Arts Festival

Of Schubert and the guts to hang in there

I’M in love with my piano: University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Dr Andrew Warburton, who performs Schubert at this year’s Hilton Arts Festival. Photograph by Val Adamson.

“SHE’S A HARD taskmaster,” says career performer Andrew Warburton (60), with a half a smile, of his piano. He started playing as a three-year-old and has a long, varied and wonderful trajectory of playing, learning and teaching arguably the king of musical instruments. Above all, he’s an affable man with his feet on the ground, a solid international performance repertoire and a long-standing fixture at the Hilton Arts Festival. You can get to see him perform one of the most beautiful and difficult pieces of music from the Romantic era, at this year’s festival.

Warburton followed the conventional trajectory of music education. From Grade 1 in musical theory to his doctorate achieved in 2019 at the University of KwaZulu Natal, his has been a scenic journey, which saw a stint in the South African Army between his BMus and his Masters degrees. It’s taken him from the humbling context of teaching class music to six-year-olds to getting high school children into the vibe of Grease the Musical with the well-known ditty ‘Summer Lovin’.

There have been moments, he says, when he pondered the wisdom of music as a career, simply because of the impossible challenges one faces in South Africa, to make a living in the arts. But it is to his own credit, his skill and his relentless relationship with the piano, that he remains in the industry. And to our collective delight in the audience. “My passion and love for it have kept me going,” he says.

And his composer of choice? Franz Schubert (1797-1828), a character as tragic as visual artist Vincent van Gogh was, and as astonishingly brilliant. “It makes me feel guilty,” he adds, “to isolate one composer above all the others, but yes, Schubert is among my favourites.”

Schubert, who is most famously known for having composed the Ave Maria, was a fiercely prolific composer who died tragically young, in 1828, from what is today suspected to have been syphilis, the scourge of so many in 19th century Europe. But the voracity with which he composed, particularly in his last few years, indicates possibly that he had an inkling of his own mortality. Primarily known as a composer of lieder – he set over 600 poems to his music – he also created the Wanderer Fantasy D760, in 1822, which Warburton will perform in a fortnight, at the Hilton.

This extraordinarily difficult work takes a theme developed for a lied which Schubert composed six years earlier, and plays with it. It turns it upside-down and back to front, it moulds it and embraces it. It repeats it and skirts around it. The work is divided into four movements but lacks the traditional pause between them. It’s a very difficult piece to perform, but a joy on the audience’s ears. “It’s about muscle memory and practice,” Warburton demurely brushes past the hard work involved in mastering such a piece. But Schubert himself is known to have had difficulty in getting this piece right consistently and famously stated “the devil may play it!”

The recital will also include the last work that Schubert composed, his Sonata in B Flat Major, D 960. It’s a piece that juxtaposes moments of unabated almost childlike joy with an understanding of a depth of sadness that is shattering. It’s like Schubert’s farewell to this complex, contradictory, difficult business of being in the world. For over a decade after Schubert’s death, this work, alongside two other sonatas from the same frenetic period, was neglected by cognoscenti, today, it is considered among the most important of Schubert’s mature compositional pen.

A classical musician has always been one of the important components on the programme of the Hilton Arts Festival. In a sense, it may be coupled with the birding forays offered on the festival programme, which balances the buzz and noise of popular comedians or jazz revues. This is a moment of contemplation, meditation and inner joy.

  • Andrew Warburton performs “The Wanderer: Franz Schubert, the Romantic Genuis” for the Hilton Arts Festival at the Chamberlain Music Centre Band Room, on Sunday 12 August at midday.
  • He will also be performing works by Schubert, Bach and Scarlatti at the North West University School of Music and Conservatory, 66 Thabo Mbeki Drive, Potchefstroom, on Tuesday 1 August at 6:30pm.

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