Monday, January 16, 2012

Why Schubert?

There are a few pieces of music that I try not to hear too often, since they are so powerful they keep me up at night. Most of them are by Schubert. I went to hear one of them yesterday: the E flat piano trio. If you want to be awake and haunted at 3am, look no further than its second movement.

Why Schubert?

...Schubert, as you know, is most famous for his songs. His musical language is completely intermingled with the flow of language, poetry and ideas. This comes through his instrumental works as well as his Lieder, perhaps contributing to their sense of ultra-communication in the soul-to-soul sense. He appeals not only to our sonic imagination but our linguistic and literary one too, yet by-passing words to give only the impact of their unwritten message. The E flat trio's second movement feels at times like a fugitive from Winterreise, but its grand-scale structure is not shackled by strophic verse. The emotional content is there, but free to grow and develop at "heavenly length" (Schumann's term, originally describing the Ninth Symphony).

...The myth goes that from the age of about 25 Schubert, diagnosed with syphilis, knew that he was going to die young, and that this awareness fed the tortured side of his works. It's dubious. He made it to 31, but did not in fact die from that horrible, degenerative illness, but something else, possibly contracted from eating some bad fish. In his last letter to his brother, he asked for a copy of a James Fenimore Cooper novel. He thought he was going to be in bed for a while, reading, recovering - not imminently pushing up the Viennese daisies. And yet the speed at which he dashed off searing, visionary, humane masterpieces such as this trio, the String Quintet, the last three piano sonatas, the great string quartets like the D minor 'Death and the Maiden' and the ahead-of-its-time G major, the Ninth Symphony, SchwanengesangWinterreise - it positively beggars belief, enhancing the impression that Schubert, like Keats, had fears that he might "cease to be, Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain..."

It may well be true that the long walks he was prescribed - apparently to build up his strength in resistance to the syphilis - could account for the walking rhythms he chose so often, as in this trio, Winterreise's 'Gute nacht', the C minor Impromptu, the Ninth Symphony's second movement. Whether or not he could predict his own death, he could certainly see a future blighted by a then-incurable venereal disease: this passionate and sensitive young man, who loved life so intensely and was both compelled and disgusted by its seamy, venal side, would never be able to have a loving relationship without passing on that illness to his partner (let's avoid the "was Schubert gay?" question for the moment, because the end result is the same where syphilis is concerned). Known to his friends as "Little Mushroom", he was not in any case hunk of the century: short, plump, bespectacled. You can still see his glasses in a case in the birthplace museum in Vienna. They are tiny with round lenses, one of which is cracked. It's an oddly heartbreaking exhibit.

...In Schubert, the major tonality is more tragic than the minor. It is the way he switches between them that rips at our innards. What is he doing? What is he saying? Recognition of darkness turns to acceptance of it, maybe. Or to seeing the beauty beyond it. Or to welcoming it. Or to extending compassion to everyone for it, with a wry smile through the tears. I believe that in the change from minor to major he is not only recognising the darkness and transforming it, but empathising with both sides of it, and with us all: in that switch, for Schubert, lies the essence of the human condition.

...Schubert is a matter of pure emotion, introverted but also universal. Against today's backdrop we need his message more than ever. As you'll have noticed, we're in a time of extremism and mass hysteria: a time of whipped-up, maliciously manipulated finger-pointing, witch-hunts, pointless and irrational victimisation (the real nasties mostly get away with blue murder while our attention is diverted by trivia). Against such a dim, dumb background, Schubert remains the voice of balanced humanity at its most sensitive, facing up to its own nature with supreme honesty. After the 7/7 bomb attacks in London in 2005, someone asked me to suggest consoling music; I picked Schubert as the ultimate. I think at that point it was the slow movement of his other piano trio, the B flat. Now, though, we need the E flat.

...I know I've pointed out before the way that Schubert could pack more emotional truth into a four-minute song that certain composers of very expensive symphonies manage to say in an hour and a quarter. But when he does do "heavenly length" there is a point to it. Did you know that if you count the bars of the first movement of the Sonata in B flat D960, including the repeat and its first-time linking passage, there are the same number in the exposition up to the double bar as there are in the rest of the movement? Whatever this may or may not tell us, it says that he knew what he was doing; he was not wielding out-of-control, sprawling structures, something of which he's sometimes been accused. There was self-awareness in that length; it was deliberate.

...I love the fact that we owe Schubert to Schumann, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Brahms. Schumann went to Schubert's brother's house and unearthed manuscripts including the Ninth Symphony. Mendelssohn conducted it. Brahms edited some of the piano music for publication, refusing to take a credit for his work. Liszt transcribed some of the songs and made them well known by performing them in his recitals. Their own music is full of his influence. And of course, without Schubert's influence we wouldn't have had Mahler (though to me, Schubert is worth ten of him. Don't shoot.).

...Schubert brings us back to purity, truth and tenderness. Amid the mayhem, don't forget to listen.

(UPDATE: Entartetemusik is somewhat exercised about my last line. Try the beginning of my piece as well as the end? The bit about how this music keeps you awake and haunted at 3am?)