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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

No. 13 - Die Post (046)

Welcome back to Winterreise!

Believe it or not, it was still winter when we last looked at the masterwork that birthed Singerreise. Now that taxes are finished and my performing load is under control, we're ready to dive back in!

We've looked at the first full set of songs thus far. (Read and watch of them on Singerreise's dedicated Winterreise page!) To review a little bit, Schubert's Winterreise was composed in two sets, each with 12 songs. So we've covered songs one through twelve, took our intermission of five months, and we're ready to get started with the second set.

What better time to sing about winter than the summer?

When last we saw our Wanderer, he had just woken up from a lovely dream about spring. In No. 12, he faces the open, stormless sky, and he gets back on the road.

The story continues from there into No. 13, Die Post. While on the road, he hears the sound of a posthorn. A posthorn was a simple little bugle that the mail carriage would use, signaling its arrival or departure from the town.

When the Wanderer hears it, his heart jumps in reflex. It startles him, and he tries to calm his heart down by talking to it, addressing it by name. As any one would do.

It happens every couple of lines. It's one of the most characteristic and memorable parts of the text: each stanza ends with the words "Mein Hertz." Schubert takes this convention even further, adding it mid-stanza and often doubling it, so that it is "Mein Hertz, mein Hertz."

The first couple of times it’s a question. "Why do you leap so high?" he asks after his initial startle.

In the second stanza, he assures his heart that the postman doesn't carry any letters for him. He then asks his heart, "Why are you acting this way?"

The third time, he acknowledges that his heart may have a point: the postman is coming from town, where his former "Liebchen" (sweetheart) lived. So when he says "Mein Hertz" here, it's not a question, but more of an exclamation of agreement.

The last one is another question. At this point, though, the Wanderer has been overtaken by his heart's excitement. He asks his heart, "Would you like to take a look back there and ask how things are going?" Here it's more of a question of affirmation than contradiction. It puts the heart and the Wanderer back into a single being.

Musically, this piece is fast - making it a good opener for the second set. It gets us going again with a bang. For the vocalist, the text comes a little in rapid-fire, so you have to practice getting your consonants together quickly. It does repeat a fair amount, though, and the first and second verses are identical musically, so it isn't too difficult to learn.

There are some high E's, but they are well-placed and on the strident, heroic, and show-offy side. Here's where I prefer the sound of a more operatic baritone than a typical finessed, lighter-voiced, art-song singer. An operatic singer will be able to reinforce those high notes a little more. Also, a lower voice - like mine, a bass-baritone - can make these high E's sound more climactic. If they're too easy, then the piece looses a little of its character.

But that's the vocal line. The piano part is where the real action is.

To convey the story and the setting, the piano has a threefold objective, at least. First, it represents the sound of a carriage being pulled by horses. This is the dotted, 6/8 pattern that begins just before the singer starts.

Second, there's the sound of the Posthorn itself, a melody line that resembles the call of a valveless bugle. It climbs through a triad, just as a bugle would.

Third, it conveys the heart's response to the posthorn, a quick thump-thumps that keeps pace with the horses. In the gaps between repetitions, it seems like the heart even answers the Wanderer's questions with a melody of its own.

Does that all sound difficult to you? It is, monstrously so! But here's why.

This, and another piece by Schubert (one of his most popular) called Die Erlkönig are notoriously hard to play on piano. Repeated notes, done fast, and in a very uncomfortable chord configuration can be murder on the pianist's hands.

Sarah wanted me to make special note that the pianos of Schubert's day, however, were very much unlike today's grand pianos. The "action" - or the force required to push a key down and get sound - was somewhere between one third and one fifth as weighty. So today, you have to work about four times harder just to get the thing to sound.

In addition to that, Schubertian era pianos were far softer, so it didn't matter how much you put into it. But if you just pound away on today's grands, you'll cover up the singer, especially when he is in the lower part of his range. You have to have just the right touch, and you have to know your piano well.

Getting this piece to work for both singer and pianist was very tricky and required a little compromise. But I think we got a really good result in the end!

I hope you enjoy this preview of Die Post, number 13 in Schubert's Winterreise. Thanks for stopping by!

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