Music

5 Franz Schubert songs you should know better

Baritone Tyler Duncan explains why these hidden gems deserve a double-take.

Baritone Tyler Duncan explains why these hidden gems deserve a double-take

Franz Schubert wrote over 600 songs during his short life and, naturally, some have captured the attention of singers, pianists and listeners more than others over the decades.

His top-shelf songs include "An die Musik," "Ellens Gesang III" (a.k.a. "Ave Maria"), "Du bist die Ruh," and "Der Erlkönig," as well as the songs included in his beloved cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise. But there are so many more, it's hard to know where to begin searching for the hidden gems.

Baritone Tyler Duncan is no stranger to Schubert's songs. In fact he sings them regularly with his piano (and life) partner, Erika Switzer. Duncan, who'll host CBC's This is my Music on Saturday, May 11, selected five under-appreciated Schubert songs that deserve a double-take. Below, he explains why.


    'Der Taucher,' D541

    "If you think Schubert just wrote sweet little two-minute songs, I have news for you: 'Der Taucher' is one of his epic Schiller ballad settings. This song clocks at over 20 minutes in length, and boasts an impressive fish list. Yes, fish list. Basically, a king throws a golden cup in the water and promises fame, fortune and, eventually, the hand of his daughter in marriage to whomever jumps in after it and describes what he sees in the ocean's abyss. It is really a fantastic song and very fun to perform. (So many words to memorize, though.)"

    'Der Zwerg,' D771

    "This song is like an entire opera condensed to five minutes — a story about a dwarf and a queen that includes love, devotion, betrayal, heartbreak and murder. Schubert's powerful piano introduction sets the scene, representing in turn the inevitable hand of fate, the choppy water lapping against the small ship, and the beating of a broken heart."

     

    'Memnon,' D541

    "Can you imagine only being able to use your voice once a day? There's a song for that: Schubert's setting of Mayrhofer's poem about the legendary Egyptian statue that 'hummed' every morning at dawn. The song's piano introduction seems to catch the first rays of the rising sun warming the waking world. The vocal line expresses the extreme joy and pain that Memnon experiences in this breathtakingly beautiful song."

    'Ständchen,' D920

    "If just voice and piano is not enough for you, how about we add a men's chorus? This song is about a secret rendezvous. Back in Schubert's day, young lovers were always chaperoned — no dating apps. Lovers had to sneak around quietly to have some privacy. But perhaps bringing a whole choir along with you is not such a great idea!"

    Drei Gesänge des Harfners, D478

    "Instead of a fifth song, how about a mini song cycle? Schubert's three Harfenspieler songs from Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship by Goethe are simply amazing. They are not very uplifting; in fact they are super emo. These are songs for leaving the bustle of everyday life, sticking the headphones in, and being in complete solitude. As a bonus, compare the Schumann and Wolf settings of these same texts — Canada's own Daniel Lichti did just that on a beautiful recording with Arlene Shrut."

    On May 19, Duncan will be a featured soloist in Bach's B Minor Mass with the Bach Society of St. Louis. He'll also perform Bach with the Calgary Philharmonic and Nicholas McGegan at Knox United Church on May 24.

    Baritone Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer perform at the 2017 Bard Music Festival. (YouTube screenshot)