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Not just arm candy
The piano in Schubert song cycles
The piano, like all keyboard instruments, is able to produce many notes at the same time and pianists can hence play a melody in one hand while accompanying it with features such as broken chords in the other. It differs from other instruments such as the trumpet, flute or French horn in that the latter instruments can only produce one note at a time. The piano can be used as a solo instrument; but in other contexts it can accompany other soloists such as singers or violinists and is hence classed as a solo or accompanying instrument. But even when it is used in combination with other instruments - whether it be with an orchestra, as in a piano concerto, a piano quintet (together with a string quartet) or to accompany another instrument, its role within the context of the combination may switch between prominence and accompaniment, as a quasi-soloist or an accompanist.
One of the more recent genres involving the piano have been the lied (German for "song"); compared to genres such as symphonies and concertos, lieder have only been in existence for about half that time. The composer Franz Schubert wrote various songs grouped in collections called song-cycles. In the song-cycles we see how the balance between the piano and the soloist (in this case, the voice) weaves seamlessly between the two traditionally-accepted roles of the piano.
The lied was a popular genre in the Romantic era; prior to that public singing either existed in the form of operas or religious works called oratorios. Why did lieder grow in popularity? One could argue that they offered a welcome contrast to the texturally-heavy world of operas or oratorios that was only increasing in scale; singing, in a somewhat less extravagant form. Opera, for example, was only increasing in scale, not just in the visual sense, but also musically - textures were only ever-increasing with the employ of more brass instruments. And for those who found the religious nature of oratorios slightly uncomfortable, the more common themes within the lieder, of common emotions, were perhaps more familiar. If lieder existed in the modern day concept, it might have been term "unplugged" - stripped back of the studio effects, the sonic make-up, where singer and piano merely present themselves laid bare.
One of Schubert's more famous songs is Gretchen am Spinnrade, or Gretchen at the spinning wheel. The piano, which provides the musical accompaniment reminiscent of the continuous clacking of the spinning wheel, also mirrors the emotions of Gretchen. The song was based on Goethe's poem, and while the poet did inspire many of Schubert's other songs, the dramatic Romantic Wilhelm Muller inspired the song cycles that Schubert is known for. In the song cycles, the piano interweaves between its role as a solo instrument; introducing new thematic material at the start of songs and closing them, while musically illustrating the singer's emotions and illustrating the meaning of the words that are expressed by the singer when it is in its secondary role. Die schone Mullerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill) begins with the joy of the miller, but slowly lapses into unhappiness over the course of the songs when the miller realises he has competition and that his love is unrequited. The piano has its moments of promience, but in other occasions musically illustrates aspects of the songs, such as the babbling brook, or emotions such as the joy of infatuation, jealousy or intense hatred.
You may think the stereotypical image of Romantics as melancholics were derived from Schubert. Where Die schone Mullerin ends, Winterreise picks up. The gloom in the former is picked up in the latter as its starting point; while the singer takes on the protagonist role of an outcast lover, on the verge of a breakdown, the piano not only paints the snowy landscape through which the singer walks, but also at times serves as a companion over the twenty-four heart-rendering songs - sort of a sympathetic listener.
The piano accompaniment in the Schubert song cycles is worth closer study to see how it adapts to the various roles. For the pianist, moving between these roles within the song involves an awareness of the role of the piano at intermittent points. In sections where the piano has prominence, the melodic aspects of the music should be brought out. Where the piano accompanies the singer, its function is to provide supporting harmonies, in which case it should emphasise the bass line and the harmonies. Even if the piano part then looks like it could suffice as a solo piece on its own, pianists should be mindful of the fact that what they play should support the voice, or work with it, but not overshadow it!
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