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September 24, 2012 4:23 pm

Thoughts on Cole Porter, Franz Schubert and Yom Kippur

avatar by Alan Elsner

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Elsa Maxwell (centre), with William Rhinelander Stewart (left) and Cole Porter. Photo: wiki commons.

At a recent recital of works by Franz Schubert by pianist Joseph Kalichstein, some lines from the Cole Porter song “Every time we say goodbye” came into my head:

Every time we say goodbye, I die a little,
Every time we say goodbye, I wonder why a little
There’s no love song finer,
but how strange the change from major to minor,
Every time we say goodbye.

Porter enhances the poignancy of these lines by including a chord change that goes from A flat major to A flat minor in opposition to the lyric “how strange the change from major to minor.”

The reason for the association to Schubert is clear. Constant shifts from major to minor and vice versa are a hallmark of Schubert’s music. You hear it in virtually every work he wrote. His music exists in no fixed key but in a constant state of transference between joy and sadness.

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Take the beautiful song, “Auf dem Wasser zu Singen” (To be Sung on the Water). It begins with a series of falling notes played on the piano in a minor key, suggesting the gentle rocking of a boat, perhaps on a lake. The singer joins with a simple tune that also evokes this rocking motion.

Musicologist Maureen Schaffer writes:

“Although the key signature implies A major, Schubert begins his song in A minor. A major does not appear until the end of each verse. By vacillating between parallel keys, Schubert continues to accentuate the aimless drifting of the boat. The shifting modalities of major and minor allow the music to rock gently back and forth, while keeping a close relationship between the harmonic progressions.”

Listening to this song, one is not quite sure whether to be happy or sad – or both. But in the final stanza, the poet brings home the transitory nature of joy and of life.

Ah, disappears from me with the dewy wings
On rocking waves, flies the time
Disappears tomorrow on shimmering wings
Just like yesterday and today, flies the time.
Until I myself on more highly radiant wings
Flee from the changing time.

Kalichstein ended his program with magisterial Sonata in A Major D.959, one of the final three Schubert composed in the last few weeks of his life when he was dying on syphilis at the tragically young age of 31. In the second movement especially, one hears him railing against his fate in a series of thunderous chords – and yet the piece ends on a note of acceptance.

Schubert biographer Brian Newbould describes that outburst: “torrential scales, pulse-threatening rhythms, trills, shock harmonies, writhing chromaticism, fragments of recitative, dramatic silences and stabbed chords.”

Biographers gasp in wonder at Schubert’s productivity in 1828, the final year of his life as he suffered through the worsening symptoms of the disease that would kill him. He completed Symphony 9 in C Major (“The Great”) as well as a in Mass E-flat and the C major String Quintet, one of the greatest chamber works ever composed. He also penned six songs that wound up in the song cycle Schwanengesang, the three Piano Pieces and those last three piano sonatas.

I’m writing these lines in the days approaching Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement when we believe our fate for the upcoming year will be sealed. As the central prayer recited on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, called Unenanneh Tokef puts it:

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed:
how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created;
who will live and who will die;
who will die at his predestined time and who before his time;
who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning.
Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried,
who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

Schubert was surely one who died before his time and he didn’t enjoy much tranquility. One of his most famous songs, which later grew into a wonderful piano fantasy, is called “The Wanderer.” His song cycle, “Winterreise”, (A Winter Journey) begins with the words, “I came here as a stranger / A stranger I depart.”

One hears in late Schubert many premonitions of death. Sometimes it is a distant shadow evoked in the low bass trill at the opening of the Sonata in B-flat; sometimes, as in the A major sonata, the composer describes his outright terror and fury at the sheer injustice of his fate.

Schubert knew he was dying – but he chose to confront his fate. Every song he wrote in that late period says goodbye in one way or another — and each time he says goodbye, he and we die a little.

Schubert knew he was facing death ensured through his genius that he would forever be inscribed in the book of life.

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  • ira licht

    it might also be mentioned that schubert composed a psalm 92, tov le hodos, on commission from salomon sulzer, cantor of the vienna synagogue. sulzer also approached beethoven who declined the commission.

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