This Sunday we celebrate the birthday of Viennese composer and songsmith extraordinaire Franz Schubert. As a pioneer of the song cycle genre with over six hundred songs written for solo voice and piano to his credit, he has clearly earned a place in the art song pantheon.
The music of Schubert has naturally found a home on many Fourth Coast concerts. ‘Die Forelle’, heard here in an arrangement for vocal quartet and piano, kicked off our ‘What a Zoo!’ program, which I had the pleasure of curating two seasons ago.
Composed in 1817 when Schubert was barely twenty years old, the song tells the tale of the titular trout and a meddlesome fisherman. The cheerful melody in the piano depicts the lively fish swimming about in the clear water as the fisherman attempts to catch it. The fisherman grows impatient and muddies the waters in order to trick the trout; the fish is caught! Here Schubert likewise muddies the musical waters with thick, crunchy chords in the left hand of the piano, returning to the original theme as the trout emerges from the water hooked on the fishing line.
I am always struck by the imagery that jumps off the page in a Schubert song. Using only the keys of a piano and the voice of a singer he is able to conjure vivid depictions of nearly any subject; from the pounding of horses’ feet in ‘Erlkönig’, to the incessant turning of the spinning wheel in ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, to the lively antics of the trout in ‘Die Forelle’. To think that he achieved this in only thirty-one short years of life makes one wonder what could have been.
Alles Gute zum Geburtstag, Herr Schubert!
This performance was recorded live on June 2, 2019 at the Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park with pianist Kuang-Hao Huang. Audio by Joshua Sauvageau.
Many singers don’t regularly get to make chamber music in its purest form. More often, vocalists are either soloists - one individual soaring over other instruments and voices - or choristers - tasked with blending into a large cohesive sonic whole. While both of these singing arenas demand expert applications of vocal artistry (and which all four of us also love to do!), there is something uniquely special about vocal chamber music.
In my former musical life as a violist, chamber music was by far my favorite means of music making. Playing in an orchestra was exhilarating, but you could barely hear the viola part in the hall much of the time (cue the viola jokes now). Conversely, I missed the collaborative process of musical interplay when working on solo works, and there aren’t many really excellent viola pieces in the standard student repertoire (cue more viola jokes). But playing in a string quartet? Every note I played really mattered. The works were breathtaking. Constant eye contact and breathing together with the violins and cello kept us in active communication through each moment. We got to make real artistic decisions - not just following a conductor’s lead - and we got to make them collectively. Each person had to be both soloist and collaborator to the fullest extent of their abilities. It was bliss.
After realizing during college that my musical life was shifting from being "a violist who sang" to "a soprano who played the viola," I didn’t initially realize what I was losing in this area. As a career in singing began to take form, I loved the opportunities to solo and was thrilled by singing in some phenomenal choruses, but I missed the interplay of chamber music. A couple of chamber choir experiences came close, but nothing was really like my viola experiences. Nothing, that is, until I joined Fourth Coast Ensemble.
This group is special, and a rare experience to have as a singer. I get to make gorgeous music with colleagues who I genuinely admire, whose artistry continues to blow me away, and with whom I get to regularly collaborate in ways that make us each better. Each singer is unique, and we get to showcase that in our solo repertoire, but the total experience is greater than the sum of its parts. The challenge and pleasure of working on blend, matching one another’s phrases, vowels and cutoffs with exactitude, while also knowing that every note of every singer is vitally important? It takes everything I have and have trained for, and is the most joyous music-making I get to do.
All of this leads us to Schumann’s “So war die Sonne scheinet,” the final movement of his grand Minnespiel song cycle for four voices. Schumann is a master composer of both lieder and instrumental chamber music (check out his String Quartet No. 1 in A minor - it’s a favorite of mine!), and it shows here. He asks the four singers to match one another in richly blended chords, and also gives each one the opportunity to stand out from the group. Plus it involves the additional bonus of a beautifully rich piano part, here expertly played by Fourth Coast board chair and regular collaborator Dr. Dana Brown.
Think of it like a string quartet for voices. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble each week for insights into our favorite art songs, links to archival and new recordings, and reflections on why we value and continue to come back to this musical medium. We proudly present, your weekly #artsongfix!