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the life of schubert

21 may 2019

Here's a roundabout path to reading a book. Last year, a commencement speaker at my university was giving advice in the form of random non-sequiturs, rather like Kurt Vonnegut didn't. One of his non-sequiturs was "Listen to more instrumental music." I don't remember any of the others.

But it hit home. For a long time I had listened almost exclusively to vocal music, occasionally documenting my love of opera, show tunes, and standards in these reviews. It's not that I avoided instrumental music; it's more that I had written it off as a serious interest. I'd eagerly go to hear singers, and played vocal recordings endlessly; I much more rarely picked up music without words.

At the behest of this mostly-forgotten orator, though, I rummaged around on the CD shelf at home and started playing what I had. An old Musical Heritage Society disc of Kurt Redel and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra playing standbys from Pachelbel to Gluck. Some overtures and symphonies by Joseph Martin Kraus, "the Swedish Mozart." A grab-bag of Rossini overtures from which the Whatever Philharmonic had unaccountably left out the Barber of Seville.

And then I noticed a complete set of Beethoven's symphonies. I had last made a systematic attempt to listen to Beethoven symphonies when I started college, in the 1970s. In those days, when you wanted to hear classical music but had no money for records or concerts, you'd go to the college library, request that somebody put a record on a phonograph in the back, and be directed to a listening booth where the sound was piped into a big pair of headphones. This was a somewhat monastic approach to a musical education, and I abandoned it after a few weeks of Beethoven.

In 2019, though, I found that a movement of a Beethoven symphony was just about the length of my commute to my office. Well, with some of the later and longer symphonies, my drive to the office and back. Listening to classical music on the CD player in your car may be the 21st-century equivalent of a listening booth in a 1970s library, but it gets the job done.

After nine by Beethoven, I noticed a single CD on the shelf: Schubert's "Great" symphony in C major. When you listen to nine Beethoven symphonies obsessively for a whole month, Schubert's Great sounds at first blush a bit like "Beethoven's Tenth." It's loud, it's long, it's Romantic, it's written for a big orchestra. The Great symphony even quotes Beethoven's Ninth. In the final movement, Schubert introduces the Ode to Joy, fleetingly, in a variation, but unmistakably. Schubert wrote the Great symphony not long after attending the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth – and not that long before both composers died.

But despite the looming influence of Beethoven, the more you listen to the Great symphony, the more it sounds like nothing except itself. Music is "fractal" in that way, like so many cultural phenomena. Schubert can sound a bit like Beethoven, a bit like Mozart, a bit like Chopin, sometimes like Rossini or Mendelssohn; they can all sound like one another at times; but when you listen to music of that extended classical-romantic period exclusively for a while, each of them begins to sound quite distinct. (Just as when you walk into a gallery of Impressionists and first perceive Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and the like as awfully similar, and walk out impressed by their individuality.)

Schubert, of course, I had long known as a vocal composer. He is basically the greatest songwriter who ever lived. That was Schubert's "brand" during his short lifetime, and remains his most distinctive claim on the classical canon. Improvements in piano technology by the 1820s brought high-art keyboard music within the reach of proficient home amateurs. Franz Schubert made his reputation, and a good portion of his living, by giving home pianists and singers something to show off with. In the process, he brought popular song into the realm of high art.

You would expect a composer of Lieder, partsongs, and other home vocal numbers to aspire to write grand opera. Christopher Gibbs, in his outstanding Life of Schubert (2000) for the Cambridge Musical Lives series, notes that Schubert did have operatic ambitions. Viennese culture and show business conspired to redirect them. By the time Schubert was ready to mount a campaign to become a leading operatic composer, Vienna was in the throes of an Italian-opera craze, and nobody was interested in operas by guys not named Rossini. And both Schubert and Gibbs had to admit that Rossini was pretty good at what he did. As a result, after a couple of tentative misdirections, Schubert abandoned opera.

And at that point, in the 1820s, he had only a few years to live, and doubtless knew it. Schubert's illness is unknown, but syphilis almost certainly played a part, and may have been the ultimate cause of his early death. With a huge catalogue of high-middlebrow popular songs on the books, Schubert began composing feverishly for his cedar chest and for posterity. He wrote eight complete symphonies, started a tenth, left one famously unfinished. He wrote a staggering number of impossibly beautiful pieces for string quartet, quintet, and solo piano. Many of these late compositions filtered into print and the classical repertoire in the half-century after Schubert's death, some even later. To an odd degree, he was a presence who kept active throughout the 19th century, inspiring generation after generation of his musical descendants with new compositions.

Schubert was, therefore, to put it in American terms, an odd mix of Hank Williams and Emily Dickinson. He was the celebrity songwriter who died young and left an amazing catalogue. If you got on a time machine to 1830s Vienna and mentioned Schubert to the first person you saw, you would both nod and say "of course, the guy who wrote 'Ave Maria'." But he was also the late-Romantic and even modernist hidden genius who provided later composers and audiences with new musical ideas to reckon with. There is nobody quite like Schubert in the Western musical tradition, and perhaps one is more than we could handle.

I could go on about Schubert for several more kilobytes, but I should probably turn back to the book I am purportedly reviewing. Gibbs' Life of Schubert is a model academic/popular biography. It does not try to get into its subject's head, or to recreate his experiences novelistically. There are few documents that would justify such a procedure. Schubert wrote only a couple of texts (one sort of vague diary entry, and one highly rhetorical, if highly personal, letter) that allow us much entrée to his innermost thoughts. Second-hand testimony about the composer is mostly long-posthumous and highly filtered. He lived in the 19th century, and thus we know far more about Schubert than about Vermeer or Shakespeare, but in many respects the biographical problems they present also apply to Schubert. He was a guarded individual who expressed himself through his art, not through personal testimony. Gibbs is careful to preface every characterization of Schubert with a parallel assessment of how it is we know that much about him in the first place.

As with Dickinson, Shakespeare, and even Vermeer (who was that girl with the pearl earring, after all?), much of the received lore about Schubert centers on his erotic life. Earlier accounts saw him as unlucky in his courtship of various women whose social class didn't align with his. That may be. Schubert was from a middle-class background; his father was a teacher and so was he, for a while. It is not impossible that he pined for one of the high-born women that he tutored in music, or alternatively for some Biedermeier barista. But lots of artists managed to overcome romantic disappointment and have ordinary family lives; Mozart, whose class origins weren't greatly different from Schubert's, was rather conventionally married by his mid-20s.

Later interpreters have come to suspect that Schubert was a closeted gay man (there being few other options for gay men c. 1820 in Vienna). Rumors of his indiscretions with Viennese prostitutes abound, and it would be simple enough to switch the gender on those assignations and see Schubert involved with (and unfortunately infected by) the male demimonde of his day. Gibbs, however, is suspicious of both the straight-romance and gay-dissipation Schuberts, for the good reason that the existing record doesn't support either very well. All his friends and roommates were men, and he spoke of them with great affection; but that was not unusual for straight men of the time. He was conventionally associated with various women, and who's to say the associations aren't worth their face value? It would surprise no-one – at least not Gibbs or anyone who's read his book – if the gay Schubert were the reality; but the truth is likely unknowable.

Gibbs promises to avoid technical musicology and mostly delivers. He is not shy about directing the reader to masterpieces, though. There are many tips on wonderful pieces here, too many to redirect the reader's attention to; get Gibbs' book and use it as a guide to Schubert. My own favorite has long been one of the songs from Die Schöne Müllerin, the "Trockne Blumen" … though come to think of it, that's vocal music. For instrumental, try the first movement of the string quintet in C, D956, which sounds as far ahead of other early Romantic music as Turner's paintings are beyond other early Romantic art.

Gibbs, Christopher H. The Life of Schubert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. [Musical Lives] ML 410 .S3G53