A River Franz Through It

Full disclosure: I stole this title from my brother. Good punnery should never go to waste in a Drafts folder, collecting a gentle sifting of e-dust.

I’d like to say that this post was inspired by the lovely river that meanders through my neck of the woods, or inspired by the electric green of spring brought on by lovely soaking rains.  In truth, it was inspired mostly by my washer and dryer and less by rivers and spring and rain.  This proves my point that even if you don’t listen to classical music, it will sneak up on you, and your home appliances are in on the conspiracy.

The first time I heard my washing machine chirp Franz Schubert’s Die Forelle (“The Trout”), I thought I was having some sort of aural hallucination.  Then the dryer did the same thing.  What a refined way to end all of the churning and spinning, instead of a pitch-less and, quite frankly, rude buzzing noise.  Way to go, Samsung! (Can I have my money now?)

It is widely agreed that Die Forelle is Schubert’s most popular art song, and it showcases Schubert’s inimitable gift of turning a simple story into something memorable and extremely pleasing to the ear.  The text was written by poet Christian Friedrich Schubart (yes, that’s an “a”) in 1782, and creates a lovely scene in which a fisherman pursues a rather quick trout, while the poet watches from the riverside.  Employing a strategy beloved by anglers the world over, the fisherman muddies the water, confuses the doomed fish, and catches it. (Schubart does have the good sense to describe the fisherman as being kaltem Blute, cold-blooded.)  Schubert set the poem to a most cheerful piano melody, in which the right hand leaps, trout-like, over sixteenth notes that purposely conjure the image of fish swimming and jumping in the river.

As listeners, we suffer the same fate as that poet standing at the riverside.  We’re drawn in to those alacritous notes and the (for once) cheerful-sounding German text just as he was enjoying a day off from rhyming words by observing an innocent fish bask in its watery paradise.  We’re so drawn in, in fact, that we may not notice when the piano emits some minor arpeggios and the vocal line lowers in register.

Doch endlich ward dem Diebe die Zeit zulang.
Er macht das Bächlein tückish trübe
Und eh ich es gedacht, so zuckte seine Rute,
Das Fischlein, das Fischlein, zappelt dran,
Und ich mit regem Blute Sah die Betrog’ne an.

At last the thief became impatient.
He maliciously made the stream opaque
And I thought, his rod quaked
The fish, the fish was writhing on it,
And I, filled with rage within, looked at the deceived.

We can assume the poet, shoulders slumped, walks back through the woods with his inner rage for company.  Our own inner rage can be directed at Schubert, who lured us in with his vivacious melody and assumption that we could not translate German.  Thus ends the tale of the trout, and the melody has become the Schadenfreude motif of the fisherman instead of the poet.

Here are three noteworthy recordings: