Does an aura accrue to genius that dies young? I’m thinking now of Franz Schubert (1797-1828), the Viennese composer of over 600 songs for voice and piano, dozens of piano sonatas, character pieces and works for piano four hands, and chamber music of the highest quality and “heavenly lengths” as Schumann put it. Not to mention nine symphonies, six church masses, scads of choral music, and so on. The mind boggles as to how this music was even set to paper in his lifetime, the “productive” portion of which was only about 15 years long, since, let’s remember, he didn’t start at birth.
But what “if” he had lived another thirty years? What “if” the String Quintet D956 or the three last piano sonatas D958-960, regarded by many as valedictory, had been just “middle period” works, and he was able to participate in the striking further developments in chromaticism that characterized the continuation of the nineteenth century?
Ah, but the thing to remember with Schubert, of any period of his life, any size composition, was his prescient nature, a feeling of the “nearness” of death, not unusual in an age of rampant infant deaths, often including the mother herself in childbirth. Schubert’s own mother lost many children, only five of her fourteen births survived. One of his first songs for voice and piano, composed about age fourteen, “Hagar’s Lament in the Desert” shows an uncanny recognition of just this issue.
After Schubert’s romantic rejection by his “true love,” the fickle, economically concerned Therese Grob, he probably increased a dissolute lifestyle that may have included men as well as women, contracting the venereal disease that would ultimately kill him. He surely knew that he had syphilis, for which there was no cure. As his face grew increasingly pockmarked, his music darkened along with his moods. Yet there are always moments of heartbreaking optimism too, throughout.
So perhaps the grandeur and scale of what we have as his last works is really due to his foreknowledge and a desire to get out as much “important” emotion through music as possible.
His own inner circle of friends, who provided the private locations for most of his music to be heard, didn’t understand his last song cycle, the “Winter Journey.” He sang the bleak songs one by one himself one evening. Hardly drawing room fare. But remember, one of the underlying ideas of Romanticism is unending longing, that wherever one is “not,” there is one’s home.
Among Schubert’s hallmarks are the gorgeous melodies underlaid by harmonic daring unequalled in his time. Eerie harmonic “sidesteps” intrude on the most genial materials, giving the tragic undercurrent so prized by Schubert lovers. The great pianist Alfred Brendel says that Schubert “proceeds with the assurance of a sleepwalker” as distinct to Beethoven’s more strongly marked architectural/motivic procedure. But it would be a mistake to think that all that lengthy Schubert just “wanders.” It most assuredly does not, and in fact, when examined fairly, shows that not one note is dispensable. Gigantic size plus intimacy and always the vocal evocation in the instrumental music.
So find some Schubert, early or late, long or short, and connect to a feeling that, despite our high-tech achievements and the pace of modern life, remains universal.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs