Reviving a dying art
Nineteenth century Austrian composer Franz Schubert is famous for two things: he liked to go down the bierkeller with his mates, and he composed in his short life more than 600 art-songs or Lieder, bringing a whole new life to the genre. Two of them, Die schöne Müllerin (The Pretty Miller-Girl) and Winterreise (Winter Journey), both set to poems by Wilhelm Müller, are considered masterpieces of the art form.
Two guys and a piano aim to perform the complete Schubert song cycle
And they are the bookends to an ambitious series of concerts planned by Irish-born baritone Conor Biggs and pianist Andrew Wise. The pair are performing, over the next nine years, the entire Schubert song book. The project, called Schubertreise, consists of three or four recitals a year across the rolling landscape of Flemish Brabant’s Pajottenland: a total of 577 Lieder, when all duplicates, variants and unfinished versions are deducted. The next performance is this weekend in Bever.
Biggs was born in Dublin into an artistic family. His mother was an artist and played the violin; his father was a sculptor, and his grandfather had been a concert pianist. Biggs trained in Dublin and London as an organist and pianist and began to sing when he was in his 20s – very young for a bass.
In 1983, he won an organ scholarship to study in Freiburg, where he learned German and discovered the poetry that Schubert has used as texts for his songs. He now makes a living as a singer, mainly for Belgium’s most important professional choir, the Vlaams Radio Koor, or Flemish Radio Choir, based at the Flagey cultural centre in Brussels.
The inspiration for Schubertreise was the recent publication of the complete Lieder arranged for three voices: low, medium and high. Until now, the songs were only published in the key Schubert first published them in. The new edition allows anyone to sing anything, regardless of voice or gender.
“Most male singers would shy away from what they regard as ‘women’s songs’,” Biggs says. “I don’t. I don’t think you have to. In the audio book of The Lord of the Rings, for example, there’s one guy doing all the characters, male and female, and it’s utterly convincing. You never think: Why isn’t that character being read by a woman?”
It seems a formidable task to learn and perform 577 songs, even more so considering Biggs’ refusal to have sheet music in front of him. “I try to prepare up to a year in advance,” he explains. “Memory is a funny thing. It’s rather like putting down a good wine; you have to keep revisiting it. It puts you under a terrible strain if you memorise something at the last minute. The song you’ve memorised usually comes out fine, but then your brain goes into relax mode, and a different song that you know well goes pear-shaped.”
He says that he relishes the element of fear. “That’s my adrenaline kick. Other people do bungee jumps; I stand on a podium. And of course, as a singer, I can’t hide behind an instrument. When I used to play the organ, I’d have my back turned to the audience or be up in a gallery. Now every gesture that’s out of place is instantly noticed. There’s no hiding place. For me, it’s the Everest of the music world. The last hour before a recital I pace up and down like a caged lion, thinking: Why didn’t I get a job in the civil service?”
Schubert’s Lieder are often seen as a specialised sub-genre of classical music. “It’s a dying art,” says Biggs. “I’m trying to fan some light onto the dying embers, really. The lyrics of the Lieder are not in a language people speak anymore; they need to have the translation in front of them. People are afraid of the unfamiliar and find comfort in what they know.”
The series will feature not only recitals, but also food and drink, art exhibitions, calligraphy demonstrations, lectures on the music and on the history of the time. “In this visual age, there isn’t anything particularly interesting about one bloke standing on stage with a pianist,” Biggs admits. “But consider the bloke as walking a tightrope without a safety net – which is what the feat really represents – and the whole thing suddenly becomes more interesting."
11 September, 17:00
Poreel 10a, Bever