Schubert Fantasia in F Minor for piano four hands

Maria Callas on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht in the 1950s.
Yes, that is Winston Churchill in the background smoking a cigar.

Why can’t I get enough of sad music? My daughters hate to sit near me at the opera because I have been known to cry uncontrollably and it feels so good. A favorite scene is the end of Act II of Tosca where Scarpia, the evil head of the secret police, has told Tosca he will spare her lover from execution if she sleeps with him. Listen to this mind-blowingly expressive performance by the great Maria Callas (this is considered to be the greatest recording of any opera ever made). When Scarpia yells triumphantly “Tosca, finalmente mio” (Tosca, finally you are mine!) she plunges a knife into his chest. He cries out “Aiuto!” (Help!) and collapses as she yells “Muori! Muori! MUORI!!” (Die! Die! Die). She spits out that third “Muori!!” and it makes my blood run cold (2:25). The strings then hold a note forever until she intones “Or gli perdono” (NOW I forgive you). It is the beginning of the end for Tosca and Mario. Enter: full orchestra.

I read in The Guardian: “Research suggests that listening to sad music or watching sad music can trigger endorphins, pain-relieving chemicals in the brain. “The argument here is that actually, maybe the emotional wringing you get from tragedy triggers the endorphin system,” said Robin Dunbar, a co-author of the study and professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford.”

Which brings me to Schubert, and the F Minor Fantasia for piano four hands which we programmed at NCMF in 2013.  

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828)
Fantasia in F Minor,
D. 940 (Op. posth. 103)

Apart from a few dreadful years of hacking away at the piano as a child, I never really studied the instrument. But if I were ever to try again it would be for one reason - to play this piece. This is not one of the greatest works for piano, it is one of the greatest works of art ever created. A bold statement in a week with music by Bach, Bartok, Brahms, and Mozart, but I stand by it. Composed in 1828 during the superhuman output of Schubert’s last year, it was published posthumously. I find it impossible to maintain a clear perspective when I realize in the same year he also wrote the C Major cello quintet, G Major string quartet, the song cycle “Winterreise,” and his 9th symphony – each one a certifiable masterpiece.

The Fantasia is a transformative journey that starts with a pleading melody over a pulsing bass that eventually ranges over emotional extremes of repressed fury, resigned nostalgia, and rustic vitality, until it rounds a corner and there, shockingly, that first melody reappears. This is followed by a vertigo-inducing fugue that builds to a terrible level of tension until it spins around and we find ourselves full-circle at the opening one last time.

The first time I heard this I was taken aback at how sad it begins, a textbook example of “sehnsucht,” a German word that means yearning, longing, and/or melancholic desire. But the piece is not just a meditation on sadness. There is an enormous range of emotion in the music that follows including a stern and majestic section of trills (5:07) followed by a dreamy melody full of regret (5:58), a fleet middle part with a playful section marked “con delicatezza” (10:52), and finally a fugue (15:25) that starts in a slow boil, expanding massively until the entire edifice collapses upon itself with a shocking pivot to the opening melody one final time. Here is a favorite recording with Murray Perahia & Radu Lupu.  

Listen, weep, and enjoy.

David Yang, Artistic Director

Murray Perahia (piano), Radu Lupu (piano), 1984
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