Tell me if this has ever happened to you: you’re out and about when you hear a brief passage of gorgeous classical music, which never gets identified, and it goes on to haunt you.
Here was mine: I was in an art-house cinema years back, sitting in the semidarkness with my husband, waiting for the movie to begin. Back in those civilized days, they didn’t bombard you with commercials or junky “shows” before the film; you got to bask in music. This piece, a classical piano recording, was just stunning, dreamy and lyrical. All my thoughts fell away; even my breath stilled, in order to capture every note. “Who is this composer?” I asked my husband in a hushed voice. He shrugged.
“Schubert,” a man two rows behind us called out. I thanked him, murmured it to myself to mentally file it away, and as the piece ended, the lights dimmed, and the movie previews began.
I thought longingly of that piece on and off for the next several months. This was back in the old days, no iTunes, no internet to surf, no Google, Spotify, Amazon. To procure new music you—gasp!— had to go into a record store and hunt for it. It didn’t help that I couldn’t describe it well. (“It’s… very pretty. Haunting. And short.”) I sifted through Schubert’s music to see if I could find it, but we’re talking about a very prolific composer. In his all-too-brief life, Schubert wrote over 1000 pieces of music, 600 of them lieder or “songs”—short, lyrical, vocal compositions that, along with his waltzes (particularly the Austrian Ländler) brought Schubert great fame. (In his native Vienna, where he spent his entire life, these pieces became so popular, they comprised the core of social evenings, called “Schubertiads,” in the salons of the wealthy, where people would gather to sing and dance to Schubert’s music.)
But the mystery music was neither lieder nor waltz.
I searched on. I taste-tested. I bought compilation CDs. I bought a trio of Schubert CDs. No luck.
“Are you sure he said Schubert?” one of my classical music friends asked when I shared my frustrating search for this piece of music. “Was it maybe Schumann? Because that mystical, haunting feeling can be found in a lot of Schumann’s music.”
So I commenced a search through the Schumann repertoire. Bought those compilation CDs. I got to know his symphonies and concertos, some of which, indeed, carried a sense of the otherworldly (which I blogged about HERE). I read a biography on him that was as compelling as a novel. I fell in love with his music. But I never found the composition that haunted me.
The Great Search continued for, believe it or not, a decade. Granted, it didn’t occupy my every thought, but it was always there, in the back of my mind, this mysteriously beautiful piece that either Schumann or Schubert had composed. Every time I went into a music store, I’d grill whomever best knew classical music. I discovered more and more delightful pieces through obscure compilation CDs that I’d buy, which, actually, went a long way in expanding my classical music preferences.
And then one day I heard it again.
I was in the car, driving. And this is probably something other classical music lovers can relate to, as well. You hear it on the radio, and you sit in your car, still as a mouse, having arrived at your destination, but determined NOT to leave the car until the piece ends, at which time the radio announcer will state in that silken broadcaster’s voice that which you just heard, and if ANYTHING gets in the way of your hearing the title or the composer’s name, you will FREAK OUT.
“And that was Franz Schubert (“Aha!” you scream inside) and his Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat major,” the broadcaster purrs, and as he continues talking, you’re frantically grabbing for a pen and paper to scribble that down, and finally, you’ve got it. The name of the song that has haunted you for well over a decade.
It was another few years before I actually bought a recording of the Impromptu No. 3. Yes, I could have bought a CD of the 4 Impromptu collection for $16.99. Call me cheap — I spent most of my pennies back then on budget compilation CDs. For some reason, this astonishingly beautiful piece isn’t as well-known as other short classical compositions. It’s rare to find it on a compilation CD. Strange, since Schubert had such a keen sense of melody. Possibly because he himself began his music studies as a singer, and lieder truly was his claim to considerable fame during his lifetime. (The majority of his other music was published posthumously, where it found even greater popularity.) Thank goodness for the advent of iTunes, where I could buy a single piece of music, simply by typing in the name and clicking “buy.” Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 is now mine to listen to, whenever I want.
Oh, the emotional images it stirs within me. A whiff of my childhood, dusk on a wintery Sunday, when the younger, chilled me has gone inside and Mom’s got a roast cooking in the oven, filling the air with an intoxicating aroma and a sense of security. An adult version: arriving home after a long day out in the world, but you’re home now, changed out of constraining clothes into something loose and roomy, and someone has just handed you a glass of red wine and told you not to worry, dinner will happen when it happens. In the music, I also catch a prescient glimpse of old age: the sweet ache of walking through a quiet house and seeing all the family photos, each with their own story, each story over, now, consigned to memory. Life lived, life passing.
Your turn to give Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 a listen. Here are two different interpretations. First one is Vladimir Horowitz and the second one is Inon Barnatan.
Which do you prefer? Horowitz’s fingers are so flat against the keys, it’s crazy to watch. But shut your eyes and feel the way he channels a story. The guy is a master, a once-in-a-generation kind of talent. It’s slower than Barnatan’s; I can’t decide if that leaches some of the intensity from it for me. Pianist Inon Barnatan (whose recording is the one I bought through iTunes) creates such a marvelous mood with his articulation, the way he crescendoes and decrescendos — really, it renders me a little breathless, with awe, with pleasure. It’s just so many delicious aural sensations, packed into six minutes.
Schubert composed the Impromptu No. 3, part of a set of 4 Impromptus, in the two-year period before he died in 1828. He’d found tremendous success in the popularity of his short works, but surely he felt the sorrow of putting so much of his energy into longer works — operas that he could never find a publisher, patron or venue to champion, which had been his lifelong wish. His health was lousy (he contracted what was likely syphilis in his early twenties and spent a good deal of time in hospitals) and he struggled with depression. Readers who already are familiar with Schubert’s work might know that he wrote “Winterreise” during this time. I have to say, when I read the description, a “heartrending diary of the Winter Journey of a rejected lover, whose unquenchable pain leads him to quiet madness and a longing for death” — well, I took a pass. It’s a song cycle of 24 pieces, so if you’re a reader who likes [dark] lieder, HERE is a link. More cheerful and more recognizable is Schubert’s Quintet in A major, popularly known as the “Trout” quintet. I’m a longtime fan of the Rosamunde Overture. I am currently listening to his lovely Piano Quintet in C major, which I prefer over the Quintet in A, actually. You will recognize the middle “Adagio” movement here — it’s been used in several movies and commercials. There’s his Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden,” that’s a must-listen, its first two movements in particular. His symphonies. His “Ave Maria.” (Maria Callas’ rendition HERE is simply stunning.) And more, and more.
Have you been haunted by a piece of classical music in a similar fashion? Do share! They are such fun stories to hear, and what fascinates me is how different each classical music lover’s tastes are. Beethoven, Liszt, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Wagner, Dvorák, Britten, Schumann, Brahms, Barber, Debussy, Hindemith—the list goes on and on, of composers who’ve written something either stunning or stark (or both) that speaks to the soul in a way nothing else can.