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An exhausted solitary boatman out at sea is making his way home when suddenly a storm appears out of nowhere with lightning strikes on the horizon and perilous angry swells tossing his skiff to and fro, side to side. His arduous journey has become even more difficult and dangerous.
Seeking comfort and reassurance he gazes up into the night sky and through heartfelt song, reaches out to the Dioscuri, the Twin Stars who protect and safeguard those who sail. Singing humbly and prayerfully in his soul-stirring baritone voice, the weathered boatman seeks their divine guidance and assistance for a safe passage to port, for a gentle and mindful watch over him and his skiff, and for the strength and courage to face the challenges ahead. So grateful for a safe passage home he offers as a sacrifice to the Dioscuri the very oar with which he plies the waters once he has safely reached shore.
This story filled with vivid imagery is told in the poem “Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren” or in English, “Boatman’s Song to the Dioscuri.” It was written by Austrian poet Johann Mayrhofer, a close friend of composer Franz Schubert. The poem’s three stanzas were set to the most sublime music imaginable by Schubert in 1816 when he was only nineteen years of age.
Schubert sets the words of the first and last stanzas to the same melody and what a melody it is. Noble, profoundly spiritual, it is one of Schubert’s most eloquent and heartbreakingly beautiful utterances. Its lyricism is reminiscent of the melody for Schubert’s “Litanei” also composed the same year.
The first stanza of the poem addresses the Dioscuri in a prayerful hymn-like setting of Schubert’s transcendent melody. The boatman’s song is supported by arpeggiated chords that suggest the rolling of the waves. Their placement in the lowest register of the piano conveys the boatman’s depth of feeling and the vast expanse and depth of the sea.
The middle stanza is set to different music altogether and it is recitative-like.The boatman affirms that his belief in himself to meet the storm unswervingly is doubled by the light from the Twin Stars. This stanza begins fortissimo but ends pianissimo with the boatman quietly whispering that the Dioscuri make him feel doubly courageous and above all, doubly blessed.
It is in the last stanza with the return of the opening melody that one senses the movement of the boatman’s skiff on the water. Rather than a stormy sea, the sea is now calm. The prayers of the boatman have been heard and answered.
Instead of dangerous swells we hear in the music the gentle lapping of waves. Schubert creates an almost hypnotic effect by placing perpetually slow moving arpeggios in the lower register of the piano to accompany the boatman as he sings Schubert’s consoling melody for the last time. This rhythmic rocking motion continues uninterrupted until the final chord when the exhausted boatman, his skiff, and his precious oar are all finally safely home.
As the boatman sings of his solemn vow to the Dioscuri to make a sacrifice of his oar, the Dioscuri are so moved by the sincerity of the boatman and the beauty of his song that the Twin Stars join in, singing in harmony with the boatman until the Lied and the journey home come to their serene close.
For my “Improvisation” for solo pano of “Lied eines Schiffers” I have taken inspiration and guidance from the transcriptions Clara Schumann made of songs composed by her husband Robert and from transcriptions Franz Liszt made of Schubert’s songs, in particular his transcription of Schubert’s “Litanei.” My interpretation falls somewhere in between in style, conception, and execution. It’s not a strict transcription like one Clara Schumann would have composed and it’s not as elaborate as one Liszt would have composed.
In order to make “Improvisation” seem more pianistic, that is, to give the impression that it was originally composed for the piano, some changes to Schubert’s original Lied have been made. It was transposed from the original key of A-flat major to F-sharp major for a deeper, richer sound from the piano.
Another change made was having the voice line not always stay in the same octave as a singer would sing it. This was done sometimes out of necessity to fit both melody and accompaniment between the two hands. More importantly though, this was done to emphasize the meaning of the text and for contrasts in tone colour. For example, in the middle stanza when the boatman sings out forcefully of his faith in himself being doubled by the light from the Twin Stars, this phrase and surrounding phrases are played in double octaves, full chords, and with more rhythmical freedom to enhance the dramatic effect at this emotional peak in the boatman’s story.
Robert Cooper Rivard
My first album Wilhelm Furtwängler: Selected Piano Compositions was recorded on 5 April 1986 to celebrate the centenary of the conductor’s birth. It was first released on cassette by Symposium Records, UK and made available to members of the British Furtwängler Society that same year. I reserved all rights to my recording and released a limited edition CD in 2000 and in 2018 I distributed the streaming version through CDBaby. This streaming release is the only official original world-premiere digital recording.
All the works on the album were composed when Furtwängler was a child between the ages of 10 and 15 years of age.