Happy Birthday, Schubert!
Julia gawked in awe at the vaulted ceilings above her. She was both in a church and not in a church. The stairway before her wound around ancient sculptures stately in their arches, yet the room opened up into a very cozy space dominated by a nineteenth century grand piano. Julia was traveling with The Seattle Bach Choir, who had come up the stairs with her, but in this room she stood facing them all by herself. Her nerves were mounting. Julia felt her mouth dry out, her heart beat like a hummingbird. Usually choir performances felt very comfortable to her, but at this moment the performance would be all hers.
In preparation for their tour of Prague, Salzburg, and Vienna the choir’s director, Dr. Greg Vancil, had made a very special request of Julia. He had a friend near Salzburg and wanted the choir to visit, but there wasn’t enough room in his summer house for the whole choir to sing in any organized way. Greg suggested that Julia sing a solo instead, but not just any solo, a Schubert song. This friend of Dr. Vancil’s was none other than the descendant of Schubert’s best friend, Joseph Spaun. The current day Spauns continue to take their legacy of support for young musicians quite seriously. It was in this capacity that Dr. Vancil had met them, so he wanted to give back in some way, even if only musically. He handed Julia several songs to choose from, some deceptively simple, some well known, some obscure. One in particular stood out to her. It was a mock serious aria summarized by the idea “Why don’t you ever write to me anymore?” which Schubert had composed and sent to his friend in a fit of exuberant melancholy. The music was some of the most vocally complex Schubert ever wrote, serious music with a silly theme. As a soprano with her own operatic burlesque troupe this piece made perfect sense to Julia and she vowed to learn it, with hopes to strip to it on stage at some point in the future.
Julia knew very little about Franz Schubert, only that she liked the few of his songs that she had heard, and that he had written a song to suit every mood no matter how one was feeling. A few years earlier Julia had sung Gretchen am Spinnrade to express her obsessive love for a friend of hers. For her burlesque troupe she had adopted Erlkönig to a “face in a hole board” with one hole for each character; Frühlingsglaube for a sexy chicken laying eggs; and Die Forelle for a stripping trout bouncing about in a too-tight fish tail skirt. However, despite the silly text, the looming performance felt quite serious to her.
The Spaun’s summer home was a converted 15th century church, purchased by Schubert’s friend shortly after his marriage. Julia thought everyone must be able to hear her heart pounding as the choir climbed the stairs toward the living room. She attempted a deep breath, and a strange feeling cut through her nerves, a very intense one of love and gratitude and nostalgia, strange because the feeling was not her own.
“My friend has done so well for himself!”
The words stood out in her mind with a feeling of joy that brought a lump to her throat and filled her eyes with tears. Running with the only idea that made sense to her, she silently asked the voice, “Schubert, is that you?”
“Nevermind…” the voice seemed to reply shyly, popping out of her head as quickly as it had appeared. Julia’s nerves were back, and she quickly forgot that strange little interchange.
CGI Schubert, probably the most realistic rendering of him so far, by the amazing artist Hadi Karimi. See more of his work here
Julia took her place in the crook of the ornate grand piano, not one Schubert had played, but one that had been made in his time. Dr. Vancil’s wife, Nancy, sat down to accompany. Julia took a deep breath and botched her entrance. Luckily Nancy, a doctor in her own right, was able to temper her tempo to keep Julia on track. The rest of the performance went by smooth as silk in spite of only one rehearsal. Julia’s nerves kept the tone of the piece very serious, in perfect contradiction to the words, and there was great applause when they had finished. Julia’s knees threatened to give way as she bowed, an issue that had always plagued her solos. She inhaled upon rising and turned to her left where she noticed an original Schubert manuscript framed on the wall beside her. Her jaw dropped as she took out her camera.
At the moment this is how I’m beginning my novel, but it is a true story! For now I’m even keeping everyone’s real names intact. While this little story doesn’t represent the beginning of my Schubert obsession (that wouldn’t arrive until almost ten years later) it does represent the beginning of a string of bizarre Schubertian coincidences culminating in a strangely intimate relationship with Schubert’s spirit, one in which I seem to be able to feel his feelings quite independently of his music.
How does one feel feelings that aren’t their own? I really wish I could describe it. Maybe it will never really make sense. Believe me, I struggle with putting this out there. I know it makes me sound crazy, or at least a bit dissociated from my own brain, but it is my truth, and I can’t deny it because “talking with Franz” has improved my life in countless ways.
It’s a long story, and I don’t have the space to get into it here. That’s why I’m writing a novel. Actually, I already wrote the novel, what I’m doing now is expanding it. You can read what I put out there three years ago. It’s called Winter from Above: meditations on Winterreise with Franz Schubert, and it’s a collection of meditations on each song in the cycle, which I found helpful not only in creating the Winterreise puppet show with Paper Puppet Opera, but in helping me cope with loss, rejection, and feelings of unworthiness. Like I said, I’ve gained a lot talking to Franz, and I want others to benefit from our conversations too.
Here and there I will be including some of those conversations on this blog. Today is Schubert’s birthday, so I wanted to give you a little introduction to my particular brand of weirdness regarding this adorable curly-headed bespectacled composer. While I’ve always loved his music, now I love him for so many other reasons, and for none at all. Before I started reading about him he astounded me with his wisdom through our conversations, wisdom that is very much in keeping with what he wrote in his diary. Of course we talk about music too, and he has given me many an amazing insight into his compositions and his process. I plan to talk about these things in the future as well.
That’s just your warning to run now if you can’t handle it. If you are curious, you will be rewarded with Franz’s revelations, regardless of where you think the information comes from. Happy birthday, Franz, wherever you are! And to all of you celebrating Franz blushes and says, "Oh, gosh!"
* UPDATE: now it's one year later, and the concept for my novel has changed to be a novel series. Winter From Above is the first novel in the series, but I've decided to base each book on a song cycle...as much as I can. I'm currently working on Die Schöne Müllerin, but as a metaphor for the artistic process, because both Franz and I think killing yourself over the rejection of a crush is ridiculous.
Happy Birthday, Mozart
Happy Mozart Week, everyone! I like to celebrate composer birthdays, and my two favorites happened to be born in the same week: Mozart on January 27 and Schubert on January 31. My half birthday falls right in between on the 29th, so this gives me many reasons to celebrate. Not to mention the week is kicked off with Burns Night on the 25th, which for me just means an excuse to drink scotch and try to read Robert Burns until I get a bit of a brogue on while still having no idea what any of the words actually mean.
This year Mozart will turn 265, and a long lost piece of his, never before heard in public, will be performed in Salzburg. Luckily it’s a solo piano piece, so social distancing shouldn’t be too big an issue. You can listen to it here at 9 AM PST on January 27, but it will be available to watch until January 29.
I could try to tell you why Mozart is my favorite composer, but it wouldn’t make sense. Sometimes it’s hard to put your taste into words. Let’s just say that for me a marvelous obsession with this music was kicked off with a vision followed by a dream the day after my 14th birthday. I don’t yet have the courage to talk about it in public, though it may become a scene in a future novel. Let’s just say I was in love with him. Weird? Yes, but it saved me from the horrible world of teen dating. Don’t worry, I eventually recovered and had some normal romantic relationships. Honestly, I probably should have stayed in love with Mozart.
I think everyone should have a marvelous obsession. Obsessions come easily to me because I have obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD is often ridiculed as being about obsessive cleanliness and order, but really one of the main ways it is experienced is as “bad thoughts,” often of a religious, moral, or blasphemous nature, which is why it is sometimes called "scrupulosity." You can read more about the history of that here. I bring this up because, not only was that my main form of OCD, but OCD can also be harnessed in good ways. I suffered from it mainly during my childhood, but around the time I became obsessed with Mozart the symptoms mostly disappeared.
It was fantastic having this endless font of inspiration. I drew scenes from Mozart’s life and operas while listening to my latest find from the library, even writing and illustrating a children’s book called The Mirage of Figaro in high school. I saved money to buy complete box sets of his work bit by bit. It blows my mind that almost all of it is available on YouTube or Spotify now for free. You kids will never know the frustration of searching for an obscure piece of music followed by the joy of finding it, even if you had to shell out actual money for it.
While I taught myself to sing via Phantom of the Opera, like most young aspiring sopranos in the 1990s, it was this introduction to Mozart that really helped my voice grow. I could only barely read music at the time, so I learned all of Mozart’s soprano arias by ear with the help of a libretto from the library. Of course this meant I couldn’t tell the difference between what was written and what might be ornamentation or one singer’s unique interpretation, but I managed to learn them all (aside from La Clemenza di Tito) by age 17. The first aria I crammed into my brain and voice was Vedrai Carino from Don Giovanni. I didn’t have a high F yet for Queen of the Night, but I still learned her arias just in case I grew one. Eventually I did, and lost it after a few years, but I had fun with it while I could.
That said, I recorded myself singing several Mozart arias on cassette tape which I entitled “A Noble Attempt for a Seventeen Year Old,” and it’s really not great listening. I next attempted a similar feat in my 20s, which was much better, but there have only been random videos of me singing Mozart since then. Here is a video of me singing an aria from his one act opera "The Impresario," which I translated and staged with Operadisiac back in 2011. I think I’ll record an all Mozart concert for you guys soon with electronic backing tracks, and with a focus on his early works. Maybe three concerts of early, middle, and late Mozart! You see, the guy still gets my brain turning.
When I want to strengthen my voice in a hurry, especially if my high notes are feeling more difficult than they used to, I turn back to Mozart. When I want to focus on the technique of elegant line and expressive coloratura, I turn to Mozart. It is my hope that I will feature some of my more in depth Mozart stories and insights via this blog. For now I will leave you with just a few things.
Ten years ago I wrote this article about Catarina Cavalieri, one of the more famous sopranos in Mozart’s circle, also rumored to be Salieri’s mistress. I was attempting to write a historical fiction novel about her, but I think only certain scenes ended up being interesting, and I can just put those up on this blog.
Here you can watch the shadow puppet production I created for Mozart’s opera “The Goose of Cairo,” posted in six parts. I sing in it too:
Goose Part One
Goose Part Two
Goose Part Three
Goose Part Four
Goose Part Five
Goose Part Six
I could never overestimate the influence Mozart had on my emerging artistic interests and talents, an influence unmatched until Schubert showed up, and he literally showed up. More on that in a few days. Until then, celebrate Wolfgang’s natal date with some of his favorite foods: liver dumplings and flat English beer...though cake and champagne sounds better to me.
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