The Duo Campion-Vachon has performed throughout the world in countries such as South Africa, Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Great Britain, Italy, Switzerland, and Canada. They have been invited to [...]
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It is interesting to hear on a single record, as proposed here by the Duo Campion-Vachon, the complete Fantasies for piano duet by Schubert. It demonstrates, first of all, the importance of the fantasy genre in Schubert’s output.
Piano duet according to Schubert
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) considered music for piano duet as a symbol of friendship and fraternal communion, both of which played a great role in his life. Indeed, the genre, as that of the lieder, was perfectly suited for the musical gatherings that Schubert and his friends enjoyed so much.
Schubert cultivated many styles in his music for piano duet: marches, overtures, divertimentos, dances, and so on. Throughout his life, however, the genre of the fantasy seems to have been of particular interest to him.
The first Fantasy in G for piano duet (D. 1) was written in 1810 (it is the earliest composition of Schubert to have survived); the following two Fantasies were also composed during these early years (1811 and 1813), while the fourth was written in 1828, the year of the composer’s death.
We may briefly remind the reader that Schubert was born in Vienna on January 31, 1797, from a humble family. His father was a school-teacher who, thanks to hard work, was soon appointed headmaster. Schubert’s first piano and violin lessons were given by his father and one of his eldest brother. At age of 11, he was accepted as a choirboy in the imperial court chapel, and this meant admission as a scholar to the Imperial and Royal City College, the Stadt Konvickt, located near the university.
These early years of schooling were quite beneficial for young Schubert, for not only did the college provide a sound general education, it also put much emphasis on musical activities, such as chorus, learning a musical instrument, and participating in a small orchestra that seemed to be of high quality, for it performed symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven. In such an environment, Schubert made swift progress, and gradually started to compose (his earliest essays have not been preserved).
Only recently did musicologists began Schubert’s early works study seriously, in particular the three Fantasies for piano duet composed while he was in college, and that were long considered puerile and immature. No doubt composed for immediate use by his teachers and colleagues, these works clearly surpass the simple schoolboy homework we would expect, and already show, even through their imperfections and imitations, a musical genius in constant progress.
Fantasy in G major, D.1
It was during the year of 1810 that Schubert composed the first known work, the Fantasy in G major (D1). It is, for such a youthful work, surprisingly long (1100 measures), and it is also notable for its astonishing creative freedom (it has about fifteen episodes), constant changes of mood, tonality and tempo, and bold harmonic movements. The work begins in G major, with a nostalgic tone brought about by a horn call (which will recur later in the work); it then moves to a section in F major, reminiscent of Mozart, to a Presto, and then to a series of marches; a Beethoven-type Andante follows (a string quartet by Beethoven is also quoted in the work). The piece concludes majestically in C major.
According to musicologist Alfred Einstein: “all of this has a child-like playful character, with the exception that Schubert, rather than colouring images as did other children of his age, engages in a musical divertissement.”
Fantasy in G minor, D. 9
The second Fantasy in G minor (D. 9), was composed a year later, and its contours are already less hazy, its fabric more tightly knit. It opens with an introductory Largo, and this passage will recur, transposed, and the conclusion of the work; in between the two, there is first a passionate and dynamic contrapuntal Allegro, which is followed by a march (Tempo di Marcia). Once again, the work ends in a different key than that of the opening, this time D minor. Although traces of Mozart can be found throughout this piece, it nevertheless bears the mark of Schubert’s individuality, and shows his early mastery of counterpoint.
Fantasy in C minor, D. 48
The third Fantasy in C minor (D. 48), was composed in 1813, at a time when Schubert already had numerous compositions to his credit, as is shown by the catalog number (that same year, Schubert will compose a symphony and two string quartets). Of greater length than the second Fantasy, the work begins in C minor with an Adagio built on a descending chromatic motif (so-called “lamento” bass), developed in free counterpoint; then comes an Andante amoroso, inspired by a Mozart Fantasy; the work closes in B-flat major with a fugue (Allegro maestoso) written on the theme of the opening Adagio.
We should add here that at the end of 1813, a few months after the composition of this work, Schubert left the Konvickt, even though he was eligible for a scholarship that would have enabled his to pursue his studies. The motives for this decision remain unclear, but it seems that Schubert wanted to devote his time entirely to composition.
Schubert’s last Fantasy in F minor (D. 940), was written in April 1828. It belongs to the composer’s most prolific period, from 1827 to his death in November 1828, years during which he composed, among other works, the Great Symphony in C major, the Lieder on poems by Heine, the last three Piano Sonatas, and the Missa Solemnis in E-flat major.
The F-minor Fantasy, composed after such works as the Wanderer Fantasy for piano and the C-major Fantasy for violin and piano, is considered as the crowning achievement of Schubert’s formal explorations. The work is written in four parts which follow each other without interruption, forming a cycle that combines elements of sonata-form allegro with the four movements of the sonata: Allegro molto moderato, in F minor, a form of incantation that modulates to F major, and is followed by a dialogue in A minor with a staccato motif in the bass; Largo in F-sharp minor that begins with a trill figure and later opposes a lyrical motif to a more violent one; Allegro vivace in F-sharp minor, which is in fact a Scherzo with Trio: it is, with its dance-like theme, the longest part of the work; in the Finale, the opening theme is stated once again, before giving way unexpectedly to a magnificent fugue, which concludes on a radiant final chord.
© Jean-Marc Blondeau, 1997
Translation: Alex Benjamin