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It’s a bit early for Winter.

October 8, 2013

Yesterday I saw a performance of Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise. Not just any performance, mark you: this was a lunchtime recital performance in the Crush Room of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; given by the bass, Charbel Mattar, and the renowned and accomplished pianist and conductor Richard Hetherington (to whom I may or may not be related). Let me just say that it was brilliant. It’s too early for that performance to be online, so let me give you instead an excerpt – Einsamkeit (Loneliness) – performed by Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Murray Perahia.

I have deliberately, and not merely for partisan reasons, avoided the words “accompanied by” there. A song may easily (and erroneously) be regarded as a setting of words to music in which the vocal line is the pre-eminent component; the instrumentation, be it piano, guitar, band or whatever, is considered subordinate even though the briefest reflection will show that the accompaniment is every bit as much of the composition as the words and tune. Let me demonstrate – and you really do not have to look round very hard for examples of songs where there is no vocal line to speak of, and all the variety of the song is provided by chord changes and evolving instrumentation.

Take this bizarre song from 1978: Plastic Bertrand’s Ça plane pour moi, which apart from an interjected “oo-oo-oo-oo” once in each verse is sung entirely on two notes (and I think it’s meant to be one note). The root chords, the music between the sung lines, the dynamics: all these change throughout the song to provide what little merit can be found in it.

It is, as I said a very weird song. At the time of its release there was uncertainty as to the meaning of the title Ça plane pour moi. Well, I can reveal all now:

  • according to Wikipedia – It is Gliding for Me
  • according to Google Translate and Systranet – That Planes for Me
  • according to Bing, Babylon 10 and Collins Tranlator  – It Flat for Me
  • according to Promt, Translation2 and Reverso – This Glides for Me
  • according to Linguatec – It flattens for me
  • according to Frengly – the rather sci-fi This Planar to Me
  • and according to Idiomax: Çhas plane to moires. [????]

It didn’t really have an idiomatic equivalent in common usage back in the day:  now, I expect we would say “Works for me” – rather an anti-climax, don’t you think? Don’t say you haven’t learnt something today.

Now: where was I? Oh yes – the value of the instrumentation in a song. The simple fact is that a song is the sum of all its component parts, and to give precedence to one over any other is to interfere unwarrantably. Winterreise is a perfect example of this. (I also find it appropriate to remember that to the layman (me) the piano part is harder. I frequently attempt to sing and I frequently attempt to play the piano. In neither attempt am I at all proficient; at my level of musicianship it makes a terrific difference how many notes are meant to be delivered at the same time. I acknowledge that for the professional musician the skill called for is about much more than the actual technique of playing. Musicality, I think we can call it.)

Winterreise is easily translated –  Winter Journey. I suggest you listen to the whole thing at your leisure, and if you’re then still in the mood for some of next season’s music – try this: Yazoo, Winter Kills. There is a hollow, haunting quality to this incredibly beautiful song which makes it fit to be mentioned in the same paragraph as Schubert’s masterpiece. The understated piano, with two soft, rich chords that lead into a slow, quiet arpeggio throughout; a single muffled drumbeat in each bar; an almost inaudible organ adding a tiny bit extra to the harmonies; Alison Moyet, disconsolate but controlled, singing “I’ll tear at you searching for weaker seams”; and a polyphonic harmony as the song reaches the end: they all combine perfectly in a piece of bareness, simplicity and emotional depth that could not have been achieved by the words or music alone.

If Schubert had looked forward 150 years or so to see what became of the musical form that he made his own, and came to Winter Kills,  I think he would be well contented.  

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