunate to have two Hamburg Steinway Grands in our home. The first one we obtained after paying the equivalent of a house for it. How the second one came to us is an interesting story in itself.
One day we got a call from a retired doctor in his early 70’s and he said “ I HAVE to learn to play the piano”. Most piano student inquiries start with the words “ I would LIKE to learn to play the piano”. The use of the word HAVE to, intrigued us so we said come over and lets try it. He was a complete beginner unable to even play “Mary had a little lamb” or Yankee Doodle. We were straight with him and said he faced a long and difficult journey to even play pieces of intermediate difficulty. He was firm and said he had no choice but to try.
As the interview unfolded, his Life story became clear. He had been a physician in Germany and was married to Maria, a concert pianist who toured all through Europe on the Concert Stage. In their late 40’s they moved to the United States so he could take advanced training in surgical techniques at Mt Sinai hospital in NYC. They decided to stay here and had a wonderful and fulfilling life. But about 5 years before the doctor’s visit to our home, his wife, Maria had a massive stroke and died. He said he missed Maria so much, especially the sound of her playing the piano most of every day they had lived together. The silence was too much to bear. Thus came his desire to fill their marital home with the piano sounds that brought Maria near to him in memory.
I can’t remember a student who worked as hard and diligently learning the piano as this doctor. He became an adequate pianist but not in Maria’s league. When he went into an Assisted Living facility he brought Maria’s piano with him and installed it in the facility’s “Activity Room”. We continued to teach him and many times he invited all the people to come while he played for them while asking my wife and I to also play for the Assisted Living people. These mini concerts went on, at least a couple times a month for 3 years. When he died, he bequeathed us Maria’s piano along with 40 huge boxes of music she accumulated in her lifetime.
The words in his will stated “ he wanted Maria’s Steinway Concert Grand, to produce music and give joy to everyone who heard it for several more lifetimes”. Our students love to play her piano and anyone who touches that piano learns the story of Maria. We have already made provision in our own will to bequeath Maria’s piano to one of our own former students who now teaches piano and who will keep Maria’s memory alive. When my wife Cinder sits down to play Maria’s piano, in my eyes she is transformed and the music has an additional dimension that is not of this world.