Schubert and His Circle Vividly and Perceptively Imagined by Iain Burnside

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Iain Burnside: Why does the Queen die?, Milton Court Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 3.5.2015 (CS)

Franz Schubert – Edward Liddall
Josef von Spaun – Matthew Palmer
Franz von Schober – Jonathan Hyde
Anselm Hüttenbrenner – Pierre Riley
Johann Mayrhofer – Adam Sullivan
Moritz von Schwind – Thomas Isherwood
Gisela – Jessica Dandy
Lotte – Bianca Andrew
Silke – Judy Brown
Karoline Esterhazy – Ines Lorans
Johann Michael Vogl – Adrian Thompson

Director – Iain Burnside
Designer – Aaron Marsden
Designer – Catherine Morgan
Choreographer – Victoria Newlyn
Lighting Designer – Charlie Morgan Jones

Associate Lighting Designer – George Smith

In early nineteenth-century Vienna, music was a potent social force in the face of an increasingly oppressive regime, and the circle of friends – some of the finest musicians, painters, poets and thinkers of the day – who gathered around Franz Schubert were bound together by their passion for music and poetry, and by their shared belief in art’s essential truth and power to bring about improvement and change. Iain Burnside’s Why does the Queen die? – a ‘play with music in 13 scenes’, which was first seen at last year’s Oxford Lieder Festival as part of its ‘Schubert Project’ –skilfully conveys both the restless joie de vivre and radicalism of the Schubertiad group, and the camaraderie and conflicts which shaped the individual artists’ personal relationships.

Interestingly, in Burnside’s imagined re-creation of these private gatherings, which often became extended one-man concerts, Schubert himself remains an elusive figure; his character is articulated more through his music, which is played during wild punch parties and intimate soirees, than through the composer’s direct engagement with his fellow artists. Edward Liddall’s Schubert is reflective and prone to quiet melancholy, preferring to retreat to the keyboard and converse not through words but through his songs, piano works and symphonies – frequently seated on a piano-duet stool beside Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a pupil of Salieri, played here with diffidence and equanimity by Pierre Riley. Only in the later scenes do Schubert’s distress and fear become more explicit. Previously a portrait of gentle affability, Liddall’s Schubert becomes a man of unpredictability. At times he displays a gentle disposition, playing and singing alongside Karoline Esterházy – the composer’s alleged, unrequited beloved, a role performed with grace and composure by Inés Lorans – in the scene entitled ‘Singing Tone’. Moreover, Schubert is sociably gregarious during a punch-fuelled tavern party. But, he becomes enraged with hostile fury in ‘The Long Way Round’, increasingly alienated from his friends by his illness and fears.

Burnside imaginatively mixes historical figures with fictional characters, creating an engagingly varied crowd. We have the distinguished Austrian painter Moritz von Schwind (Thomas Isherwood) whose portrait of Karoline Esterházy rests in a prominent position on the rear wall. In the first scene, ‘Most Cherished Art’, von Schwind sketches the members of the intimate party who gather round Schubert at the piano, as they animatedly discuss the merits of Discipline and Anarchy in art, or competitively construct verses to set schemes of rhyme and meter under the cynical, sometimes scathing, regard of Adam Sullivan’s deliciously mordant Johann Mayrhofer.

Countering Schubert’s reticence is the garrulous dilettante Franz von Schober (Jonathan Hyde): flamboyant, self-confident and charming, Hyde’s Schober fizzes with exuberant energy, waltzing elegantly with the ladies or honing his handsome figure in vigorous physical exercises alongside Matthew Palmer’s Josef von Spaun. Palmer thoughtfully suggests the loyalty and compassion which von Spaun (a government official) felt towards the composer, for example showing pained anger when Schober flippantly alludes to the sexual adventures which the latter has engineered for Schubert, and which will have such a tragic outcome.

Balancing the male characters and voices, Burnside gives us Gisela (Jess Dandy) and Lotte (Bianca Andrew), who bring feminine charm to the Schubertiade revelries, and Silke (Judy Brown), a tavern hostess who shows sincere love for Schubert, first enticing him into a passionate encounter, then tending the dying composer with softness and devotion in his last days and hours.

And how inspiring it must have been for these young singers, actors and students to perform alongside Adrian Thompson, whose portrayal of the Austrian baritone, Johann Michael Vogl, was a masterclass in judicious caricature. Dapper and fervent, Vogl was not averse to embellishing Schubert’s songs – which he championed throughout his life – with his own extravagant decorative gestures, and in a wryly comic scene his independent interjections brought Schubert’s accompaniment abruptly to a halt and garnered the ‘reprimand’ of his youthful audience that ‘Attic Simplicity’ was more appropriate.

Burnside’s 13 scenes move through a wide range of moods. There is joviality in the tavern dances of ‘Punch! Punch! Punch!’, and wild abandon during what Silke terms a ‘sausage ball’ in ‘More Mustard’. But there is conflict and disquiet too. Mayrhofer, ten years older than Schubert, was a major influence on Schubert’s development as a songwriter; his commitment to Romantic ‘Sehnsucht’ was allied with a Classical approach to form. But in Scene 3, ‘Pine Lake by the Trees’, he angrily dismisses the composer’s flexible and independent interpretation of his poem’s form which he believes destroys the integral union of structure and meaning.

The central scene, ‘The Red Cord’, is the emotional climax of the play. It comprises a performance by the members of the Schubertiade of ‘Der Zwerg’ (The dwarf) – an oppressive apotheosis of Gothic horror, pervaded by the spirit of Beethoven’s whose ‘fate motif’ from the Fifth Symphony pervades the accompaniment. The Queen and her dwarf are on the open sea at twilight; she is pure and divine, but she is mesmerised by astrological predictions of her doom. She is loved by the dwarf and, strangely, returns his love; but she betrays his passion by her convention marriage to the King. Schubert ranges deep into the deranged mind of the Queen; she is trapped in a bizarre game with the dwarf, who, overwhelmed by grief and self-loathing, murders her by strangling her with a red silk cord. She is punished not because she had transgressed but because she has suppressed her true desires. The performance is watched by Mayrhofer who angrily despairs at the others’ inability to comprehend the reason why the Queen must die; exasperatedly he declares that it is a political allegory concerning Napoleon and Maria Therese!

Thus, Burnside gives us both the enclosed intimate world of the Schubertiade and intimates the broader social, political and cultural context. So, references to the ‘greatest living composer’ reminded us of Schubert’s admiration for the ‘master’ who lived in Vienna for the entire span of Schubert’s thirty-one years; his reaction to Beethoven’s death is inferred by a dramatic performance of Schubert’s Piano Sonata D959, which is begun by Schubert and then, after the composer’s departure, taken up by Hüttenbrenner. Similarly, the contemporary threat of political censorship is allude to when Mayrhofer departs to take up a position as chief censor for the Imperial Majesty, in ‘A Job’s a Job’.

The set suggests a realistic historic milieu. Mayrhofer’s own description of the room within which the Schubertiade frequently met perfectly conveys the details and ambience: ‘It was in a dark, gloomy street. House and furniture were the worse for wear; the ceiling was beginning to bulge, the light obstructed by a huge building opposite, and part of the furniture was an old worn-out piano and a shabby bookstand such was the room. I shall never forget it nor the hours we spent there …’ I’m not sure, however, why there were some modern diversions, of costume and props – an electric kettle atop the bookstand, and mid/late-twentieth-century attire, for example. Perhaps it was due to the expense of sustaining period costuming and detail, but there was some tension between historic recreation and modern dress.

The interpolated songs and piano pieces were consistently well-performed. Judy Brown displayed a focused, pure soprano tone which she used to convey her tenderness for Schubert; Isherwood used his powerful baritone dramatically in his explosive interjections in ‘The Red Cord’. Matthew Palmer’s warm, expressive baritone voice evoked a rich array of emotions; Bianca Andrew’s Lotte had a sparkling clarity to match her light-hearted spirit, while mezzo-soprano Jess Dandy used her burnished lower voice movingly in moments of deep emotion. Stanzas of the songs were shared between voices intimating a camaraderie and network of relationships, and enhancing the dramatic quality of the piece.

In the final moments, Schubert’s friends gather to lament the composer’s premature death, participating in a formal dance of mourning against striking blue-green light. After his death, these friends would be responsible for promoting and preserving Schubert’s work. Burnside, too, has made an eloquent contribution in this regard.

Claire Seymour

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