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"My Favorite Song"

Guest contributors select one song that has a special, personal meaning for them, sharing specific reasons about why they find the music and lyrics irresistible, and choosing a performance that they feel ideally captures the spirit of that song.

Archive of Past Selections

"My Favorite Song"
October, 2014

Welcome to the monthly feature of the Vocal Arts DC web site in which guest contributors select one song that has a special, personal meaning for them, sharing specific reasons about why they find the music and lyrics irresistible, and choosing a performance that they feel ideally captures the spirit of that song.

A Southern California native, Don Atkins works on food and agriculture policy and advocacy at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. He holds a Bachelor's of Music in Piano Performance with a minor in composition from Northwestern University, and studied in Vienna, Austria at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst under a Fulbright Fellowship. A former piano teacher, accompanist, master class clinician, and music director, Don is a collaborative artist, ever working to increase appreciation of music and culture in the community.

Franz Schubert: "Das Wirtshaus"

Seated comfortably in an increasingly bare living room, I returned recently to Franz Schubert's masterpiece of a song cycle, his Winterreise. The objects that once livened the space and made it a home now slowly make their way to my former roommate's new house, the one in which his journey begins afresh in marriage. A fitting time for this Reise, it seems.

It is evening. Late summer. The room faces west, and the hues of dusk march from yellow ochre to muted orange, through blue-gray and on into darkness. On this particular journey, I bring with me a pad, the score, and a heavy glass with a solitary cube of ice chilling a well-moderated pour of Washington, D.C.'s Green Hat Gin, their Spring/Summer seasonal. An ironic choice for this Reise, it seems.

You cannot really talk about a Lied from Winterreise without talking about Winterreise, and you cannot really think about Winterreise without thinking about the whole experience: the room around you, whether Frank Gehry's wooded hollow or your own living room, what you drank and who poured it, the color of the walls... all those physicalities and banalities of life into which Winterreise imparts depth. And so the author asks the reader to graciously forgive him for his utter refusal to begin talking about the song with anything so much as resembling a sense of haste.

A few thoughts, scribbled on a pad as I listened:

Coldness to the playing
     dryness of staccato, use of pedal

Each song so distinct

...those technical elements of the playing which, taken together, comprise the artistry of the musicians and tell with unerring earnestness the story that unfolds in the minds of poet Wilhelm Müller and composer Franz Schubert. The renewed sense of awe as the first few songs play sinks in. The eminence of Gerald Moore, the noted accompanist and regular collaborator with many of the world's finest singers, continues to inspire in this recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau-an obvious choice, perhaps, but not a bad one.

The cycle is both a physical and a psychological journey for our protagonist, but in a remarkable span of just a few songs, I would posit that we are witness to a philosophical journey, too; this is where I should like to direct our considerations for today.

Here, Müller and Schubert presage grand moral and religious developments and condense them into a short span. The seeds are planted in the first lines of the first song: "A stranger I came/As a stranger I depart." By the twentieth song, Der Wegweiser, our Wanderer has already dreamed under the shadow of the linden tree into which he carved many a word of love; chased a will-o'-the-wisp; considered the fleeting nature of joy and sorrow, an Ecclesiastical notion viewed through that typical German lens of nature; cursed his own youth; and pinned his hopes to a dying leaf, watching as it fell to the earth...

...the warmth of this unique D.C. gin's brilliant florals tethers me
to this place and juxtaposes violently with the Winter of my
Thoughts as I walk in increasing lock-step with our Wanderer...

...his hopes along with it. He finds himself avoiding the towns, delving further into the mountainous chasms of isolation. And in this isolation he sees before him a signpost luring him to travel a road from which no one ever returned. And where does this sign point?

In the song that follows, Das Wirtshaus, our Wanderer comes upon a graveyard: "To a graveyard/Has my path brought me;/Here I'll stop,/I thought to myself." So shall we all. Schubert sets the scene for this graveyard with a hymn-like tune. Certainly such a religious musical setting is an obvious choice for a cemetery, but the dense, warm...

...biting coldness of the spirit as it reaches an empty stomach
concerns itself not with the vernal freshness upon my palate

...E-flat major chords in the piano serve not just as reference to the hymn-like nature of the song, but portray for us the calm the Wanderer finally feels: at home in a graveyard, where isolation is completed. And so, when he finally perceives the endpoint of his grueling journey, he looks for a room at the local inn, Das Wirtshaus. But when he inquires of the inn for a place to stay, the rooms are all full-can we here disregard such a religious reference? We think back to the snow-muted footsteps of the first song: "Love loves to wander/God made it that way" and remember too that the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. "Now onward then, only onward,/My loyal walking staff." And so he leaves.

In the next song, though, he finds his courage in the wintry weather and quickly concludes that "If there's no God upon the earth/then we ourselves are gods!" An old sentiment in the history of mankind, perhaps, but it feels here, at this point in his journey, distinctly Nietzschean. Staring into three suns, this perfectly chosen, other-worldly phenomenon, he confronts the last of himself, and abandons all blissfully into a chorale of calm.

So at last, as if awakening from a delusional fog, he meets Der Leiermann, the hurdy-gurdy player, singing his simple tune. Or does he? Perhaps he is here running into his future self, such a Schubertian Doppelgänger, the character society rejected, but in whom the song is not silenced.

"Shall I go with you?" our Wanderer asks of the old man. Perhaps he already has.

Why Das Wirtshaus? The simple rising and falling, yearning and release-the clarity of the melody's purpose; the right balance in the classically-dense chords, Bach-like part-writing woven through; the utter exhaustion in Fischer-Dieskau's voice. It's almost strophic, but even here, Schubert, no stranger to the strophic Lied, continues to reframe the tableau by letting in different amounts of light upon his carefully-crafted vocal line, as if opening and closing the aperture onto the glass plates of the Wanderer's bucolic scene. And the climax is as satisfying for the pianist as the singer: full-blooded German chords, poignancy pulled from passing tones, the singer almost dragging the weighty harmonies forward with his resolute legato.

Perhaps it's the hymn that tolls my own religiosity, that strikes deep the bedrock of my belief, the flickering filament of my faith. Perhaps it's that pervading reliance on nature: his loyal Wanderstab is certainly a stick, a dead tree, a piece of nature upon which he literally leans. Or perhaps it's his determination to go onward in his weariest state, the inextinguishable spark of humanity within him that represents what we all wish for ourselves in our darkest depths.

When, in college, I rehearsed and performed Winterreise with a young baritone, I found myself suddenly able to sing a G, the top of the first chord of this song, at will; deep into the rehearsal process, the song found a new home, resonating vibrantly within me, as if the G, that first G, carried with me in each step I took, and reminds me still of the way in which sometimes it is precisely those things that weigh us down that also propel us to carry on.

A trite sentiment, perhaps, but look inward and think back to those moments when, in a rush of clarity, you knew this to be true.

For your consideration, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore perform this hymn to, and for, the Wanderer: Das Wirtshaus.

[Author's Note: This recording presents the song in the original key of F Major, hence the cognitive dissonance those of you with perfect pitch may experience relative to my descriptions above. A recording in the key so described can be found here.]

Click here to view previous month's submission.

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"My Favorite Song"

Archive of Past Selections