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Austria’s Schubertiade

So you have seen everything? You don´t believe in miracles. You are a music lover and you like to travel. You have been to the most highly prized music festivals in the USA and Europe. Surely it´s not possible that you´ve missed a gem tucked away in mountains of a rugged, pristine beauty at the foot of the Alpes. However, given the small number of Americans who have attended the Schubertiade, the odds are good that you, too, have not yet discovered it. Radio stations all over Western Europe as well as in Russia, Chechnia and Japan regularly broadcast from the festival, but not a single American station has yet caught on.

The Schubertiade takes place in Austria, in a small mountain region called the Bregenzer Wald, in the ancient town Schwarzenberg. The 26-year-old festival, dedicated to Schubert´s music, offers two annual programs (in early and late summer) of lieder and chamber music and gathers the finest Schubert interpretors in the world: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig, Lucia Papp, Jessie Norman, Cecilia Bartoli, Brigitte Fassbaender, Hans Hotter, Nikolai Gedda, Kurt Moll, David Daniels, Francisco Araiza, Peter Schreier, James King, Dimitri Hvorostovski, and Bo Skovhus. For the rest, make a list of the greatest string quartets, chamber music ensembles, orchestras, chamber orchestras, and conductors of the last few decades, and you will have the history of the Schubertiade.

Schwarzenberg is the oldest town of the Bregenzer Wald, famous for its sheer beauty and its history as one of the earliest democracies of Europe. The men of the region were baroque master builders who created in the course of a single century more than 200 baroque churches, cloisters and castles in the area around lake Constance. It´s all still here. Walking through Schwarzenberg on the way to the festival hall, your eye is caught by the exquisite crafts of wood building and carving in the old farm houses and barns with their shingled walls and gables. Some of the most beautiful houses in the village have been transformed into hotels and restaurants, proudly displaying cascades of multi-colored flowers in window boxes between painted shutters. One of the few famous women painters of the baroque, Angelika Kaufmann, was a daughter of the town who, together with her father, painted the interior of the local church where some of the festival concerts are held. Many of the concert-goers appear in the local Tracht, the costume of the region- perhaps in honor of their forebears: Dressed in their Tracht, the women of this area, are known to have given the Swedish invaders of the 30-year-war a bloody thrashing with their scythes, axes and hay forks!

The Schubertiade is the brain child of baritone Hermann Prey and co-founder Gerd Nachbaur who wanted a festival dedicated to Schubert´s music the way Bayreuth is dedicated to Wagner. The name Schubertiade reaches back into the life of Schubert himself: the regular private gatherings where Schubert and his friends performed his songs and chamber music were lovingly called Schubertiaden by a friend. Even two centuries later, the festival captures the intimacy of those original gatherings. The audience is typically composed of Schubert lovers, connoisseurs, music teachers and musicians–an audience that knows how to hold a rapt stillness for long, long seconds after a song or song cycle, before breaking into applause.

This ability to intimately capture the past could count as the first miracle of today´s Schubertiade, but there are others.

The second miracle is the hall itself. From afar, you notice the well-dressed crowd of concert-goers strolling through the village and down meadow paths to gather in front of the hall where two young village musicians play Schubert´s Mailied on their horns to announce the beginning of the concert. Having wandered- somewhat like a romantic hero from Schubert songs– through several towns of the region, the festival has recently found its definitive location at the Angelika Kaufmann Hall in Schwarzenberg. The auditorium holds almost 600 people, a magical number which comes close to matching the 608 songs Schubert wrote. It is constructed of wood entirely for the accoustics of chamber music. Like Bayreuth´s famous Festspielhaus, the utter simplicity of the Angelica Kaufmann Hall could be compared to a barn. Inside, its only decor is the majestic asymmetrial rafters of the roof and the picture windows showing the idyll of Alpine pastures. Sitting in the audience is like sitting inside a musical instrument where the sound has a deep resonance and clarity, heightening the experience of chamber music in the same way that the Bayreuth Festspielhaus transforms opera.

Schubert songs draw on the great German romantic poets, Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Hölderlin. They also draw on the tradition of the simple Volkslied, the folk song. The hero of these poems and songs is the wanderer who sets out with a broken heart or encounters love´s heart-ache along the way. He passes through the various moods of love and despair and finds these states reflected in nature. Leaving the hall during intermission or after a performance, you step back into the very landscape of the songs. You have before your eyes the proverbial Lindenbaum, the fountains, woods, meadows, brooks, the clouds, mist and mountain fogs, through which Schubert´s tragic heros wandered. Little paths and roads still connect the villages, follow the brooks or take you straight up into the steep pastures of the high mountains around. This is the third miracle.

Romantic poets give a particular emphasis to nature sounds. Schubert seems to have chosen the poems he set, in part because they establish a remarkable sound progression from nature through the poems into the music itself. A perfect example is a verse, one of many such in a long ballad by Schiller: “…it bubbles silver-toned…, a trickling trilling, whispering…a gossipy, murmuring spring.” The sounds that the poetry names and the music evokes, are right here in the Bregenzer Wald: the bells of chapels and churches, cows and goats, the rushing and roaring and whispering of wind and water that compose the romantic poetic landscape. It so happens that the word Ach!,” that gathers up the greatest intensity of German romantic feeling, is the actual name of the river that runs through Schwarzenberg and the Bregenzer Wald. For a moment, before you return to your seat, you wonder if this landscape was perhaps created by the magical power of the songs. On September 8th, 2002, on a clear, sunny afternoon at 4:00 pm, Olaf Baer begins his Liederabend. An hour later, the sky clouds over. While he sings, “da gießt unendlicher Regen herab” (“suddenly tremendous rain pours down”), an actual rain descends, followed by a loud torrent of hail. Is Baer singing against the rain? Or perhaps creating it? At the end of the song, the singers eyes, as those of the audience, turn (ironically? urgently?) towards the rain-slashed windows.

The fourth miracle. A lot of care is given to the composition of the program itself. Schubert´s music is placed within the context of his contemporaries, his precursors as well as composers who were influenced by him – Mahler, Strauss, the early Alban Berg, Rachmaninov, or Berlioz. Singers and musicians are asked to perform particular Schubert works, as for example the lesser known early piano sonatas. Nachwuchsförderung, sponsorship for young and upcoming singers and musicians is a steady part of the program. The audience is invited to follow the hard work of singers chosen for the master class, then experience a debut performer on stage, draw the comparison with a master singer like Thomas Quasthoff, and appreciate the maturity of an aging master like Peter Schreier.

In the earliest days of the festival, Hermann Prey suggested that the entire Schubert oeuvre be performed chronologically. This tender idealism has in part been realized. For ex. in 1989, for the first time ever, all of Schubert´s string quartets were performed together by the Tokyo String Quartet. In 1992, Nikolaus Harnoncourt performed all of the symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchester Amsterdam, and Adràs Schiff played all the piano sonatas. In other years, the festival offered all of Schubert´s settings of Goethe poems, then, in a fascinating thematic presentation, all the songs Schubert composed while he was travelling, and all the songs he published himself. Every season also brings a flurry of lectures and readings about Schubert and his time. In 2000, to celebrate the 25-year anniversary, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf gave a severe and demanding master class. In 2002, a new Schubert Museum was opened, and Fischer-Dieskau not only gave his own master class, but gave a reading of Richard Strauss´ letters to Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Highlights for the Schubertiade 2003: Ian Bostridge will perform the three great Schubert song cycles on three evenings in June. Fischer-Dieskau will once again give the master class. Pianist Alfred Brendel and cellist Adrian Brendel will perform and lecture together. Musicians and singers beloved by American audiences will appear: Barbara Bonney, Thomas Hampson, Mitsuko Ushida, Angelika Kirchschlager. There will be two singers American audiences imperatively must know better: Soprano Juliane Banse and baritone Thomas Quasthoff who is (together with Ian Bostridge) one of the greatest Schubert singers of our time. (See box for more deatiled 2003 information!)

To come back to the many reasons American music lovers must discover this famously hidden music festival: the region provides inns and hotels for every budget, and produces an astonishing gastronomy with excellent wine, 30 local cheeses and famous traditional cheese dishes. Fans of solid Austrian alpine food as well as vegetarians and lovers of a light cuisine will have no problem enjoying themselves. At the Ankelika Kaufmann Hall, a superb espresso, Prosecco champaign, light sandwiches and Austrian pastry are served to comfort the hungry wanderers who have made it from almost every corner of the world. In this area, the rich traditions of the past have not been pushed aside by the urgencies of modern times. While you savor a nouvelle cuisine salad under the linden tree of a garden café, next to the town fountain, the long procession of mountain cows walks by, returning from the high alpine meadows. Each cow is decorated with garlands and huge shining bells, their horns bedecked with pine branches and red flowers that also adorn the hats of the shepards who walk the cows down from the mountains through the villages. This is not a tourist show. At each end of the slow, long march down narrow roads, the cars are forced to wait in line as tradition establishes its precedence…and the cows process with their many-toned harmonies of pastoral music.

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