Music@Menlo scrutinizes the great Schubert

Musicologist Christopher Gibbs opens this year’s Music@Menlo with a lecture on the life of Franz Schubert. (Courtesy James Ottaway)

Schubert’s timeless melodies have been sung by everyone from Pavarotti to Beyoncé. Amazingly prolific, he wrote music as impressive as Beethoven’s. Yet upon his untimely death at age 31, Schubert’s estate was valued at less than $50.

Beginning Friday, Music@Menlo offers a musical journey through the life of Franz Schubert (1797-1828), known as the “Prince of Song” and today considered one of the greatest composers of his era – and beyond.

“It was our heartfelt decision to devote this year’s festival so wholly to Schubert, at a level of detail and dedication to a single composer unprecedented in the festival’s history,” says cellist David Finckel, artistic director of Music@Menlo, a 23-day summer chamber festival in Atherton known for ambitious programming.

A native of Vienna who lived a bohemian life with little material wealth and no known romantic liaisons (before Henri Murger’s 1830 book “Scènes de la vie bohème” was published), Schubert’s life was cut short by syphilis and typhoid fever

Although he is often remembered as the shy, destitute author of heavenly songs (“Ave Maria”) who didn’t find success because he lived at the same time and in the same city as Beethoven, some experts say that’s not the case.

“I don’t buy into the myth that he didn’t care about success, that he didn’t know what he was doing. In some sense, he competes with Beethoven, which is very different from the image that has been popularized,” says Schubert biographer Christopher Gibbs, who opens the festival Friday with an “Encounter” multimedia lecture-symposium on the composer’s life.

The festival, which includes seven main concert programs and five smaller “Schubertiades,” covers all of the composer’s great chamber works and his lieder, or songs. He wrote roughly 630.

“His tiny masterpieces carry as much weight and significance as his nearly hour-long solo and chamber works,” Finckel says. “‘Gretchen am Spinnrade,’ a song many regard as the birth of the modern German lied, changed the landscape of songwriting forever.”

Making her Music@Menlo debut in “Gretchen” on Saturday’s Concert Program I, soprano Joelle Harvey says Schubert created an almost tangible world with his music, noting how the song builds with the spinning of the piano, then returns to inward repetitions: “Meine Ruh ist hin, mein Herz ist schwer” (“My peace is gone, my heart is sore”). She says, “Everyone has experienced trying to be level-headed, only to break and scramble to regain stability.”

Programming also showcases Schubert’s highest achievements, including the “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet, the “Trout” Quintet, the “Wanderer” and F-minor fantasies, the E-flat major Trio and his final three piano sonatas.

Other “Encounter” sessions are led by Susan Youens, author of eight books on German lieder, and Ara Guzelimian, dean of the Juilliard School.

Musicians like to believe that Schubert and Beethoven actually met. One story goes that Beethoven, on his deathbed, found a “divine spark” in music by Schubert, who visited him when he was ailing at the end of his life. Schubert, on his deathbed 18 months later, asked to hear Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor.

Both masters are buried in Vienna’s main cemetery, the Zentralfriedhof. Their bodies are mere feet apart.

Where: Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, 555 Middlefield Road Atherton; Martin Family Hall, Stent Family Hall, 50 Valparaiso Ave., Atherton
When: July 17 through Aug. 8
Tickets: $20 to $85; plus many free events
Contact: (650) 331-0202,

Opening weekend highlights

Encounter I: “The Life of Schubert” — 7:30 p.m. July 17, Martin Family Hall
Concert Program I: “Genius Ignited, 1811–1819″ — 6 p.m. July 18, Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton

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