Notturno, Opus 148, D. 897

By Peter Halstead

Still from the film “Nocturne” by Emily Rund.

There are many pieces which epitomize the cosmic but somehow grounding atmosphere of Tippet Rise, many of which can be found on our website.

Aaron Kernis’s Musica Celestis, written in 1990, which the Ariel Quartet played at Tippet Rise in our first summer, 2016. Jeffrey Kahane’s America the Beautiful, which can be found on our website in a version improvised emotionally one night at Tippet Rise. The music of Antón Garcîa-Abril, especially Lontananzas, Celeste, the piece he wrote to convince his future wife to marry him, which is featured in the film Solstice on our website. John Corigliano’s virtuosic Red Violin Caprices, played movingly in the sunset by Caroline Goulding in front of Calder’s Two Discs. Anderson and Roe’s extraordinary version of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, conceived and performed in the sunset one evening in a field at Tippet Rise. Bach’s Cello Suites, played in our opening season at the Domo by Matt Haimowitz. Many extraordinary pieces composed by the French virtuoso Julian Brocal at Tippet Rise over many years, which have been filmed creatively in Reflections, Sun Streaming, The Stainless Stealer, and other films soon to be posted. Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, epitomized by Natasha Peremsky and Zuill Bailey in their performance at the Olivier Music Barn.

John Luther Adams’ Fifth String Quartet (“Lines Made By Walking”), commissioned by us and recorded at Tippet Rise, written while John was walking on the wilder parts of the ranch in 2018. John’s modern requiem mass for the planet, In the Name of the Earth, much of which was written at Tippet Rise in 2018, commissioned by Lincoln Center and debuted at a crowded happening in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on a rainy afternoon in New York, and later in the Albert Hall in London.

Notturno was performed in 2017 on an iconic afternoon at the Domo by Jeffrey Kahane, Sasha Kazovsky, and Amit Even-Tov. Photo: Erik Petersen.

I am so fond of every gift which we have received through all of the very personal performances over the years from our many friends, many of them found on our website and on our YouTube channel, that I feel that every piece on our site in a very special way sounds different than it ever has to us elsewhere, and contributes to the surreal and timeless atmosphere of our corner of Montana; many of our friends and visitors have told me they feel it, too.

One piece was performed in 2017 on an iconic afternoon at the Domo by Jeffrey Kahane, Sasha Kazovsky, and Amit Even-Tov, a performance which can be found in three videos on our site: Schubert’s Notturno, written the year he died. In a way, it is a lost piece, forgotten over the years, but which brings together intangible emotions which to me evoke the scenes we encounter every day and night in Montana, so many years and so far away from the Vienna of 1828. I’d like to discuss that piece with you, and explore why it moves me so strongly.

Schubert died on November 19th, 1828. He was going on thirty-two. On March 26, 1827, Beethoven died. Many young Viennese composers saw themselves as Beethoven’s successor, although Schubert and Brahms really were.

However, during his brief thirty years in the world, Schubert was neglected by the press and the public. The only public concert he gave took place March 26, 1828 - the day when Beethoven, the year before, had died. The concert brought at last a small recognition, although it was ignored by the musical press; from its proceeds, Schubert bought his first piano, which he was to have for only seven months. Because in seven months he was dead. Despite rumors, he never met Beethoven, whose life was in the capital, while Schubert lived in the suburbs and played dance music at the house parties of his friends. None of his friends was aware of his genius or even of the extent of his compositions. His work remained unpublished and undiscovered for many decades. As Geoffrey Block has written in Schubert’s Reputation from His Time to Ours (Pendragon, 2017), “It wasn’t until the end of the twentieth century that Schubert emerged from behind Beethoven’s shadow.” Today his monument stands next to Beethoven’s obelisk in an acacia-shaded bower of Vienna’s main cemetery, separated by Mozart’s statue.

The year before Schubert died of typhoid fever was one of the intense periods of his creativity. In the summer, the second set of his Impromptus, and four of the Moments Musicaux. In July the Mass No. 6 in E Flat. In October the “boundless longing” of the B Flat Piano Trio. (The Adagio (Notturno) was to have been its 2nd movement.) It was inspired by a visit to Styrian mountains and to the pianist Marie Pachler at Graz in September. In October he finished Part II of Winterreise. In November, the E Flat Piano Trio. In January of 1828 the great F Minor Fantasie for piano duet.

Many of the innovations and surprises of these last works were motivated by the death of Beethoven. But in summer of 1828 Schubert learned from his doctor that he had three months left to live. In fact, he would be dead in four months. In these last four months Schubert wrote the Mass in E Flat, begun in June. It was written for the church where Beethoven’s funeral was held, and, at Schubert’s dying request, was played there after he himself died. It was the Church of the Holy Trinity at Alsergrund.

In May he began the last 3 sonatas, finished in September. The immense emotion revealed in the last, B Flat, sonata would have been considered out of place on the concert stage at that time. Schumann discounted it, but Brahms loved it. But it took the public a hundred years to accept it.

In October Schubert wrote a new version of the Benedictus for the Mass in C and the String Quintet in C (D. 956), and finished the Schwanengesang song cycle. As John Reed said in Schubert (J. M. Dent, 1987), the composer felt himself to be living in the presence of death. Nobody can study his songs in the last three years of his life “without realising the constant companionship he found in the idea of death.”

Photo: Erik Petersen

Schubert’s Notturno, arguably one of his greatest works, has received far less attention, possibly because it is shorter, than his popular pieces: the “unfinished” 8th Symphony, the great song cycles of Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, or the slow movement of his last sonata. He wrote a dozen symphonies, a dozen masses, over 600 songs, over 20 string quartets, and two piano trios, the B Flat and the E Flat, of which the Notturno was meant to be the Adagio.

Notturno is a party trick by a genius. As Bach was challenged by Frederick the Great to write a six-part fugue (which became A Musical Offering), as Beethoven challenged himself to write the immense double fugue of the Grosse Fugue, Schubert set himself the impossible task of repeating a small phrase 96 times and turning it into one of the great revelations in musical history.

Notturno functions through a Cantor series of repeated images, a hall of mirrors, spiraling upwards into the sky. It climbs up in steps like a ziggurat or a pyramid, a stairway to heaven. One simple theme of four notes is repeated over and over for nine minutes, constantly imitating and improving itself, the way star structures build on molecular forms until simple atoms turn into supernovae. Every one of the 16 returns of the theme is a deeper epiphany.

The form of the piece reinvents the melody by modulating upwards; as well, each iteration of the theme involves repeating the theme some three times. There are 16 rejuvenations, each of which modulates six times, so the theme replicates some 96 times, certainly some kind of record for recurring without driving people crazy. The repetitions in fact augment the majesty of the phrase, somehow gaining in grandeur until what should be the final chord morphs instead into a modest turn, which is the theme one last time. What should be a humble fading out becomes instead the ultimate revelation: that all this opulence has come from this simple musical “turn.” Bravado builds to a summit, whose ultimate glory comes from its simplicity. If each modulation is a lesson in how dignity grows into stateliness which then grows into greatness, which proceeds to splendor, and so on, the greatest triumph comes from this éclarté, the fireworks of the unpretentious. Scriabin wrote a piece to similar effect in 1903 called Mysterium, an apocalyptic chant which would bring the world through music into revelation.

Four notes climb and change keys. They not only represent, but create in a visceral way the switching of energy levels, the way electrons and protons jump around in a chain reaction, ending in a nuclear explosion. Each small four-note explosion is a further revelation, an epiphany, a catharsis. These notes are what is called an ornament, a turn, an appoggiatura. They swirl around the center note, so in a way they don’t even exist. They are meant simply to embellish or stress the central note.

Such decorations come from early music, when harpsichords couldn’t sustain a note, because their strings were plucked by the key. Unlike a modern piano, their tones died down almost immediately. So the “turn” and the trill were devised by early composers as ways to help one note sound longer. Bach used this device most effectively.

But Bach died in 1750. Schubert’s piece was written in 1827, 77 years later. Schubert was using a device, an ornament, that was mostly unused by then, and resurrecting it into a crescendo which has turned this piece into his calling card to history, as much as the Unfinished Symphony and the slow movement from his last sonata.

He has taken an insignificant and minor aspect of music, a tone en passant, a fly-over note, and turned it into a theme as resounding as Beethoven’s opening four notes of his Fifth Symphony.

Each time this ornament recurs, the piece climbs higher on the scale. The effect of this is to lift it out of its dimension into a new one. It seems to change the “set” where it formerly existed for a new one. It jumps to a higher energy level, emitting electromagnetic radiation which, if the chain reaction continues, results in a nuclear explosion.

Photo: Erik Petersen

I’ve experienced a similar kind of consciousness transition.

I took an uncontrolled sustance once when I was young. Only once. I disliked the loss of control of any logical processes, and its haunting side effects, so I never did it again. But the one amazing process which continues to amaze me is that every time I blinked, it seemed a new level of enlightenment had been created.

To blink, you close your eyes, and then open them. Every time my eyelids rose, I entered an entirely new level of understanding, a new world. It was like the moment in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale when Laure, played by the brilliant Rebecca Romijn, is thrown off a bridge, and as she rises to the surface, suddenly she wakes up in the bathtub, and you realize that much of the movie has been a dream. There is an even more complex film where that happens some seven times: Claude Lelouch’s 1984 Viva La Vie, or Long Live Life. Every time you think you’re beginning to understand what’s going on, the film jumps to a higher level of existence and you have to start again. Even the film’s title is a linguistic example of an energy transition, from Spanish to French.

The same transformation happens in Schubert’s masterwork. A very short phrase is transfigured, time and time again, the way a theme repeats in a Bach fugue, seamlessly. The transformation upwards happens so effortlessly and so quickly, you don’t have time to figure out how Schubert did it. It’s the exact same theme, but somehow each time it’s even more of a revelation, of an explosion of emotion, of the chill that harmony can achieve at its best.

This inevitable series of note “changes” is an imitation of molecular fission. It is also what happens when bells are rung.

When a monk plays the bells in a belfry, announcing the morning prayer or the evening prayer, this is called “ringing the changes.” Like James Joyce’s finnegans wake, or like any simple round, it is an eternal loop. It comes back to its beginnings, like a Gnostic ouroboros, a snake eating its tail, the eternal symbol of death and resurrection, the transmigration of souls across levels of existence.

In bell ringing, the timing of when a clanger sounds is varied by changing the shove you give the bell. The effect is that each bell in a carillon, a bell tower, sounds after the other one, until the pendulum effect runs out of energy, and the sounds wind down.

The iron casing of a bell can be tuned when it is poured in the foundry, so you can have 12 bells, each one a note of the chromatic scale. This is known as the twelve-tone series, and is the basis of Schönberg’s musical system with which he attempted to update conventional harmonic rules.

Bell-ringing uses complex mathematical rhythms to vary the sounds. It has its own vocabulary, as Schönberg attempted to change what he believed to be the tired vocabulary of classic musicology, where the subdominant chord leads to the dominant, the dominant leads to the tonic, and then the resolution of the piece arrives with the tonic. Bell-ringing was a particular obsession of the British clergy. A nine-hour peal is behind Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant mystery, The Nine Tailors.

This system is behind the music of Bach, Mozart, and Haydn, even though it was “gamed” and contradicted by Beethoven and the Viennese composers, who would “pull” melodies and interrupt normal expectations. Haydn delighted in breaking the rules here and there. But everyone knew there were rules, which shaped how everything was supposed to sound.

Liszt began to break out of this mold, with his Csardas Obstinée of 1884, a Hungarian dance which is obstinately ambiguous, that is, what we later called “atonal,” or not tonal. It obstinately and obsessively repeats four notes.

Schubert’s Notturno of 1827 also obstinately repeats its initial notes until the very end, where the “turn,” or appoggiatura on the last note, is the same theme turned into a decorative twirl.

Beethoven’s sonatas often start with a theme which is then cleverly varied and developed into the three movements of the entire sonata. Beethoven died in 1827. So Schubert’s more obvious set of variations is an homage to Beethoven’s more veiled way of composing.

Schubert’s variations vary without changing, however, and yet maintain interest, tension, and suspense until the very end. How is that even possible? Liszt asked, of the Csardas, “May one write or listen to such a thing?” He knew how outrageous his expedition into atonality was. Schubert may have felt the same thrill, of being able to make the serpent eat its tail, of writing an exhilarating crescendo out of three notes.

The beginning rippling slow “walking” chords of the Notturno create a kind of backcountry stasis, a midsummer sweltering night when time stands still, making this one of the great pieces which exist outside time or rhythm, like the Giuliani and Albinoni guitar concerti, or the Marcello oboe concerto in D minor, or many Vivaldi and Handel adagios. This ability to make time stand still was gradually lost as society became more frenetic.

Another aspect lost from nature, along with silence, has been darkness. The poet James Attlee wrote Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight (University of Chicago, 2011). He quotes many seminal texts throughout, such as Philipp Otto Runge calling dusk a period of transition, “the limitless annihilation of existence into the origin of the universe.” In Edward Young’s book Night Thoughts, the moon signifies “the spiritual dimension beyond death.” He speaks of Caspar David Friedrich, who advises the reader to “Close your physical eye, so that you can see your picture first with your spiritual eye.” Goethe painted pictures whose true image was revealed when you closed your eyes and saw the inverted colors on the inside of your eyelids. Night was the translator of Platonic shadows. In The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s character Charlotte says, “Whenever I walk by moonlight… I am filled with thoughts of death and futurity…”

In Schubert’s nocturne, the silence and darkness of the night world cradles the trio in its soft void, freeing the sky for the chords to climb to climb, providing a table rasa from which all tonalities emerge pristinely, accurately, meaningfully.

Photo: Brian Lambert

Rem Koolhaas, and his colleagues at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, or OMA, have opened a show at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC called, “Countryside, The Future.” An article in the New York Times on February 20th, 2020, described it as “….A corrective to the focus on growing cities, “Countryside” aims to turn a spotlight on the 98 percent of the planet not yet occupied by cities.

“….A dozen-odd years ago, the United Nations announced that this is the first urban century, the first time more than half the world’s population lives in cities. Predictions were that some 70 percent of humans will be urban-dwellers by 2050.”

Notturno encapsulates the light, and the night, at Tippet Rise, with music which creates silence, sparkles which emphasize darkness, motion which creates stillness. Its midsummer cantata, very much like Ravel’s Bolero, captures the entwining constellations of the expansive Montana sky, the sense of time having stopped, the almost Stone Age aura of a planet without towns or lights or planes, just endless night and the kindness of the stars.

Photo: Yevgeny Sudbin

Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, James Attlee (Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
Schubert’s Reputation from His Time to Ours, Geoffrey Block (Pendragon, 2017)
Schubert, George R. Marek (Hales, 1985)
Schubert: The Music and the Man, Brian Newbould (Univ. of California, Berkeley, 1997)
Schubert, John Reed (J. M. Dent, 1987)