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:

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On Needing A Classical Woot Beer

OK, that joke may be a little inside even for us. The Sibs both babysat a pair of brothers in years gone by, the younger of whom had an adorable speech impediment even at age 5 or 6 or so, such that his r’s became w’s (it’s called a “rhotacism,” and with its long ‘o’ is not to be confused with “eroticism.” Check that, those two probably do meet up somewhere, but I won’t be the one to find out where.). Anyway, this little creature sauntered up to the counter at a swim club one fine summer morning and announced, “I NEEEEED a woot be-aw!” It was quite hilarious, and at least one of us never forgot it. Poor kid, having been exposed to the double barrels of these Sibilant Siblings, he’s probably carjacking someone right now.

Well, in adulthood (defined by Will Truman as, “I wear suits and stuff”) we can still have desperate need of a woot beer, and many other things besides. One of those, of course, is a particular piece of music, or passage within a piece of music, or a few notes within a passage of a piece of music (yes, that’s right). Today, for me, with grey skies blanketing the city and a steady drizzle on (vastly preferable to hazy humidity), I suddenly had a burning need to hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s prelude in G minor.

It is a rousing, stirring, yet supple piece of music. Here is the one and only Vladimir Horowitz playing it with verve and precision; the former is especially wonderful, as he seems to nearly break the piano! I also like Horowitz’s deliberate tempo; I have a recording of Ashkenazy playing it, which I love, but he blazes right through it. Horowitz builds the power of the piece with his pregnant pauses. As did the Pied Piper. Try listening to this and not wanting to march with some colorful, highly festooned European military unit before World War I!

The prelude is numbered 5, out of 10 in Opus 23, though it was written first. Ashkenazy’s take: “an unmistakable Russian intensity, strong lyrical melodies, and changes of character that range from sublime sweetness to passionate virtuosity.” That about encompasses it, Volodya.

And what of the man who wrote it? Schonberg’s treatment of Rachmaninov is fascinating. Among the more memorable (pun) tidbits:

His memory was not only all-encompassing; it was actually frightening. He could hear a piece of music–a symphony, say–and play it back not only the next day but the next year or the decade after that. He had the kind of musical mind that automatically absorbs sound-impressions or sight-impressions. From ear and eye to brain and fingers was an instantaneous process.

The rest of the chapter, dealing with why Rachmaninov is unfairly maligned by critics and historians, is a worthy read. I agree with his statement that Russian nationalism is present in Rachmaninov’s music. From the first listen on, I seem to hear some sort of thundering pan-Slavic melody in this prelude. Wikipedia backs me up–apparently Soviet troops were treated to a rendition by Emil Gilels during World War II, to remind them what they were fighting for (memory skills! no?). Ashkenazy also clearly agrees.

Rightly or no, sometimes it is a woot beer-level listening need.