Recital: Marie-Elise Boyer '23 DMA, Collaborative Piano
In the course of completing the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at New England Conservatory, performance majors present not just one, but three full-length recitals, for which they also write program notes. It's an opportunity to observe multiple facets of an emerging artist.
Marie-Elise Boyer ‘23 DMA studies Collaborative Piano with Cameron Stowe and Jonathan Feldman and is the recipient of a scholarship made possible by the Ken and Barbara Burnes Scholarship Fund.
Marie-Elise Boyer will be playing a Pianoforte built and provided by Rodney Regier
This is an in-person event with a private stream available to the NEC community here: https://necmusic.edu/live
Franz Schubert | Die Winterreise, D. 911
Auf dem Flusse
Der greise Kopf
Der stürmische Morgen
SCHUBERT’S WINTERREISE ON SCHUBERT’S PIANO
“I feel I am the unhappiest, most wretched man in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again and who by despairing about it always makes the matter worse instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most auspicious hopes have been brought to nothingness, to whom the joy of love and friendship has nothing to offer but pain at best, whose enthusiasm (at least of the creative kind) for beauty threatens to vanish, and ask yourself — is not this a wretched unhappy man? 'Meine Ruh ist hin, mein Herz ist schwer, ich finde sie nimmer und nimmermehr' — so indeed I can now sing every day, for every night when I go to sleep I hope never to wake again, and every morning serves only to remind me of the previous day's misery.”
Franz Schubert, March 1824
When Franz Schubert wrote his longest and arguably greatest song cycle Die Winterreise (literally “the winter journey”), on poems by Wilhelm Müller, he was himself at the dusk of his life – a fact that may establish this work as a reflection of Schubert’s own wandering through his incurable illness. Schubert began writing this cycle in February 1827 and died in November 1828, at the young age of thirty-one.
Almost two centuries after the first publication of this work in 1828, Die Winterreise is still regarded as one of the most challenging and fascinating song cycles of all times. One could argue that it also contains some of the most beautiful music ever written; however, the theme at the core of the poetry relates to subjects such as depression, death, hopelessness and extreme loneliness. This dichotomy is especially palpable in the last poem of the first half, “Einsamkeit,” in which the wanderer acknowledges the peacefulness and brightness of the world around him; yet the beauty of nature is precisely what makes him feel even more wretched in his own psychological misery. For the wanderer, the roaring storm seems more inviting than the calm weather; he finds comfort in places, natural elements and characters that would make others feel uneasy, such as a graveyard, a raging storm, a crow or even a hurdy-gurdy player ignored and abandoned by everyone.
Schubert usually chooses some of his most beautiful and peaceful musical ideas to illustrate the wanderer’s peculiar relationship with these dark and potentially frightening elements. For example, “Die Krähe” is certainly one of the most marvelous songs of the entire cycle with its lullaby-like melody; Schubert uses this wonderful music to reflect the hope for death that the wanderer sees in the crow – a death that could free him from his unbearable earthly sufferings. Likewise, the music in both “Das Wirtshaus” and “Der Leiermann” is extremely peaceful and reflective, stripped of any superficial affect, almost in a religious way, enhancing the feeling that the wanderer perhaps finally found what will bring him closure – the graveyard in the former, and the almost ghost-like lifestyle in the latter. Throughout the cycle, the beautiful and allegedly positive elements present in the poetry, such as the beloved sweetheart, the colorful and blooming flowers, the green leaves, the spring images, a love letter, hope, kisses and bliss – elements always reflected in Schubert’s music – are generally mere illusions or belong either to the past or to dreams; they do not exist in the reality of the present.
Performance practice in Schubert’s time, and throughout the nineteenth century more generally, was much different from the strictness – dare we say austerity? – of today’s so-called classical concerts. Die Winterreise was not likely to be performed as a whole cycle, let alone without interruption: applause, food, drinks, discussions were part of the event – not to mention the occasional repetition of certain songs or spontaneous improvisation, among other creative suggestions. In this sense, it is possible to consider the whole cycle like some sort of a kaleidoscope through which the listener views the same matter from twenty-four different angles, rather than a unified work in which one main thread connects all of the songs together from the beginning to the end. Another major difference between performance practice in Schubert’s time and nowadays lies in the instruments available and chosen. Current scholarship references the first fortepianos as early as 1726, built by Bartolomeo Cristofori; however, the instrument became widely used only toward the end of the eighteenth century. In 1827, the fortepiano was still a relatively new instrument, going through constant changes, improvements and various experiments and inventions – some of which are still present in modern pianos.
The Viennese fortepiano used for the present performance is built by piano maker Rodney Regier, after Graf and Bösendorfer instruments from around 1830. This remarkable piano was built in 2000 and gives the opportunity to experience what Schubert’s Winterreise may have sounded like on a brand new instrument of the time. There are a number of elements that differ between a historical Viennese Schubert-era instrument and a modern piano. The former’s frame is still made out of wood, as opposed to the iron-framed modern instruments. This difference generates various implications in relation to the sound. A frame made of iron allows for thicker strings held at higher tension, the hammers are more robust. These features enhance the sound in terms of volume and overtones – one might say, the sound becomes richer. It is fair to say that the fortepiano is generally softer; ironically, this is precisely why it is possible to use this piano with its full potential in the case of a work such as Die Winterreise. Because Schubert wrote this music with this kind of instrument in his mind and ears, a pianist performing Die Winterreise on a modern Steinway – probably the most common concert piano used worldwide nowadays – has to be extremely cautious in order to avoid overpowering the singer. On the contrary, the fortepiano gives a total freedom to the pianist; because the decay in the sound happens much faster than on a modern instrument, the risk of covering the singer disappears, even in the loudest moments.
It is very interesting to see how the instrument itself may have influenced Schubert in some of the compositional tools he used for Die Winterreise. The use of the lower register is especially striking in this song cycle, as the range of colors in the bass strings allows for a sound somewhat more direct and raw than on a modern instrument – the sound is sharper, snappier. Since the volume of the historical instrument is more limited, the performer may explore extreme ranges of dynamics more boldly; this automatically increases the possibilities in terms of colors. It is easy to imagine how the numerous timbres of this instrument inspired Schubert to illuminate the most dramatic and chilling poetic elements. The most compelling examples can be heard in “Auf dem Flusse,” when the wanderer asks his own heart if it recognizes its image in the frozen brook; in the brutality of the cold and gloomy reality contrasting with the sweet dreams of “Frühlingstraum;” in the storms of “Einsamkeit;” the crimson flames, the cold and furious winter of “Der stürmische Morgen;” the implacability of the road from which no one ever returned in “Der Wegweiser.”
Another unique and remarkable feature of the instrument is the multitude of colors offered by the different pedals. In addition to the “normal” sustaining pedal, two so-called soft pedals allow no fewer than three types of “softer” sounds. One pedal is similar to the modern soft pedal featured on grand pianos, shifting the keyboard slightly to the right so that the hammers hit two strings instead of three; however, if one presses harder on the pedal of the present fortepiano, the mechanism shifts a little further to hit only one string. This couple of options offers two variations of a tone that sounds more distant. The second soft pedal places a felted cloth between the strings and the hammers. These technical characteristics are extremely useful in highlighting specific references to dreams as well as gloomy and creepy moods. Such effects can suggest the wind in “Die Wetterfahne,” the rattling chains and barking dogs in the piano introduction of “Im Dorfe,” or the graveyard inhabitants’ heartbreaking rejection of the wanderer in “Das Wirtshaus.”
Though this performance is in no way an attempt to recreate the experience of Schubert’s Winterreise the way it was presented in the nineteenth century, it certainly aims to introduce a perspective that differs from what the audience would most commonly encounter nowadays. Without a doubt, the fortepiano gives an opportunity to both performers and audience to immerse themselves in a musical laboratory and go through a transformative experience. This instrument offers a variety of sounds able to more deeply reveal the contrasts present in the music and the poetry, through a range of colors that highlight the beauty of the music – but also its ugliness, roughness and brutality.
– Marie-Elise Boyer
I would like to express my gratitude towards
Junhan Choi, Cameron Stowe, Michael Meraw, Rodney Regier, Peter Charig, David Boyer-Brown, Tanya Blaich, Sally Millar, Corey Hart, Benedict Hensley and Elias Dagher,
who all supported me and helped me make this recital a meaningful and unique experience.