Archive for March 24th, 2012

Some thoughts on Schubert

Every now and then, Radio 3 devotes a few days of its schedules mainly, or even wholly, to the works of a single composer. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin have all been given this treatment, to the great joy of their respective fans, but to the chagrin of certain killjoys who apparently find it too difficult to listen their CD collection for a while if they do not particularly care for what is on the radio. Right now, it is Schubert who is receiving this Radio 3 treatment, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier: Schubert’s music has come to mean much to me over the years.

It’s hard to speak about Schubert without speaking of his tragic early death – he was only 31 when he died – and of the shadow of death that haunts so much of his finest work. This inevitably leads to arguments on the extent to which our knowledge of the artist’s life should influence our reaction to his work. The answer to that question is, obviously, “not at all”: a work stands or falls on its own terms. But even if we knew absolutely nothing about Schubert’s life, even if we were to judge his works purely on their own terms, we would still, I think, be detecting in them that death-haunted quality.

Not, of course, that it is all doom and gloom. Very few composers have communicated the sheer joy of living as exuberantly as Schubert has done – even, sometimes, in some of his very late works. But joy in life is not incompatible with awareness of death: indeed, the two often go together, as awareness of the eventual loss of one’s life is all the more affecting when one loves that life deeply. That is at least one reason why the grave doth gape thrice wider for the likes of Falstaff than for other men.

The grave certainly gaped wide indeed for Schubert. That is not merely a fanciful reading: music, of course, is abstract, but there is little abstract about so many of the texts Schubert chose to set to music. The early song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, so full of the joys of living and of loving, so replete with the sounds of nature, turns insidiously towards darkness; while the later song-cycle Winterreise is effectively music to slash your wrists to: the darkness is there from the beginning, and by the end, even the consolation of death is denied. Somehow, even the most angst-ridden of music by other composers can seem insipid in comparison. Compared to the Schubert of Winterreise, Leonard Cohen appears quite a jolly old chap.

And the instrumental works also: music may be abstract, but I doubt there are too many who could listen to, say, the C minor piano sonata, or to the string quintet, and come away thinking they are jolly, happy works. They have happiness in them, sure: Schubert was no monomaniac. But the sense of a deep, impenetrable darkness is never too faraway.

Of course, there’s more, much more, to Schubert than this. Ask anyone who loves Schubert what draws them to the music, and, regardless of how learned or otherwise they may be in musical matters, one thing they are all bound to mention is his extraordinary gift for melody. Oh, other composes have excelled in melody as well – Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin – but no-one quite equalled Schubert in this respect. And it is impossible to explain why. What is melody, after all? A sequence of notes played to a particular rhythm. So what is it that makes certain sequences of notes so much better than certain others? It is an impossible question to answer, and remains one of the great mysteries in life: we simply do not know, and, I guess, never will know, just why it is that a succession of pitched sounds can exert so powerful an effect on us. Analysts may examine what features make for good tunes, but not even the most powerful computer programme armed with all the fruits of such analysis could create a melody that touches the soul so deeply as do so many of Schubert’s. Just listen, for instance, to the melody of the song “Du Bist die Ruh”; or to that second theme of the string quintet, or of the “Unfinished” symphony; or to the serene opening of the B flat piano sonata; or to that heartbreaking theme of the slow movement of the B flat piano trio; or to dozens of others that occur so easily even off the top of one’s head. Art, I realise, is not a competitive sport, and there is little point in creating league tables, but when it comes to putting together tunes, there really is no-one who could match Schubert.

It’s not just melody, of course: I have not had a musical education, and would be very embarrassed even to try to speak of such matters as harmony: I do not know, for instance, just what the modulation is towards the end of the slow movement of the B flat piano sonata; but I do know the effect that modulation has on me, even on repeated listening when I am expecting it. It has the effect of a window suddenly opening on to a new world. And Schubert did this sort of thing so often!

So, if one had to pick a favourite work by Schubert, what would it be? An impossible question to answer, though various musical luminaries offer their thoughts here. Recently, I have been listening almost obsessively to Schubert’s last string quartet (No 15 in G major, D887): it is a work of deep unease, and, despite passages of the most exquisite lyricism, ranges in mood from melancholy to sheer, unadulterated terror: it is a work that has a curious and inexplicable hold on me. But in the last few days, I have found myself listening increasingly to Schwanengesang, which is a collection of his last songs, put together and given that possibly sentimental title after Schubert’s death by his publisher. It is not, strictly speaking, a “song cycle”, although it is easy to see why it is often referred to as such: these are songs that simply ache with loss and yearning and desire. Even the song “Der Taubenpost”, which has the most delightful of melodies and which bounces along quite happily, focuses poignantly near the end on the word “sehnsucht” – “longing”.

At the heart of this collection are settings of six poems by Heinrich Heine, and they are so haunting that I swear I have heard them even in my sleep. One of these songs tells of a parting by the sea: we do not know who these people are, or why they are parting, but in the final line, the singer  tells us that he drunk her tears, and, ever since, has been poisoned by them. Another song tells of a portrait of which appears to come to ghostly life. And in “Der Doppelgänger”, the climactic song of the sequence, and one in which this greatest of melodists appears to abandon melody altogether, the singer returns to the place where his love had once lived but now lives no more, and, in a moment of sheer terror, sees the ghost of his own younger self, mourning his loss. These songs seem to take us into some mysterious hinterland of the mind, and reveal an emotional landscape that is unlike anything I think I have ever encountered.

So, can I take a full week of nothing but Schubert? Unlikely. Much of his music is far too intense. But then again, I doubt I’ll have the time anyway to listen to the radio without pause for a full week, But while the Schubert season lasts, I am more than happy to join in the celebrations of the works of one of the greatest and most  affecting of all creating artists.

“The Wrench” by Primo Levi

Levi’s life & literary career are inevitably defined by his experiences in Auschwitz. His writings on Auschwitz – both autobiographical and polemical – are required reading; if there’s any book that really must be read, it’s If This is a Man. And one should also, perhaps, read The Truce, which describes his long journey back from Auschwitz, and which is, surprisingly, exuberant and life-affirming. Or his last book – The Drowned and the Saved – in which he reflects furiously on the Holocaust. Given Levi’s well-deserved reputation for level-headedness and generorosity of spirit, many readers were shocked by the sheer ferocity of this book, but it served to remind one – should reminding be necessary – there are certain crimes so atrocious that they neither could nor should be forgiven.

But is he to write only about the Holocaust? Is it possible for him to address other themes?

Here, he addresses a theme rarely addressed by fiction: work. Usually, in fiction, we are either shown people wealthy enough to not have to work; or we are shown people whose work is exciting, or made to appear exciting (soldiers, detectives, etc.); or we are shown characters during their non-work hours. The truth is that most of us we spend a large proportion of our lives at work, and this is an area that fiction barely touches on at all. People at a desk doing paperwork, analysing data on PCs, mending gas pipes, taking blood samples in clinics … these are usually considered too dull to depict.

And yet, work is Levi’s theme. The narrative takes the form of a series of anecdotes, told mainly by Faussone, a rigger. (Faussone, Levi explains in an afternote, is a fictional character, but is an amalgam of various real people he had known.) In various chapters, Faussone tells us of the various jobs he has had around the world, often going into technical details. And, after a while, this job which he carries out to earn his pennies emerges as nothing less than heroic. And, much to our surprise – much to my own surprise – we find ourselves caught up even in what may atfirst sight appear to be dry, technical details.

Towards the end, Levi gives us a couple of stories relating to his own job (he was a professional chemist). It’s a very different job from Faussone’s, but it is clearly a job he loves. And once again, the details of his work, though presented in Levi’s characteristic down-to-earth tone, emerge as curiously compelling. And at this point, anothertheme seems to emerge: Levis’ other job – that of a writer, and the conflict between the two vocations.

Loving one’s work, and being good at one’s work, is, Levi says, one of our great “freedoms”. I was struck by his use of the word “freedom” in this context, but I think I see what he means: if our work is mainly a chore to be put up with, or even something we dislike, then we are chained: freedom only comes from liking what we do. But it is a freedom that, perhaps, not too many people enjoy.

For those readers used to Levi’s memories of and reflections on Auschwitz and the Holocaust, it is too easy to say that this theme is slight. But I don’t think it is. Levi was a heroic man in every sense – physically as well as morally – but it is unreasonable to expect him to write solely about the Holocaust. This very short book was a wonderful and refreshing surprise. Perhaps it will always  remain under the shadow of his books on the Holocaust, but it doesn’t deserve to.