A Cultured Affair: Experiencing ‘Music in Context’

Aspect Foundation for Music and Arts’ concert series
January 8, 2018 Updated: January 14, 2018

NEW YORK—A “music in context” concert, put on by Aspect Foundation for Music and Arts, feels like how you might imagine those 19th-century salons associated with literary and artistic milieus to be: both amusing and intellectually stimulating. Having conversations over drinks or listening to discourses and chamber music in a relaxed, informal atmosphere—this synthesis of music, history, and social culture—is perfectly geared to pique your curiosity.

Each Aspect concert centers on a specific theme, such as musical capitals like Vienna or Weimar, dialogues between composers, great muses, hidden gems of rarely played pieces, or compositions inspired by paintings or literary works. Before the concert begins, a world-renowned speaker gives an illustrated presentation explaining different aspects and anecdotes about the theme and the music the audience is about to hear. At the end of the concert, people keep mingling, having long conversations that evolve beyond small talk. You get a sense that despite salons having dwindled in the 1940s, the spirit of that custom continues to live on in Aspect’s concerts.

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Writer Stephen Johnson gives a talk at the “Romantic Vienna” event produced by Aspect Foundation for Music and Arts at the Italian Academy at Columbia University in New York on Jan. 26, 2016. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

In 2011 Irina Knaster, a former pianist and lawyer, started producing these “music in context” events two to ten times a year in London and has gathered a dedicated following that has since kept growing and changing. She said she was inspired by musicians who were not only excellent artists but also true intellectuals: “Their profound knowledge of every aspect of the music they perform has significantly deepened my own perception of it.” She wanted to share such depth of knowledge and appreciation for classical music with more people. 

“Our concept is continuously evolving. Whether we inquire into the composer’s mindset at the time of the music’s creation or investigate the mysteries of his or her creative process; whether we delve into the history of the music and into the spirit of its time or explore the literary, philosophical, or historical influences on the music, we always endeavor to set the context for each musical piece. We strive to enable the audience to decipher the meaning of the music, and to find an individual connection with it,” Knaster states on the Aspect website.

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People mingle at the reception for Aspect Foundation’s “Prague: Czech Romantics” event at Columbia University’s Italian Academy on Feb. 23, 2016. (Aspect Foundation for Music and Arts)

When Knaster moved to New York in 2016, she brought morsels of the lively classical music scene she had nurtured in London along with her. The music historian and former BBC music producer Misha Donat, who had given a couple of talks at previous Aspect concerts in London, flew to New York especially to give a presentation at the latest Aspect concert. He talked about Franz Schubert’s Octet and about Schubert’s connection with Beethoven, on Dec. 14, at the Bohemian National Hall in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  Other Aspect concerts have been held at The Italian Academy, in one of the beautifully designed McKim, Mead, and White buildings of Columbia University.

The Torchbearer

Donat’s 20-minute talk felt like a breeze, as it was sprinkled with anecdotes, a dash of dry humor, and plenty of evocative details. He started with a curiosity: Although Franz Peter Schubert (1797–1828) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), two of the greatest composers of the early 19th century, both lived in Vienna at the same time, and although Schubert greatly admired Beethoven, their paths apparently never crossed. 

“You can hear echoes of Beethoven in some of Schubert’s work, not least the Octet, which you are going to hear tonight,” Donat said, prompting the audience’s anticipation.

Schubert was known by his contemporaries for his songs, piano duets, and shorter piano pieces. He aspired also to make his mark on the larger forms that Beethoven was so well known for—the symphony, the string quartet, and the piano sonata—but his attempts were met with indifference. Too timid to ever approach Beethoven in person, Schubert made contact with Beethoven’s circle instead. Schubert dedicated several of his works to close friends and patrons of Beethoven’s, Donat explained.

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“Schubertiade,” 1897, painting by Julius Schmid (1854–1935). (Public Domain)

Schubert dedicated only one piece to Beethoven, a set of variations for a piano duet. “Not a terribly good choice really, not Schubert’s best piano duet by a long shot,” Donat said as he showed a projected image of the title page of the sheet music. Beethoven’s name was displayed much more prominently than Schubert’s and was surrounded by a laurel wreath. Underneath, you could see the written dedication in German, “Zugeeignet von seinem Verehrer und Bewunderer” (“Dedicated from his adorer and admirer”).

Donat then related three very different documented accounts of Beethoven’s reaction to Schubert’s piano duet. One of them was by Anton Felix Schindler (1795–1864), a secretary and biographer for Beethoven. “There he is, he looks like a shady character from a novel by Dickens or Balzac,” Donat said while showing a photograph of Schindler. Donat read Schindler’s account: “’It went badly with Franz Schubert when in 1822 he brought to the master the variations for four hands, which he had dedicated to him. Beethoven went through the piece and came upon an error in harmony. He pointed it out to the young man, in a cunningly manner, adding that it was no mortal sin, but Schubert lost his composure entirely. Once out in the street he was able to pull himself together, but he never summed up the courage to present himself to the master again.’”

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“Franz Schubert,” 1875, by Wilhelm August Rieder (1796–1880). Oil painting after watercolor, 1825, Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien. (Public Domain)

The second account was by Schubert’s friend, Joseph Hüttenbrenner, which Donat read: “‘Schubert brought engraved copies of these variations to Beethoven, who, however, was not at home.'” Donat interrupted himself, noting the contradiction, saying, “It’s a tough life being a music historian, let me tell you,” and continued, “but both Karl Beethoven [Beethoven’s nephew] and Herr Schindler repeatedly told me that [the] variations received Beethoven’s full approval because for a couple of months Beethoven played them with his nephew nearly every day.” 

Donat commented that this account was probably the least accurate because in 1822 Beethoven was already profoundly deaf. 

The third and more plausible account, Donant related, came from Hüttenbrenner’s brother, Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a lifelong friend of Beethoven’s.

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Music historian and former BBC Radio producer, Misha Donat gives his talk about Franz Schubert at the Bohemian National Hall in New York on Dec. 14, 2017. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

“To the question, did Schubert and Beethoven ever meet? Hüttenbrenner said or he remembered that he and Schubert had gone to visit Beethoven on his deathbed and that Schubert had been admitted into Beethoven’s chamber,” Donat related.

“Well, the next thing Schubert knew was that he was one of the torchbearers at Beethoven’s funeral on the 29th of March 1827,” Donat said.

Just 18 months after Beethoven’s funeral, Schubert lay on his own deathbed, suffering from either typhoid fever or syphilis. He had two last wishes. One was to hear Beethoven’s string quartet in C-sharp minor (Opus 131), which had yet to be performed because it was considered too difficult to play. Schubert’s wish was indeed granted: The second violinist of the famous Schuppanzigh Quartet, Karl Holz, played it to Schubert as he lay dying at 31 years of age. 

Schubert’s second dying wish was to be read the latest novel by James Fenimore Cooper, the author of “The Last of the Mohicans.” “So you could say, from the sublime to the not quite so sublime,” Donat said. By the middle of Donat’s talk, you are already anticipating how Schubert’s Octet will sound.

Schubert’s Octet in F Major

Schubert’s Octet was a sketch for a grand symphony he was hoping to create. Despite his ambitions, Schubert never heard any of his own symphonies played by a professional orchestra. His close friends were well aware of his more than 600 songs (lieder), but they hardly knew of his 13 symphonies and other large compositions that were published posthumously.

Of the 15 sonatas Schubert composed, three were published in his lifetime, and of his more than 20 string quartets, only one was published in his lifetime. Schubert’s Octet wasn’t published until a quarter of a century after his death.   

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Misha Donat shows a photograph of Archduke Rudolf of Austria, as he gives his talk about Schubert at the Bohemian National Hall in New York on Dec. 14, 2017. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

Count Ferdinand Troyer (1780–1851) commissioned Schubert’s Octet. “He’s a rather obscure character; I couldn’t find a picture of him at all,” Donat said. “He was employed by Archduke Rudolf, funnily enough,” he said. Archduke Rudolf was not only the emperor’s [Leopold II] youngest son, but also a clarinetist and Beethoven’s principal patron and composition pupil. When Rudolf (acting for Troyer) commissioned Schubert to write his Octet, “he wanted a piece along the lines of Beethoven’s Septet [Opus 20],” Donat said.

From Words and Images to Music

It was a rare treat to listen to a Schubert piece that is hardly ever performed, and with so much more anticipation after having been primed by Donat’s entertaining talk. Knaster had hired the Ying Quartetcomprising David Ying, Janet Ying, Phillip Ying, and Robin Scott, from Rochester, New York. The quartet has performed in a variety of places, ranging from prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall and the White House to schools and juvenile prisons. For the Octet, they performed with Daniel Panner on viola, Joseph Anderer on horn, Alexander Bedenko on clarinet, William Short on bassoon, and Brendan Kane on double bass. 

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People listen to the “Schubert Octet” concert produced by Aspect Foundation for Music and Arts at the Bohemian National Hall in New York on Dec. 14, 2017. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

The audience discovered that, indeed, Schubert’s Octet follows the same sequence of movements as Beethoven’s Septet, but with an additional second violin in the ensemble to create more string sonority. Like Beethoven’s Opus 20, it’s prefaced with a slow introduction, followed by a scherzo, a set of variations, a minuet, and the finale, which includes a recapitulation of the introduction, sounding slower than at the beginning, and finally ending with a nostalgic coda. Donat’s explanation then came to mind.

“Schubert brings back his introduction in a very interesting way because the tempo doesn’t change. What he does is he writes the music of the introductions in notes of twice their original value so that it sounds as though the music is suddenly moving at half speed … There is a temporal relationship between the introduction and the quick part of the movement. The Allegro is more or less twice the speed of the introduction.” Of course, Schubert did not follow the structure of Beethoven’s Septet exactly to the letter. His Octet is decidedly Schubertian.

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The Ying Quartet and guest performers play Franz Schubert’s Octet in F major, D. 803. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

Schubert is perhaps best known for his songs, such as his “Winter Journey” song cycle and his “Ave Maria,” and also his large-scale instrumental pieces like the “Trout Quintet,” the “Wanderer Fantasy” for piano, and “Death and the Maiden,” which has been repeatedly called one of the pillars of the chamber music repertoire. But after listening to his Octet and enjoying the whole evening arranged by Aspect, you begin to wonder how many more exquisite dormant pieces have yet to be heard of this great composer of the late classical and early romantic eras.

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Irina Knaster, founder of Aspect Foundation, and speaker Stephen Johnson during intermission at the “Romantic Vienna” concert at the Italian Academy at Columbia University on Jan. 26, 2016. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

Knaster has an arsenal of ideas and themes for Aspect’s programming, which are wonderful for refining one’s taste and knowledge in pleasant company.

As part of its “Hidden Gems” theme, Aspect Foundation’s next concert will be “Taneyev and Arensky in Tchaikovsky’s Shadow” on Wednesday, Feb. 7, starting with a pre-concert reception at 7 p.m. at the Bohemian National Hall.  It will feature Philippe Quint and Ji In Yang on violin, Milena Pajaro van de Stadt on viola, Brook Speltz and Zlatomir Fung on cello, and Alexander Kobrin on piano, and will be accompanied by an illustrated talk by Damian Fowler. For further information on forthcoming concerts, visit AspectFoundation.net

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(L–R) Violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violinist Emily Daggett Smith, pianist Vsevolod Dvorkin, cellist Rafael Figueroa, and violist Paul Neubauer play Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, for the Aspect Foundation’s “Romantic Vienna” concert at the Italian Academy at Columbia University on Jan. 26, 2016. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)

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