What is it about film villains and classical music? Serial killer Hannibal Lecter (played chillingly by Anthony Hopkins) is not only “intellectually brilliant”, but “cultured and sophisticated, with refined tastes in art, cuisine and music.” He is depicted as having been a sitting member on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors. Irritated by the flutist messing his part in Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ overture, Lecter (Red Dragon 2002) makes him ‘disappear’ and it is implied that the hapless musician’s organs are served up in the banquet Lecter throws for the orchestra board.
Bond villains in particular love classical music as well. In ‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008), the ‘bad guys’ love it so much that they hold a conference meeting through microphones and earpieces during a performance of Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ while seated scattered about the Bregenz opera house.
There are many more such examples. But today let us examine the fascination with one work in particular: the Lied, or song, ‘Die Forelle’ (The Trout), composed in 1817 for solo voice and piano with music by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828), when he was just twenty. Many of us heard it quite recently, at the splendid recital by Patricia Rozario in Old Goa, with Mark Troop at the piano.
For some reason, film villains take sadistic pleasure from it. In the Bond film ‘Never Say Never Again’, the evil Largo (note the musical term, although it is hardly goosebump-inducing; would Tremolo have worked better?) whistles the opening bars as he punishes the leading lady Domino for her betrayal.
In the 2011 film Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows, Professor Moriarty toys with Holmes, in a malicious prelude to torturing him. “You are familiar with Schubert’s work?” he asks, adding “the Trout is perhaps my favourite.”
He even explains the song (or his understanding of it): “A fisherman grows weary of trying to catch an elusive fish. So he muddies the water, confuses the fish. It doesn’t realise until too late that it has swum into a trap.” The parallel is obvious; Moriarty is the fisherman, and Holmes has swum into his trap.
To add to the allegory, Holmes is hoisted up off the ground, dangling helplessly like a line-caught fish. Moriarty then plays the phonograph recording of ‘Die Forelle’ and sings along with it as the torture commences. The background music adds a sinister edge to the final bars of the piano accompaniment until the phonograph stops playing. This clip has left its Pavlovian imprint upon the Trout for me; it’s hard not to think of it when listening to the Schubert Lied now.
So, what do the lyrics of ‘Die Forelle’ really mean, and who wrote them? Schubert set the text of a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (yes, uncanny similarity in surnames) to music in 1817. It tells the story of a “capricious trout” (“launische Forelle”) in a “bright little brook” (“einem Bachlein Helle”). The rest of the story pans out pretty much as Professor Moriarty tells it in the film. An observer watches the trout at first darting about in the “clearness of the water” and then, after the fisherman muddies the water, ending up “squirming”, while the observer’s blood rages at the fate of the “betrayed fish.”
But is that all there is to the poem and the song, a description of a fishing trip? Or is there more to it? For some reason (some accounts state that he found it “too didactic”), Schubert didn’t include the last stanza in his setting of Schubart’s poem to music, and one could argue that the whole point of the poem lies in that excised stanza. It delivers a moral, if rather preachy, message to young women, to be wary of the wiles of young men:
“At the golden fountain/ of youth, you linger so confidently; / But think of the trout, / and if you see danger, flee! / Most of the time you only fail due to a lack /of cleverness. Maiden/beware of the seducer with the fishing-rod! / Or else, too late, you may bleed!”
So, given that Schubert left out the stanza, how does the singer approach the Lied? In chapter Ten (“Performing Lieder: The Mysterious Mix) of the book “German Lieder in the nineteenth century”, Professor Emeritus of the University of Colorado Robert Spillman discusses it at length and offers his viewpoint: “Perhaps knowing the poet’s more serious concern [he used the story as an allegory of the deceptive enticement of a young woman] gives the singer reason to allow righteous indignation, anger and sad regret in some measure to enter into his or her voice.” He elaborates on the expressiveness of the piano part to depict bubbling water, darting fish, and “perhaps even the flapping motion of a helpless fish out of water”, and how the singer’s knowledge of the nuances of the German language, the construction of the lines, and the exploitation of the onomatopoeic power of words (for instance, “zappelt”, which can variously mean “flapped”, “floundered” or “wriggled”) and phrases can be extremely pictorial and evocative.
The Lied prove so popular that Schubert was commissioned (by music patron and amateur cellist Sylvester Paumgartner) to write a work of chamber music based upon it. This is how and why, two years later, he wrote his Piano Quintet (nicknamed ‘the Trout’ or ‘Die Forelle’) in A major, D. 667, in which the fourth movement has a set of variations based on ‘Die Forelle’ melody. All the other movements but one (the Scherzo) also have motifs and figures from the Lied.
But rather than the usual piano quintet configuration (piano plus string quartet ie two violins, viola and cello), Schubert wrote this work for piano, violin, viola, cello and double-bass. This is because he wrote it for a group of musicians who were coming together a work by another composer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, for this combination.
The inclusion of double-bass to add to the cello in the lower register frees the piano part to explore the higher register of the instrument, giving the work a unique sonority.
For those interested, there is available to watch on YouTube, a film from 1969, a year short of fifty years ago, by film-maker Christopher Nupen, titled ‘The Trout” of a historic performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall London of the quintet by Daniel Barenboim (piano), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (viola), Jacqueline du Pré (cello), and our own Zubin Mehta (double-bass), all of them full of irrepressible youthful vigour and mischief, and all around the age Schubert himself was when he wrote the work.
(An edited version of this article was published on 22 April 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)