The Life of Schubert Essay

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The Life of Schubert

Christopher H. Gibbs’s slim volume, “The Life of Schubert,” in Cambridge University Press’s series Musical Lives, is therefore timely and valuable. Though terse, it brings all those matters up to date in an eminently readable manner. Mr. Gibbs, took part in the later stages of the decade long Schubertiade at the 92nd Street Y. which ended in 1997. Although he relies heavily on secondary sources here, he has also done original research, and he proposes a neat little theory of his own: a secret program for Schubert’s E flat Piano Trio.

That work was begun some six months after Beethoven died, and given its premiere on the first anniversary of his death on March 26, 1828 (eight months, it turned out, before Schubert’s own passing). Mr. Gibbs finds similarities in the trio, with its movement resembling a funeral march, to Beethoven: especially to the Eroica Symphony, written in the same key in memory of a great man. Although it was obvious to few others at the time that Schubert, still little known outside Vienna or in grand musical forms, was a logical candidate to take up Beethoven’s mantle, from this and other evidence it was apparent to Schubert, Mr.

Gibbs plausibly suggests, as it has been to posterity. While previous commentators have called Schubert’s movement a funeral march, and a few have noticed the tonal, melodic and structural similarities to Beethoven’s symphony, Mr. Gibbs writes of his interpretation, the greater meaning has remained secret. But in so concise a tome, something has to give, and Mr. Gibbs hastens to point out that the book is not everything it might appear. This book concerns less The Life of Schubert than The Life of Schubert’s Career, a story more of the artist than the man, he writes. In certain respects this book aims to be an autobiography.

Gibbs shall emphasize the distortion and trivialization of Schubert’s life that formed and informed popular images. At the same time Mr. Gibbs is no iconoclast or sensationalist. They are currently at a point where some unproven claims about the darker Schubert threaten to become a new orthodoxy in the absence of sufficient historical investigation or evidence, he writes judiciously. He spreads his skepticism evenly on new evidence and theories as well as old. Schubert remains in the shadows, he notes, even as some try figuratively to bring him out of the closet and the pub and into the psychiatrist’s consulting room.

The approach is loosely chronological. But Mr. Gibbs begins by examining three artistic representations of Schubertian soirees to set the scene. And one biographical chapter is constructed around themes raised in an 1824 letter from Schubert to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser. In a word, “I feel myself the unhappy and wretched creature in the world, the diseased composer writes, imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse instead of better. ” Mr. Gibb’s emphases, though sometimes repetitious, are often fascinating.

He notes, for example, that for the composer, most of his output was prelude. In 1827 Schubert acknowledged, among other works, three operas, a Mass and a symphony. Mr. Gibbs elaborates: At first the comment seems curious: Schubert had written some eight operas, five Masses, seven (and a half) symphonies and so much else: yet he willingly acknowledged only fully mature pieces. The musical discussion is non-technical. Although many works are located in the unfolding of Schubert’s career, few are discussed in detail. Still, what comment there is cogent, as when Mr.

Gibbs cites Schubert’s uncanny ability to make the major mode sound despairing? Can any listener fail to be relieved, for example, when, in Gute Nacht, the opening song of the cycle Winterreise, the music slumps back into D minor after the painfully illusory hope raised by the excursion into D major? Mr. Gibbs spends perhaps too much time trying to tie the mood of the composer when writing it. Yes such correspondences can sometimes emerge, the more so with such new evidence as Mr. Gibbs supplies. Still, the creative process is at bottom mysterious, and those one-to-one alignments inevitably break down sooner rather than later.

It is also surprising to see so redoubtable a Schubertian refer to the composer’s great C major Symphony (No. 9, that is, in mere contradistinction to the little C major, No. 6) loosely as the Great Symphony. No matter, Mr. Gibbs, with his solid grounding and balanced view, packs a great deal into a small space and supplies a corrective still sorely needed: or, as he suggests, needed now more than ever, as seductive new theories mingle freely with comfortable old myths. The two protagonists of Richard Power’s new novel. Plowing the Dark, each spends their days in empty rooms, living through their imaginations.

These two characters never meet each other; their stories never converge. The first, a woman named Adie, is an artist who is helping to construct a virtual-reality chamber in Seattle in the late 1980’s; the second is an American hostage in Lebanon, a man named Tai Martin, who passes his days in captivity trying to re-imagine his former life. Representing Schubert: A life devoted to art In February 1828, Schubert sent to Schott’s, the music publisher in Mainz, a complete list of individual works available for publication. Schubert only listed works in the most marketable types of domestic, social, and chamber music.

In closing his letter, however, Schubert could not resist referring broadly to some compositions he had written for the public arena, three operas, a mass, and a symphony. Knowing these would not be of immediate interest to Schott’s, he added the disclaimer: Mr. Gibbs mention these last compositions only in order to acquaint Schott with his strivings after the highest in art. Two things are noteworthy here – Schubert’s selectiveness in the public works he offered and his invocation of distinctions between higher and lower aesthetic levels.

Almost certainly, Schubert was selectively offering only the large-scale works of his early maturity, those operas, symphonies, and Masses completed since about 1820. (After 1820, Schubert repeatedly made clear that he was no longer promoting most of his early works. If Schubert’s own selectivity gives us the license to focus on the operas of his maturity, his discussion of the highest in art gives us the license to focus on the operas with the expressive range, the expanded scale of musical-demand structure, and the serious subject appropriate to a grand heroic or Romantic opera.

It was his grand operas, and not his Singspiels and other early operas, which were capable of standing alongside his grand symphony, representing the highest in Schubert’s art. Young Schubert: the master in the boy In his eleventh year, Schubert passed the entrance examinations for the Convict School, which trained choristers for the Imperial Court Chapel Life at the Convict was not without hardship, the young music-students frequently suffered cold and hunger Hunger has become so pressing, Schubert wrote to his brother, Ferdinand, that willy-nilly “I must make a change.

The two groschen that father gave me went in the first few days, If, then, I rely upon your aid, I hope I may do so without being ashamed. How about advancing me a couple of Kreutzer monthly. ”? When Schubert became acclimated to his new surroundings at the Convict he was far from unhappy. He was completely absorbed in music-study, finding therein endless fascination and adventure. He also made some intimate friendships, particularly one with Josef Spaun, seven years his sensor, who remained his intimate friend for the remainder of his life.

In the Convict school, Franz Schubert began his first compositions. Supplied with note-paper by Spaun, Schubert composed his first song, Hagar’s Klage, which came to the notice of Saheri; director of the Convict Saheri was so impressed with this achievement that he placed Schubert under the personal guidance of Ruczizka, professor of harmony. Then, when Ruczizka confided to Saheri that Schubert seems to have been taught by God himself, the lad knows every thing, Saheri decided to take the boy under his own wing.

One of the first exercises which Schubert composed for Saheri was – an opera Franz’s, you can do everything, Saheri told him you are a genius. Ingenious Schubert: the Prince of Song Schubert created the genre of the Kunstlied near the beginning of the nineteenth century and Mahler re-created it in extraordinary ways less than a century later. Many of the most pressing compositional and aesthetic issues relating to subsumed song are connected to their accomplishments.

For, even if it is an exaggeration to say Schuberet is the “Father of the Lied, (infact he is usually called the “Prince of Song”), his elevation of its artistic status had profound impact not only on that particular genre, but also more generally on matters relating to instrumental lyricism, compositional technique, folk-like simplicity, naturalness, expression, and hermeneutic association allied with words.

Popular Schubert: the turning point 1823, that year in which Schubert composed Die schone Mullerin, D. 795, was a turning point in his life, a time fraught with crisis. The venereal disease, probably syphilis, that was to kill him five years later first become evident in late 1822 or early 1823, and its initial virulent stages wracked the composer’s health for much of the year.

For all the chronological mysteries and gaps in the chronicle, people know that the genesis of the cycle is interwoven with the beginning of the end of Schubert’s life. Despite the compound of the respect accorded genius and a linguistic veil of nineteenth-century euphemisms, three of Schubert’s contemporaries, speaking in guarded terms, identify the cause of his illness as venereal disease and attribute his early death to its ravages.

Joseph Kenner, writing in 1858, is possibly biased by his hatred of Franz von Schober, whom he blames for leading Schubert astray. Anyone who knew Schubert, he writes, knows how he was made of two natures, foreign to each other, how powerfully the craving for pleasure dragged his soul down to the slough of moral degradation, and how highly he valued the utterances of friends he respected episode in Schubert’s life only too probably caused his premature death and certainly hastened it.

The unsympathetic Wilhelm von Chezy in 1863 wrote that Schubert had strayed into those wrong paths which generally admit of no return, at least of no healthy one and adds that ‘The charming “Mullerlieder” were composed under sufferings of a quite different kind from those immortalized in the music which he put into the mouth of the poor lovelorn miller lad. Schober himself spoke in discreet terms of Schubert’s hospitalization as the result of excessively indulgent sensual living and its consequences.

These and other references to a streak of coarse sensuality in Schubert’s character have led the modern scholar Maynard Solomon to speculate convincingly that Schubert was a sexually promiscuous homosexual who chose to spend his brief adulthood within the protective environs of the gay subculture of Biedermeier Vienna. Whatever the full truth of the matter, the piper came due in 1823. Schubert would have known that the disease spelled the ruin of his health for whatever length of time remained to him and that it would lead to his death.

Schubert himself first mentions illness in a formal letter to one Councilor Mosel, to whom Schubert had sent part of his opera Alfonso und Estrella. On the other hand, for Schubert was amiable and modest, devoted to his friends from the bottom of his heart, and acknowledges with affection the achievements of others, as was shown, for example, by his ever recurring delight over each little drawing done by their highly gifted Schwind. For what was evil and false, he had a veritable hatred. Bauernfeld describes Schubert’s Austrian element uncouth and sensual.

If there were times, both in his social relationship and in art, when the Austrian character appeared all too violently in the vigorous and pleasure loving Schubert, there were also times when a black-winged demon of sorrow and melancholy forced its way into his vicinity not altogether an evil spirit, it is true, in the dark consecrated hours, it often brought out songs of the most agonizing beauty. But the conflict between unrestrained enjoyment of living and the restless activity of spiritual creation is always exhausting if no balance exists in the soul.

Fortunately in their friend’s case an idealized love was at work, meditating, reconciling, compensating, and Countless Karoline may be looked upon as his visible, beneficent muse, as the Leonore of this musical Tasso. Whatever the truth of his last remark, Bauernfeld had no doubts of the Countless Karoline’s importance to Schubert. Poor Schubert: Miserable reality “Poor Schubert. ” Ever since his death this expression appears over and over again in the writings of Schubert’s friends, critics, and biographies.

One reason is that he died so young, at the age of thirty one. More prosaically, the adjective refers to the composer’s precarious financial state throughout his life, although he was far from the destitute artist later sentimentalized in novels, operettas, and movies. The tag also conveys the sense that Schubert was neglected, that his gifts went largely unrecognized. One can easily pick out a few more brush strokes in the established portrait: Schubert is viewed as a natural and native genius who wrote incomparable songs.

And then there are his festive friends in the background. Even if the public at large ignored him, at least he enjoyed the loyal support of his circle. Always the best man, never the groom, Schubert is seen as unlucky in love. Early death meant that his artistic mission was left unfinished. Even with so many miserable circumstances, Schubert’s music laughs through its tears, and the maudlin conflation of his life and works in myriad biographies and fictional treatments makes readers past and present weep. Poor Schubert. Late Schubert: who shall stand beside Beethoven

To Schubert belongs the dubious distinction of being the short-lived composer of his stature, a situation commented upon since the day he died. Schubert’s early death, while an indisputable reality, should not blind to its symbolic significance. In this respect, Schubert’s most popular instrumental work, the Symphony in B Minor, proves instructive on two counts. First, the premiere took place well over forty years after its composition. This late unveiling powerfully underscores how relatively unknown Schubert was and how unceasingly his reputation had to be reevaluated throughout the nineteenth century.

Second, its nickname the Unfinished Symphony epitomizes the unfinished quality of Schubert’s life and art, and serves as a fitting metaphor, a recurring reminder of unfulfilled promise the theme first sounded by Grillparzer’s epitaph. It may seem odd, even inappropriate, to discuss the late period of an artist who died in his early thirties; yet Schubert condensed the artistic productivity of a lifetime into his remarkably brief career, and moreover persevered in his final years with the knowledge of a mortal illness.

Professionally and compositionally, Schubert entered a new stage during the final two years of his life, the period, significantly, coinciding with Beethoven’s final sickness and death twenty months before his own. Now thirty years old, and at the peak of his creative powers, Schubert surpassed even what Beethoven had accomplished at the same age. Immortal Schubert The defunct popular composer not only becomes immortal in the poetical sense, but by a curious felicity which publishers can best explain, actually goes on composing after he is dead.

All Paris has been in a state of amazement at the posthumous diligence of the songwriter F. Schubert, who, while one would think his ashes repose in peace at Vienna, is still making eternal new songs and putting drawing-rooms in commotion. In the entire realm of art it would be difficult to find many examples of the kind of creative genius possessed by Franz Schubert. Not that he was the greatest composer who ever lived; certainly the horizons of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart were far writer. But for sheer native gifts, he is excellence only by Mozart.

Music came to Schubert as naturally as breathing. He could create beauty as freely as the ordinary man talks in cliches, every melodic idea that sprang in him soared on lyric wings. And these ideas seemed inexhaustible both in their endless variety of mood and in their consciousness. As he himself once confessed, he was unable to complete one work without having several others crowd in on his consciousness. Musical ideas came to him, not merely in a spontaneous flow, but in a veritable geyser eruption which he could not hope to curb or canalize into disciplined and formal order.

Schubert as composer of symphonies fond himself in the shadow of Haydn and Mozart from the past and Beethoven in the present. He was haunted not only by their symphonies but also by their other instrumental works. The result was a series of thematic references as well as concepts of musical composition overall structure, tonal plans, orchestration, and harmonic-rhythmic patterns which Schubert modified and incorporated into his own works. But the mighty Viennese triumvirate was not Schubert’s only source for his larger sonata-like structures.

Like Beethoven, Schubert provides an important bridge from the classic to the romantic symphony. The early up to No. 6 are among the most romantically oriented classical symphonies in existence. In dimension, instruction, and esthetic posture, they clearly belong to the eighteenth century; in orchestration and harmonic language, they look forward to future generations. The artist is someone who can take pain and the commonplace and spin them into unforgettable insights.

The hypothesis set out in this paper will, Christopher Gibbs knows, antagonize some and be found ludicrous by others. Nevertheless, as a specialist in human complexity and a wide-eyed lover of Schubert’s music, Gibbs find that to have some possible inkling of the ghosts that may have both inspired and haunted him makes the little mushroom even more special.


Gibbs, C. H. (2000). The Life of Schubert. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

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