SchPro Pair

Severance Hall
March 12 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

March 13 – Friday at 11:00 a.m.*
March 14 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 

Sergei Prokofiev & Franz Schubert:
Pairing the Two

by Franz Welser-Möst

People will rightly ask why I have chosen to pair Schubert and Prokofiev symphonies together?  These two composers may, at first, seem like an unlikely twosome.  Yet their music shares many parallels and similarities, in addition to some obvious contrasts.  For me, juxtaposing their works together offers new perspectives of understanding about each.

Schubert has been an important composer all my life.  When I was in my teens, I was in a car accident, which took place on the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death, almost to the hour of the day.  I was travelling from playing in one performance of Schubert to another.  

At the time, I was studying to be a violinist.  I thought about many things during my recovery period, understanding that my musical journey would no longer be as a violinist.  Schubert’s music was very much present in my mind, and I have always been drawn to his scores.  

Prokofiev was a very different kind of man, who spent so much of his life wandering and searching, both geographically and in his music.  Yet both of these composers wrote so much music, and of all kinds, across many genres, almost like a water spigot always turned on, their minds always pouring out something new.  

I believe their music works well together because of contrasts and similarities in their outlook and output.  Bringing them together offers a particular context to listen to and reflect on the creativity of each.

They both had a strong classical spirit.  And both were supreme masters of melody.  Prokofiev’s tunes, perhaps, are more modern than Schubert’s, but melody was very important for both of them.  They also infuse their music with a great deal of longing beneath the surface.

In one sense, this pairing is a lesson in understanding emotional longing.  For Schubert, it is about melancholy — of reveling in sadness as a joy.  For Prokofiev, similarly, the meaning underneath the surface is often filled with sarcasm.  Prokofiev’s sarcasm is more subtle than Shostakovich’s, the other best-known Soviet composer, but it is this sharing of subtlety that brings Schubert and Prokofiev together.  Perhaps we might think that sarcasm was for the 20th century what melancholy was for the Romantics, helping to illuminate the layering of meaning within music and life.

With Prokofiev, certainly, if you simply go for the effect of the melody, and play the music without tying the parts together, you are missing the point.  Much of the meaning is underneath, in the accompaniment, which must be captured and balanced as part of the performance.  In many ways this is the emotional depth, which both of these composers bring to so much of their music.  

With Schubert, I think it is remarkable that even when a specific piece is large in scale, for performers and listeners it is often the small details that are important in making clear the larger meaning of his music.  

Ultimately, for both composers, it is essential to let this music sing.  The music must breathe, just as a singer does.  There is a reason that Schubert wrote so many songs — because he could capture the essence of emotion into phrasing and accompaniment, tying together meaning and music.  And his symphonies do this, too.  So many of his dance movements, for instance, are like ballads for a singer, but written for the orchestra.

Perhaps these two, Schubert and Prokofiev, are not as obvious a pairing as Beethoven and Shostakovich, which I examined a number of years ago (and presented in Cleveland, Miami, and Vienna with The Cleveland Orchestra in 2013-14).  In that case, the politics and music were clearly intertwined — with Shostakovich’s own words telling us directly of his debt to Beethoven.  Schubert and Prokofiev are, perhaps, more similar to when I have paired works by Anton Bruckner with John Adams or Jörg Widmann with Brahms, each sharing kernels of musical patterns, feeling, and contrasts, and with one older and one newer.  

With any of the composer pairings I have examined, each of these composers was, in fact, looking both to the past, to history, and also forward beyond their own time.  From our understanding today, now that we are further along in musical history, we can more clearly see how their different ideas flow and interact, one to the next.

Franz Welser-Möst