The Original Instrument

Jonathan Bellman

I suppose this is what I deserve for studying performance practices, and what you deserve for reading a blog by professors. A student found an old recording of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata (arpeggione, which is a bowed guitar—also called a guitarre d’amour in its time—and piano), and shared it with me. Coincidentally, the very same day a different recording came in on an old LP, ordered by our music librarian. I mentioned before the I was dying of curiosity to hear what the thing was like, how idiomatic, etc. Now, at last, my chance! This rare instrument, how Schubert plumbed its depths, the new light about to be cast on a familiar piece…

The first recording I heard, very well played by Gerhart Darmstadt (arpeggione) and Egino Klepper (Schubert-era piano) did not change my world. It is always possible—I admit up front—that my expectations are colored by versions of the piece with which I have already become familiar. That said, my initial feeling about the arpeggione os as follows: it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Six strings on one bridge doesn’t give the player much in the way of room to maneuver without hitting other strings; a cello allows for much more room. On the basis of the melodies and textures I hear on this recording, I suspect Schubert was no more intimately familiar with the arpeggione that was anyone else; he was probably thinking of a “Supercello’ with a better high range than the cellos we know. This music seems to need a member of the violin family to speak, really: powerful bow-work is balanced by gloriously insouciant melodies. And the arpeggione sounds like a …viol. For me, at least, that’s just the wrong sound-world. The instrument is not sufficiently robust and extroverted to stand out against a Schubert-era piano, and the entire presentation seems like an idea that just didn’t quite work. Of course, the straight, uninflected, and polite (though wonderfully accurate) interpretation did not help bring vernacular Vienna alive for me, either.

Enter Klaus Storck, arpeggione, and Aloys Kontarsky, Schubert-era piano, on the 1974 Archiv recording. My objections are softened somewhat, but not completely. Where Darmstadt sounded a bit awkward on strums and chordal playing (what they English viol players called “playing the lyre way”), Storck sounds lovely. This recording also has a lot more Viennese vernacular flexibility and rhythmic kick (if you think I’m making this up, read Hans Gál on the subject), and so I found it more persuasive for that reason also. It is also recorded better, so the arpeggione does seem to hold its own against the piano.

All that said, I don’t regard a cello or viola transcription as so far off as to betray the piece. It is still a masterpiece, and works beautifully on the members of the more robust violin family. As it happens, I have just recently, for the first time, heard a recording of Ravel’s Tzigane for solo violin and luthéal, as was originally written—some kind of a contraption that made a piano sound more like a cimbalom, I think. Interesting, but the piano is fine on that one. For the Arpeggione Sonata, I’m fine with the middle strings, though clarinet, alto sax etc. are beyond the pale. It is possible to take the original-instrument fetish too far.

So, let’s summarize. Those who read this far have read my comparison of two long-out-of-print recordings of an instrument that had, essentially, the life of a dragonfly and had a negligible effect on the history of western music, and some philosophy in the bargain. Is this self-satire? Am I really this boring and peripheral? If so, at least it’s MY turf to stake out.

Go easy on the comments, please!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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15 Responses to The Original Instrument

  1. Micaëla says:

    You could always write a sequel on Haydn’s baryton trios.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Believe it or not, Haydn and the baryton is a much more involved and far-reaching story: evolution of the Baryton Trio genre, increasingly idiomatic writing for the instrument, influence on later music. The story definitely needs to be told, but not by a non-bowed-string player like me.

  3. Peter Alexander says:

    Peripheral, yes; boring no. That’s the great thing about history: all these little corners that don’t really affect anything today are still quite fascinating, especially when they bring you into contact with real people from earlier times. Personally, I love the kind of details that make Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven & Schubert emerge as actual people — musicians who are part of a community, writing pieces for their friends, just like the composers we know today. They’re not exactly “regular guys,” but when you start to see Beethoven with his pals sitting around the tavern, or trading quips in written messages; or Haydn putting in solos for his orchestral players in the early Esterhazy symphonies; or in this case, Schubert writing a piece for this odd instrument that an acquaintance wanted to play — well, it just makes it all the more tangible, doesn’t it? It provides a context and gives a little bit of an idea of what it must have been like to know them.

  4. David Cavlovic says:

    The fin thing about the ARCHIV recording, one of the main reasons I recommended it to you, has as much to do with the far-out repertoire ARCHIV was recording in those days, compared to today, when they really aren’t any different from any other DG recording. The mid 70’s was a treasure trove of interesting on all sorts of labels. ARCHIV went so far as to issue two albums totalling 5 LPs of Gamelan music from Bali and Java on a series titled “Musical Traditions of Asia” that was also planning to look at Vietnam and China as well. Alas, no more came of it, and a paltry single CD reissue appeared on DG.
    Back to the Schubert though: I agree that the Aropeggione Sonata works as well on viola or ‘cello, and I suspect Schubert figured it would eventually be played on those intstruments anyhow. But, the performance of Trockne Blumen on the other side is far more exciting.

  5. David Cavlovic says:

    OOOPS! That should read : The FUN thing. Continue as you were…

  6. Jonathan says:

    My personal favorite label, as a high-school-and-early-college student, was Nonesuch: wild contemporary music, early music, Scott Joplin, Busoni, etc. all for DIRT CHEAP. I deeply regret, today, my limited budget and too-responsible consumer practices; I only bought what I really wanted. Idiot! What worlds I could have opened up!
    I used to call them the Student’s Friend, and mentally group them with Penguin books (all those wonderful translations of classical and medieval literature, etc.). I keep thinking there was a third institution, making a triumvirate of academic righteousness, but it isn’t coming to mind.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Ah! Dover Publications, scores especially but books too!

  8. David Cavlovic says:

    If you were REALLY lucky, like I was in Toronto in the very early ’80s, you also had repertory cinemas in which you could see vintage movies, and European flicks, for as little as .99 cents.! Ah, the summer of ’82!. I spent three solid weeks attending two films a night at the Festival Cinemas, the great Bloor Cinema, the very comfy, but crappy sound system in the Fox theatre in the Beaches, the Revue Cinema, the Kingsway…..sigh…..

  9. eba says:

    This is exactly the kind of reward we get for reading a blog by music professors, and as a complete and total lay person (uhm, is it possible to score negative points on the >: professor :: lay person :< scale? It if is, I'm over ……. x here), it's why I keep stumbling back to Dial M. While I can read about 93.4 percent of the words here, I understand about 12 percent. I love the passion that drives you guys to makes posts like this one. Keep at it! In fact, more! Perhaps you can start a contest to post about the most obscure music. (And who would judge it?)

  10. Tim says:

    Hey, I learnt something about Schubert, something about the arpeggione. Not bad for one post!
    Curious instruments always present interesting challenges for composers, and I’d be really interested now to hear how someone contemporary today might get their teeth into writing for such a thing.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Tim–for one take on the modern bowed guitar, hit the “bowed guitar” link in my February 7 blog, “More Lost Sounds.”

  12. David Cavlovic says:

    Personally, I’d like to hear more stuff written for the trautonium.

  13. David Cavlovic says:

    I’m sorry, I CAN’T avoid the tempation, having mentioned the trautonium, and all this talk about Schubert : how about a “Trautonium Quintet”. I SAID I was sorry!

  14. Kip W says:

    Inspired by this post, I went and found a violin and lutheal version of Ravel’s Tzigane (which I have always liked better on piano).
    Cheap versions? I subscribe to emusic, where I get 30 or 33 downloads a month (I keep forgetting which) for $9.99 — this lets me get instant gratification on a fairly decent range of stuff (with some nice surprises and many irritating omissions) for cheap. Especially if I look extra hard for the long cuts. They seem interested in trying to change the system, but so far it’s 30 cents a track, even if it’s an hour-long track (Tom Johnson’s “An Hour for Piano” was a bit of a disappointment after his “Four Note Opera,” but it only cost me thirty cents to find that out!) Lots of albums I’ve looked in vain for in stores have been found, and ended up costing me a little over a buck.
    On the downside, many albums nowadays are divided into about fifty cuts. There’s nothing more annoying than a set of variations with each variation in its own track. Tell those engineers to stop taking speed!

  15. I am a scholar of Arpeggione(Guitar D’amore, Guitar+Violin_Cello),
    made by Johann Georg Staufer (Stauffer).
    I am researching this thing such as musicology of Arpeggione sonata which
    F. Schubert composed in the history of Arpeggione.And I made update my home page; http://arpeggione.web.fc2.com/
    Now, I play “Song of the Birds” by my OK-model Arpeggione.
    You can see this on YouTube.


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