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.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael Henderson on March 25, 2012 at 10:39 am

    I’m thoroughly enjoying the week long Schubert. As I spend most of my time at home, it is a marvellous opportunity to hear all this. I loved the Bach time we had a few years back, and that was most uplifting. Schubert is different from anyone else, and his music is so special, yet it is hard to say just what it is that makes it such a compelling listen.
    As (I think) it was Donald Tovey said, all his works are early works. How much would Beethoven be remembered for had he died at 31 ? Yet there is something that speaks to us in this young man’s music. Some of the piano music can seem so beautiful , yet with just a slight change can be heartbreakingly sad. The G major sonata is a favourite of mine. I wish I could play the piano when I hear such music. Or it might explode in rage and frustration, as in the Andantino of the D959 Sonata. Another musicologist, Anthony Hopkins, of ‘Talking about Music’, from the Third Programme days, wrote that when machines take over everything in the world, we should listen to the slow movement of the B flat D960 sonata, to be reminded what beauty is. It does need sympathetic treatment though, not like a certain piano superstar I heard belting it out recently, and when it is played well, is a wonderful experience.
    There is so much, from the beautiful B flat trio, to the string music, with the string quintet, one of the greatest tragedies in Western music, (George Steiner). But in the songs, where he puts his music to the words of a poet like Müller, the effect can be so great. The song Der Wegweiser, in Winterreise, with words like ‘ what have I done that I should shun mankind ?’ speaks to anyone suffering from some illness, that seems so unjust, and plenty of people are in that position. That is just one example.
    I’m not a musician, but it always seems that so much of his music speaks directly to us. I can’t explain why. That’s just how it feels.
    When the postman brings the set of the Lindsays Schubert I am waiting for, I shall be able to play the G major quartet, and maybe I shall have to play it repeatedly, like you. We shall see !
    Thanks for a thoughtful article.


    • That set with the Lindsays contains, I think, the final three string quartets, that isolated movement simply referred to as “Quartetsatz”, and that glorious string quintet. Absolute masterpieces, everuy one of them.

      I remember that quote from Antony Hopkins about the slow movement of the B flat major sonata. A few years ago, I heard Elizabeth Leonskaja play the late Schubert sonatas at the Edinburgh Festival, and more recently, I heard Maurizio Pollini play them at the Royal Festival Hall. How is it possible fo rmere sounds to touch us so deeply? I know there’ll never be an answer to this, but I still can’t help asking myself this question.

      Incidentally, Wilhelm Müller’s son, Max Müller, became a renowned scholar of Sanskrit literature and philosophy, and was a friend and associate of Rabindranath Tagore.


  2. Posted by Erika W. on March 26, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Favorite Schubert songs: My husband, musical and once a professional clarinet player, picks “The Wanderer” and I chose “The Linden tree”.

    Thank you for this entry of yours, as a result we are back listening to Schubert–after a long dry spell for him which seems to have been devoted to opera.


  3. Posted by Erika W. on March 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Neither of us could choose a favorite piece of music from his entire works –we are thinking about this.


    • It’s impossible to choose just one, isn’t it? No sooner had I mentioned his G major string quartet, I thought about Schwanengesang, or the A major piano sonata, and dozens of others. My wife particularly loves the song “Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen”, which really is heartbreakingly beautiful. What a wonderfullegacy he has left behind!


  4. Posted by Michael Henderson on March 27, 2012 at 8:29 am

    Just a reminder that tonight (Tuesday 27th March), Elisabeth Leonskaja is playing the last two sonatas in the Assembly Rooms, Bath. It is on Radio3 at 7.30. The Paul Lewis pereformance of both A minor sonatas was superb yesterday, and I am looking forward to tonight’s recital.


    • Thanks for that, Michael, I’ve just been listening to it. As I said, she did a series of concerts at Edinburgh Festival of Schubert’s late sonatas, but I missed the one inwhich she played the B flat sonata, so it’s good to be able to catch up onher interpretation.


      • Posted by Michael Henderson on March 28, 2012 at 9:24 am

        Both were wonderful performances, and I found the B flat sonata particularly moving. I felt as if I was listening to something very special last night. (It must be the season for coughs and colds, though. )

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