When Austrian composer Franz Schubert died in 1823 at the early age of 31, he left behind quite a legacy — over 600 secular vocal works, seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music and a large body of chamber and piano music.
That kind of genius intrigues island musicologist and amateur pianist Michael Tracy who will present a lecture, accompanied by live performances, on the songs of Schubert at 4 p.m. Sunday at Vashon Center for the Arts.
“The other part (about Schubert) that intrigues me,” Tracy explained in a recent interview, “is that when he died — one year after Beethoven who was 57 — nobody knew him. He was unknown and yet 12 years later, Franz Liszt, the greatest pianist, is performing Schubert’s work on stage.”
Schubert began his productive but short-lived career tutored as a soprano in the school that today is known as the Vienna Boys’ Choir. By the age of 16, he wrote his first composition that set to music a section of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s magnum opus, the play “Faust.”
“Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) is incredibly emotional and beautiful,” Tracy said. “The music resembles the sound of a spinning wheel. Any soprano would want to sing this.”
Indeed, singing the piece on Sunday will be island soprano Emily Belshaw, who lived in Germany and speaks the language. Other singers will include Hugh Davis and Gary Koch. Pianists Christopher Overstreet and Tracy will accompany the singers.
When Schubert first wrote the song, very few composers were using poetry in their work. Schubert knew many poets in Vienna and according to Tracy was “on top of the poetry scene in Germany, which set the stage for German lyric poetry.” At age 18, Schubert wrote his well-known and beloved composition, “Ave Maria” with the text from a poem by Sir Walter Scott. Later, Schubert changed the lyrics to the prayer for Mother Mary.
Tracy’s decision to combine explanations of Schubert’s work with live performances arose out of experiences he had while living in New York City, his home for many years before moving to Vashon in 2011. He often hosted house concerts in his Manhattan loft and discovered that the small environment made a difference for the audience.
“I saw that people were moved by the performers especially if the singers talked first,” Tracy said. “I’ve been doing house concerts on the island for the past several years with violinist Gary Welch, playing Mozart to Piazzolla.”
Tracy said he chose Schubert because he has always loved his work and because Schubert’s songs make him unique as a composer.
“Almost no one had written the art song — putting poetry to music — before Schubert,” Tracy said. “Then Liszt and Schumann wrote art songs, Berlioz, Strauss, Wagner and Mahler. With 600 songs by Schubert, there are so many to discover. It is a treasure chest of incredible beauty.”