Souzay c. 1958.
The other day I made a
list of pieces of classical music inspired by fish. Yes, it’s sad, I know.
Here we are in one of South East Asia’s most vibrant cities and I am sitting
at home making lists of music about fish. I really must get out more often.
As it turned out, the list wasn’t exceptionally long, perhaps because few
composers find fish suitably inspiring. Debussy wrote a piano piece about a
goldfish, but it’s in the key of F sharp and hopelessly difficult, at least
by my limited pianistic standards. Another French composer, Erik Satie
composed a piano piece called The Dreamy Fish and in 2005 the British
composer Cecilia McDowall wrote a jolly number for alto saxophone and
strings with the curious title of Dancing Fish. At the age of
twenty-four, Benjamin Britten composed a rather serious song for voice and
piano entitled Fish in the Unruffled Lakes. And before I forget, fish
are depicted in the Saint-Saëns piece Aquarium from “Carnival of the
And that, you might be relieved to
know, is about it. The prolific American composer Alan Hovhaness wrote a
short but captivating work called And God Created Great Whales, which
was premiered in 1970 and blended recordings of whale sounds with those of
an orchestra. And yes, I know that whales are not actually fish but from a
distance they look as though they ought to be. And that’s another thing. Did
you realise that the whale is the closest living relative of the
hippopotamus? It’s not exactly relevant to this column, but I thought you
might be interested. Anyway, perhaps the most well-known fish song was
written by Franz Schubert using a poem by someone confusingly named
Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Die Forelle.
Gérard Souzay (bar), Dalton Baldwin (pno). (Duration: 02:06) (Audio only)
We tend to think of Schubert as a
composer of symphonies and chamber music but in his day, he was best-known
in Vienna as a songwriter. Among his six hundred songs, this one, entitled
Die Forelle (“The Trout”) is probably his most famous. Schubert was only
about twenty when he wrote the song in 1817 and it’s not difficult to
understand why it became so popular. The melody has a kind of folksy charm
and the sparkling piano accompaniment suggests a fish darting through
rippling waters. There’s no shortage of excellent performances on YouTube,
but I find myself returning to the old 1967 recording made by Gérard Souzay
in which pianist Dalton Baldwin provides a splendidly articulated
accompaniment. Souzay was one of the finest baritones of his time. He brings
a delicacy and lightness of touch to the song and a compelling sense of
style which few other singers can match.
Franz Schubert: Quintet in A major (“The Trout”).
Zoltán Kocsis (pno), Gábor Takács-Nagy (vln), Gábor Ormai (vla), András
Fejér (vc), Ferenc Csontos (db). (Duration: 42:47; Video: 480p)
The popularity of Die Forelle
encouraged Schubert to write a set of variations on it for the fourth
movement of his Piano Quintet, which he completed the following year.
Instead of the conventional combination of string quartet plus piano,
Schubert scored this work for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass
but strangely enough it wasn’t published during his lifetime.
For such a young composer it’s a
remarkable work. If you are new to Schubert’s chamber music, here’s a great
place to start because Schubert’s skills as a song-writer are much in
evidence throughout. The work is simply packed with tunes. There are several
recordings available on YouTube but this Hungarian performance is one of my
favourites, recorded in 1982 in the opulent Congress Hall of the Hungarian
Academy of Sciences. The recording is getting a bit old in the tooth, as the
audio and video quality will testify, but these wonderful musicians give a
captivating performance to which I listened with admiration. The phrasing
and articulation are superb and there’s a splendid sense of elegance and
They take the third movement (21:04) at
a fair old lick and this is surely the fastest I’ve ever heard it played. In
contrast, the start of the theme and variations on Die Forelle
(24:40) begins almost dreamily. Schubert weaves the original fish song into
wonderful melodies of Mozartian elegance, especially during the lovely cello
solo. But just wait for the stunning show of pianistic bravura in the fourth
variation (27:57). A lively and engaging last movement brings the work to a
satisfying conclusion with several false endings, perhaps a glance back to
Haydn’s “Joke” quartet. If you have an hour to spare, treat yourself to this
exceptional and delightful performance, enhanced with a glass or two of
cold, crisp dry white wine and perhaps a few slices of smoked salmon. Or
even smoked trout, if you are a purist.