Monday, May 14, 2012

Reading Schubert’s musical landscapes

(for James Lego)

The novelist and Schubertian Peter Härtling called Schubert “an urban vagrant, a stranger among friends.” The center of a popular artistic circle at the dawn of the Romantic age and Biedermeier Vienna, Schubert is among the most enigmatic of composers. The so-called “father” of German art song, Schubert was a frustrated opera composer who failed to break the Bel canto craze Italian opera held over the imperial Austro-Hungarian capital. His impressive output of piano sonatas, string quartets and symphonies have always lived under the imposing shadows of Beethoven, and the melancholy syphilitic composer died at 31.

As much as any composer, tonality mattered to Schubert. Anyone interpreting the great B-flat piano sonata would do well to consider the family of songs in that key. The "Unfinished" symphony in B minor is informed by the “ineluctable sadness and loneliness of the human condition” Schubert associated with his key “of alienation and despair.” John Reed’s claims are supported by the litany of melancholy songs (including one by that very name) beginning in 1816 and continuing through his haunting song-cycle, Winterreise (Winter’s Journey) and the sets of Rellstab and Heine songs posthumously published as Schwanengesang (Swan Song).

A misconception has long existed that Schubert was an indiscriminate reader of poetry, and the scores of songs by minor authors are propped up as circumstantial evidence. Schubert also set the greatest writers of his day, from Goethe and Schiller to Novalis, Rückert and Heine. His settings of “lesser” poets, like his companion Johann Mayrhofer, reflect not poor literary taste but loyalty. Indeed, his friendship with Mayrhofer, a classicist poet and censor in Metternich’s reactionary regime, is one of the more enigmatic chapters of Schubert’s tempestuous bourgeois existence.

“His existential restlessness” was exacerbated by the circumstances of artistic life at the dawn of bourgeois society in the early 19th century. Härtling argues Schubert “suffered from the dull-witted, all too easily satisfied philistinism of his contemporaries and sensed the coldness and inhospitability of the newly dawning modern age. He was making preparations for a winter’s journey.”

Some of those musical journeys trail off with little trace, not so much like a proverbial road less traveled but untraveled altogether. The B minor symphony is one such path. Reed refers to the “apocalyptic and enchanted air” of the "Unfinished," and connects songs “concerned with suffering, death or passion,” like Suleika I, Grablied für die Mutter and Der Doppelgänger. All share the same tonality.

Poetic rhythm is as important as tone and diction in Schubertian form. “Was bedeutet die Bewegung?” (What is the meaning of this stirring?) is the opening line of Suleika (Reed’s translation). The Bewegung, or motion of the poem is a rocking pattern of three upbeat 8th notes followed by a downbeat quarter note. It is the same pattern as the “knock of fate” motive that opens Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Schubert uses it again to underpin the opening of his own B minor symphony.

If it is a melancholy tonality, it can also be an urgent one. Härtling refuses to classify Schubert as the prototypical Romantic he is often claimed to be. “He was one of those few anxious souls worn down by new departures and journeys left unfinished, a man who had abandoned Classicism’s clearly defined terrain and who with characteristic urgency and stubbornness explored the shadowlands between the Biedermeier period and a future age accelerating out of control: Kleist and Hölderlin, Büchner and Schubert are four of a kind in this respect.”

Again, contextual exploration connects Schubert to the “mad” poet Hölderlin, beloved by Brahms and Britten, and the visionary playwrights Härtling lists. Kleist’s Der Prinz von Hamburg inspired one of the great but underperformed operas of the 20th century by Hans Werner Henze, and Büchner’s troubled life is interwoven with his anti-hero protagonists like Wozzeck. Henze and Britten both were bowled over by Berg’s expressionist masterpiece operatic version of the play. All three writers articulated the challenges facing the artist in an increasingly philistine society.

We are not as far away from Schubert’s landscapes as it may seem. Ariadne’s thread runs through Schubert to Berg and Britten and Henze, and leads us through a cultural labyrinth connecting the authors above, composers like Bruckner and Mahler, and landscape painters from Friedrich to Munch and Van Gogh.

Härtling believes Schubert “draws all the strands together” in the Unfinished, and thus “the wanderer is now at home. Nothing can frighten him any longer, neither loneliness nor darkness.”

When Beethoven faced an existential abyss, he leapt over it throughout his revolutionary career. Schubert is also one unafraid of the darkness. Rather than catapulting himself over it, he approaches the precipice and confronts the void he faces.

Perhaps Härtling would agree. Of the Rilke-like “archaic torso*” that is Schubert’s "Unfinished," he says the “way in which the second movement ends requires no continuation. I imagine that, having made a few tentative attempts to complete it, Schubert realized that he had no need to finish this chapter, with its powerful design for a future world that awaits the wanderer’s coming.”

One of the most remarkable facets of artistic genius is its capacity for self-renewal and transformation. Schubert himself wrote in a famous letter, “what I produce is due to my understanding of music and to my pain.” In a poem from the period that saw the birth of the "Unfinished" symphony, the "Wanderer" Fantasy, the opera Fierabras and the song-cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, Schubert wrote:

Behold, as nothing in dust I live / A prey to grief unknown to all / My life a pilgrimage of pain / Now hears its everlasting end / Destroy my life and all I am / Cast me into Lethe’s depths / And then, O Lord, allow new life / To thrive in purity and strength.
(Schubert, John Reed. Schirmer, 1987, 1997.)

In Schubert’s most famous letter, an 1824 Jeremiad to his painter friend Kupelweiser, he poured out the grief that frequently precedes Phoenix-like renewal.

Think of a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this always makes things worse instead of better. Think of a man, I say, whose brightest hopes have come to nothing; for whom the happiness of love and friendship have nothing to offer, but, at the best pain; whose passion for beauty (at least the sort that inspires) threatens to forsake him. I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being? ‘My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it never, nevermore.’ I may well sing this every day now, for every night, when I go to bed, I hope I may not wake again, and every morning only recalls yesterday’s grief (quoted in Reed).

Concurrent with the "Unfinished" symphony and the dawn of Schubert’s syphilitic illness are three fascinating settings of another “minor” Romantic poet, Matthäus von Collin. Reed calls Wehmut (Melancholy) “the most perfect expression in Schubert of the mingled joy and sadness” so characteristic of this complex composer of “little” songs. Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) “is a bizarre tale of beauty and the beast, with overtones of sexual domination and obsession.” The song opens and emerges from the same cellular device as the "Unfinished." They are uncanny twins deserving further consideration. The insistent and repetitive rhythmic motives that suffuse Schubert’s works from his 1814 masterpiece Gretchen am Spinnrade (the source of the “self-quotation” in the letter above) to the "Unfinished" are never mere accompaniment. The final Collin setting, and the one that insures that poet’s immorality is one of Schubert’s most exquisite pages of music. Nacht und Träume is the beautiful calm after the sublime terror of Der Zwerg’s psychological storm. It is a dramatic juxtaposition of musical landscapes the composer would paint again and again in his brief life. The B minor symphony’s two movements are another such pair. If it is “unfinished,” it is “suffused with brilliance” like Rilke’s torso, Hölderlin’s fragments and Coleridge’s fragmented “vision in a dream,” Kubla Khan. Like them, Schubert’s symphony stands on its own, open and enigmatic, inviting us inside.

*see Rilke’s “The Archaic torso of Apollo” (from New Poems, translated by Stephen Mitchell):
We cannot know his legendary head / with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso / is still suffused with brilliance from inside, / like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, / gleams in all its power. Otherwise / the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through / the placid hips and thighs / to that dark center where procreation flared. / Otherwise this stone would seem defaced / beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders/ and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur / would not, from all the borders of itself, / burst like a star or here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.

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