in: Reviews

February 7, 2012

Kelley and Sherman Ably Tell the Tale

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Emmanuel Music continues to offer programs of unique interest to the Boston concert-going public. Franz Schubert’s first song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, was given a thorough and heartfelt reading in Emmanuel Church on February 5 for an adoring crowd of some 300 listeners. Schubert made a major contribution to the Romantic legacy, and certainly established a song repertoire, not since surpassed, with some 600 solo works in his short life of 31 years.

An easy initial response to a question often asked by my students — “What is it that makes it Romantic?”— is that Romantic music tends to be involved in some kind of story. European Romanticism also has been called the cult of the individual, each containing the spark of divinity, linking all in a vast chain ultimately connected to “Truth.” Nature was a constant companion and teacher. In the case of the Schubert cycle, the first of its kind in Western music, this is illustrated by an array of characters that contribute to a tale in distinct ways.

The multitalented poet Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), who lived approximately the same years as Franz Schubert (1797-1828), is highly representative by making his story a personal experience. It is he who becomes excited by the brook and is enticed to follow its path through the woods. Schubert shared his love of nature with the poet; his deeply felt sense of the poem is essential for an effective transfer to the aural medium. Using the piano as his voice, he communicates the poet’s longing.

The brook, a lively representation of Nature with its ever-changing character in both sound and physical constitution, plays a central role in the drama. (Without the brook, there is no wandering.) The itinerant miller’s sensitivity toward nature pulls him to his wanderlust and adventure. He encounters a local miller, whose daughter becomes the object of his affection. (A mill is not a mill without a miller and a miller’s daughter.) Here again, the Romantic soul is stimulated by encounters both natural and human.

Nature contains many secondary roles: trees, flowers, birds, moon and stars, barking dogs, even the natural green color (which becomes an obsession for the wandering miller), all taking part in the unfolding story. But hold; he is not alone in his quest for the miller’s daughter’s affection. A hunter appears at the millstream and the miller-poet tells him boldly to stay in his own forest preserve. He chastises the wildly raging stream. “Are you chasing after bold Brother Hunter?” A foreshadowing of the miller’s fate occurs at this point; he asks the brook to not tell the miller’s daughter of his sadness.

All of the parts work together to bring the sad tale to its ultimate conclusion. In actual performance, the stage is bare other than a piano and the two performers, the singer and the pianist (not accompanist), and they are totally responsible for communicating the poet’s message. No stage props or decoration. Each performer must collaborate with great sensitivity to unify each minute particle of the total experience. Kelley’s and Sherman’s flexibility and accommodation to each other in subtle tempo changes and dynamics were remarkable, and a union was achieved not easily obtained in performance.

Kelley’s sensitivity to the text was more readily recognized, but the non-verbal piano also exhibited the necessary qualities in rhythm and tone. The opening lied illustrates how the piano as one-half of the narration sets the stage. Rapid arpeggios mimicked the bubbling brook, enticing the miller to wander as the brook wanders. Staccato singing reinforced the excitement the brook represents to the miller. In the second lied, Kelley became more lyrical, extending the metaphor of piano and rushing brook. “Tell me, brook, where are we going?” Sherman continued the arpeggios, sustaining the question. (It is now apparent that there may be much in store for the miller as he comes upon a mill glinting in the sunlight.)

As the story continued, the subtle differences in tone, tempo, dynamics, and articulation were effectively illustrated; Kelley and Sherman both made much of the poem’s contrasts. The fifth lied demanded and received the necessary mood changes (as the miller-poet realizes his strength is ordinary and others could do as well, turning the millstones, yet returns to belief in his own strength, to reveal his true purpose to the miller’s daughter).

And so the tale continues to express the poet’s longing, his lack of assurance that the miller’s daughter could love him, his quest to the brook to give him answers, and the constant dialogue with the brook to help him understand his fate. Ultimately, it is the brook that has the final lied singing a lullaby to the weary traveler.

A tale well told, sensitively, musically, and aesthetically satisfying. Kelley and Sherman transported us to a different plane, where we could forget the cold outside and take respite in a sincere expression of unrequited love.

Anthony J. Palmer, presently a Visiting Scholar at Boston University, has a BA in vocal/choral studies and MA in composition from California State University, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. from UCLA. He retired from college teaching in 1998.

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