Birmingham Schubert Day
Updated: Jan 14, 2021
As a new committee member of the SIUK, I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce myself and my work to the wider community. My research interests lie in the aesthetics and cultural history of nineteenth-century musical culture, with particular emphasis on Franz Schubert, the Schumanns, and women and music. Alongside my teaching duties at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, I am currently writing a book on Schubert and the gothic (supported by a Fellowship from the Irish Research Council), and editing a volume of essays, entitled Clara Schumann Studies, for Cambridge University Press.
On 26 October 2019 I had the pleasure of attending a SIUK study day revolving around the theme of ‘Schubert and the piano’ at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. With its new performance spaces and state-of-the art facilities, the Conservatoire provided a fitting venue in which to hear and contemplate the centrality of the piano to Schubert’s creative vision. The event, led by Ruth Minton, consisted of two main components: a lecture, which she thoughtfully illustrated at the piano, followed by a recital of Schubert’s underperformed Piano Sonata in A minor, D 784, and his first set of Impromptus, D 899.
What was refreshing about Minton’s lecture is the way in which she encouraged us to rethink the significance of period instruments in the overall conception of Schubert’s writing for the piano. Rather than rehearsing the well-worn debates regarding historically informed performance, Minton opened up fruitful discussion about how knowledge of Schubert’s pianos can lead to new creative engagement with this repertoire – a topic that forms the focal point of her doctoral research. Beyond questions of articulation, tempo, pedalling, and dynamic gradation, her lecture addressed a number of aesthetic issues that are ripe for further exploration. Among these is the significance of improvisatory rhetoric in Schubert’s oeuvre, as can be heard in a variety of contexts, most notably in his dances for solo piano, whose stylistic language suggests the sense of spontaneity that lies at the heart of improvisation.
Complementing Minton’s talk, the afternoon recital provided an opportunity to hear the wide expressive spectrum that Schubert’s piano music encompasses – whether in terms of the lyrical expansiveness of the Impromptu in G flat major, conceived in the manner of a ‘song without words’, or in the abrupt shifts of the Impromptu in E flat, a piece which begins effervescently in the major mode, digressing through a turbulent middle section, before ending forcefully in E flat minor. As Susan Wollenberg noted apropos the latter piece (2011), ‘perhaps never before in an episodic movement of this type had the main sections been pitted against each other so audibly and with such force, stretching the limits of the still-evolving piano “miniature” form’. In these pieces, as with the others in the programme, we were given the chance to hear how the issues that Minton discussed in her talk were played out in her performance of Schubert’s music.
With their mix of live music and discussion, the events hosted by the SIUK, particularly the study days, are poised to be of interest to scholars, music lovers, and especially students wishing to deepen their knowledge of Schubert’s life and creative output. I’m much looking forward to our events in the new year and hope to see many of our members in attendance.