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.