Franz Schubert – the Piano and the Power of Friends

Graham Griffiths at the piano
Review of the talk by Dr Graham Griffiths
on January 22nd 2020

This lecture had everything; a deeply knowledgeable speaker who held the audience in rapt attention, a fascinating life of a great composer from a new angle and beautifully played music to illustrate the lecture.  Graham Griffiths had the bonus, for him and us, of playing a brand-new hand crafted concert grand piano at Cranleigh Arts Centre.  He admitted that he enjoyed the piano so much that he played rather more than at some lectures.

The scene was Vienna in the early nineteenth century.  Poor Franz Schubert died at 31.  Unlike many great composers, Beethoven being the obvious example, Schubert enjoyed life with his friends rather than his family, apart from his brother, Ferdinand.

His style is described as “early romantic”.  Dr Griffiths picked the word ‘sospiro” which can be taken as tired, sad or in love; and he played an illustration from one of Schubert’s piano Impromptus.

Illustrated with drawings and paintings as well as music, Dr Griffiths told us of the dilettante Franz von Schober; the respectable and practical Josef Spaun; the larger than life, dominant opera singer Michel Vogl; the painter and member of the Nazarene movement Moritz von Schwind; and Leopold Kupelweiser for whom Schubert composed a wedding present of a waltz.  In particular, Dr Griffiths explored the technique of the waltz and how Schubert brought a personal style to simple tunes.  He challenged the audience to consider how a theme concluded on the piano.

Sadly, but for understandable reasons, Schubert did not have a great love and he never married.  We heard of the soprano Theresa Grob, who married a butcher for a more financially secure living.  We heard of Princess Caroline Esterhazy, daughter of one of the great Hungarian noble families, who was socially out of his reach.

Schubert was at the heart of the new craze of dancing the waltz, with close contact between dancers, holds and spreads and turning in circles.  We now know him more for his solo or orchestral instrumental music but, in his day, he was equally well known for his song and dance compositions.  Interestingly he was very much a local Viennese composer whose fame outside Austria was not in his lifetime.  We were introduced to the “Schubertiade”, nickname for a pleasant evening, when Schubert and his friends gathered for fun and games; indeed, a name that continued amongst the friends after his death.

This was a special lecture, almost a concert as well!  The combination of Dr Griffiths the raconteur, the drawings and paintings on screen and most of all the beautiful and delicate piano playing left members hoping for a return visit.  The footnote of Dr Griffiths being now a member of a prestigious Russian music forum reaffirmed how lucky we are to have such a distinguished speaker.

Stephen Dennison