Musical moments

American work longer hours, more days, and take fewer breaks than nearly every other nation in the world. Turns out the forty-hour work week is actually on average nearly a full day longer, forty-seven hours. We’re not making much more (at least those of us down here at the bottom) but we’re sure working for it. What’s worse is that we take fewer vacations — we don’t even have the option of paid leave when we become new parents. We’re one of few countries which offer no paid parental leave, whether through employers or through the government (the others include Papua New Guinea and Liberia).

Rather than ease our burdens, our technological toys allow us to bring our work with us wherever we go. Many of you are reading this on the little screen on a phone or ipad, and this is supposed to qualify as ‘leisure time.’ We’re working ourselves so hard we don’t have time to enjoy the time we don’t have.

What does this have to do with Franz Schubert’s Moment Musicaux, which we have been hearing today? It’s the closest we’ve come to a ‘driveway moment.’ That’s a phrase coined by Public Radio for the moment you can’t get out of your car because you’re so engrossed in the story you’ve to to hear the end even though you’ve reached your destination. Truth is, we’re not talk radio people — we’d rather walk than ride in a car listening to talk radio.

But there are records in which we have found the same ethereal repose. One, for instance, is this 1952 recording by Rudolph Serkin. Its not the first recording of Schubert’s six part piano piece published in 1828, but it is our favorite. Serkin may be best known for his interpretations of Beethoven, but on this record he succinctly shows the innate beauty of Schubert’s songs.

schubertJust a year before making this album for Columbia Records, Serkin founded the Marlboro School of Music near his dairy farm in Vermont, along with his father-in-law, Adolph Busch. Both world-class musicians were for America what you could call the spoils of war, along with a generation of top writers, scientists and others. Although neither were Jewish, both left their homes in Germany after the rise of the Third Reich, unable to tolerate Nazism (Busch once declared he would “return with joy on the day that Hitler, Goebbels and Göring are publicly hanged”). The two became naturalized American citizens and through the Marlboro School mentored a generation of classical performers.

Their greatest influence has been in modern chamber music, beginning in Europe when they performed together in the Busch Quartet, making the first recordings of some Beethoven quartets. The famed Guarani Quartet was formed at their Marlboro School of Music, and Serkin’s son Peter was a member of the Tashi Quartet, whose recording of Oliver Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time we posted a couple years ago.

Franz Schubert’s own short thirty-one years on Earth were shockingly productive: he composed hundreds of songs and in the process built the foundation for the three-minute pop song we, as record collectors, revere. He also wrote nine extraordinary symphonies (seven complete, two so magnificent that it’s never mattered they were unfinished), several operas and a substantial repertoire of piano music. When he died in 1828, only a year after Beethoven, he might have been overshadowed by the great maestro, if it weren’t for the enormous wealth of innovative melody in his music.

Schubert never composed a piano concerto, nor a concerto of any other kind, so his compositions for solo piano are of especially great interest. Moments Musicaux is a six-piece work for solo piano published shortly before his death which suggests in several places (especially in No. 1, Moderato, and No. 5, Allegro vivace) what a Schubert piano concerto may have sounded like.

In other places Moment Musicaux captures the composers uncanny ability to create simple, sincere and captivating songs. There is a melody in the fourth part that might have been the dominant theme of a symphony, had the composer lived longer.  Schubert’s devotion to his work is evident in the consistency of his catalog – we cannot think of a pop group with a solid a success rate as Schubert had as a songwriter, except for maybe Hickey.

We enjoy playing copies of Moment Musicaux whenever they pass through the shop. People often ask what it is they have been enjoying – Some are disappointed it isn’t some somber post-bop pianist like Bill Evans (whose own solo pieces, like those on Everybody Digs Bill Evans for instance, suggest Schubert’s influence) or a fashionable French outsider like Erik Satie. Others leave the shop with the record that had been playing, and we hope they enjoy it as much as we do our own slightly worn copy Rudolf Serkin’s 1952 recording for Columbia.

Moment Musicaux is an antidote for anxiety, opening as brightly as a fresh cup of coffee before providing the listener with opportunities for introspection as well as invigoration. Schubert’s graceful Adante, our favorite of the six, is arrestingly serene.

Some say Schubert invented the three minute pop song as we know it. There’s no doubt he refined it as surely as the cup defines the shape of the coffee inside. Bill Evans played Schubert as a young man. Beyoncé from her borrowed from him on her third album. Just this week the BBC launched a documentary by composer Howard Goodall which includes a comparison between Adele’s 21 and Schubert’s song cycles. “Strip away the cultural differences, the clothes and anything that dates them, and there is a strong connection,” Goodall explains in From the Stone Age to the Digital Age. “The musical shape, the architecture of it, the kind of chords, the way the accompaniment works and the voice sits on it, even the subject matter, are remarkably similar.”

Maybe some other set of songs provides you the same opportunity for escape. We don’t just collect our records on shelves, we live with them, we care for them and they for us for a period of time. Whatever it is which gives you a moment’s rest, we say play it. Enjoy it and share that record with your friends.

We’re feeling overworked and stressed as we prepared for our fifth annual Record Store Day block party on Saturday. This is our much-needed moment of solace, listening to Schubert in the otherwise silent and dark record store before opening up for the day. Any day which starts like this is going to be a very good one indeed.


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