It's so easy to find oneself attracted to the music of Franz Schubert. His unmatched gift for lyricism makes him so approachable, so comprehensible; and we feel ourselves being pulled into his musical world—in my case, at a very early age.
But now, with the wisdom of my years, my appreciation for Schubert has deepened. For lying within this musical world of color and melodic beauty is a powerful undertow of mystery, of light and dark, of profundity beyond the years of a young genius who lived only until the age of 31.
In January, 2013, to mark the 215th anniversary of Schubert's birth, I thought it was an opportune time to share my thoughts on one of my all-time favorite composers.
So, does Schubert belong in the pantheon of the greats? He most certainly does, to the ears and heart of this listener. That which is easily grasped and enjoyed we perhaps tend to underestimate. But with Schubert, there is more – so much more!
Most music lovers conversant with the familiar variations on The Trout, or Die Forelle, which are contained in the quintet that is named after them, may find themselves emotionally unprepared for the incomparable variations on Death and the Maiden, in the eponymous String Quartet in d minor, in which – in the very first movement -- Schubert develops a simple descending-scale motif into an intense outpouring of pain and grief, then takes that simple melody through a whole range of moods, building to an impassioned frenzy before its final quiet resolution.
Fewer listeners still know the variations on Sei mir gegrüßt, contained within a late Fantasia for Violin and Piano – a prolonged and poignant meditation on one of Schubert’s most affecting melodies. Lightness and darkness, levity and profundity. It is precisely the close proximity of these two worlds that makes Schubert’s music so great, and which brings us to the prerequisites vital for the interpreter of his music. She or he must have, first, the innate capacity to switch rapidly between terror and lyricism, often from one bar to the next!
Franz Schubert excelled in every musical genre, writing string quartets that can be set beside the greatest of Haydn and Mozart, symphonies that stand comparison with Beethoven, and works for piano that paved the way for Schumann and Chopin. At an age when Beethoven had produced merely excellent classical style string quartets, Schubert produced his C major String Quintet, perhaps the most beautiful piece of chamber music ever composed. It certainly belongs with the late Beethoven quartets, and also with Mozart’s own G minor String Quintet. I can honestly say that it has the power to change one’s life, because it, in fact, changed mine. Had he written nothing else, Schubert would be immortalized.
Schubert, however, was the first, and the greatest, songwriter in history. His 615 songs represent a flow of unaffected melody, and dark undercurrents of the soul, without compare in the history of music. Die Winterreise is a world unto itself of melodic beauty, spiritual torment, the bleakness of lost love, and the coldness of the hand of death. There was no greater interpreter of the Winterreise songs than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as he weaves the many moods of beauty into an epic of sadness, overshadowed by death. Here he is with the great pianist Alfred Brendel:
During Beethoven’s last illness, a collection of Schubert’s songs was placed in his hands, and after examining them, he exclaimed: "Truly, Schubert possesses the divine fire.” Schubert stood with many others for a long while around Beethoven’s deathbed. The invalid was told the names of his visitors, and made feeble signs to them with his hands. Of Schubert he said: "Franz has my soul."
Liszt called Schubert "the most poetical musician that ever was." Schumann was equally complimentary, saying that "Schubert’s pencil was dipped in moonbeams and in the flame of the sun."
Six hundred and fifteen songs! Running the whole emotional spectrum from the lively and playful Die Forelle, to the glowing Abendrot (literally evening red, but depicting the afterglow of a beautiful sunset, both sung here by the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich:
And who can fail to fall in love with Schubert’s An Sylvia, based on a text drawn from the Shakespeare comedy "Two Gentlemen of Verona," - especially when it is sung by Fritz Wunderlich. One is struck by the seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of melodic invention!
Imagine, on top of this: nine symphonies, 22 works for string quartet, 36 works for solo piano, 45 sacred works, 18 works for the stage, and over 200 other miscellaneous instrumental and vocal works. And all by the age of 31.
Schubert died leaving nearly 1,000 compositions, nearly all of which are marked by his distinctive genius. Assuming that he began writing when he was 16 or 17, he filled what now, in his complete, published works, make up 41 folio volumes. In 1815, his 18th year, he composed 20,000 measures of music, writing sheaf by sheaf, as one would gather grain in harvest. Verily, as Schumann put it, "he has done enough."
Franz Schubert was, beyond all question in my mind, the most fertile and original melodist that ever lived, and he is the first of the great songwriters in rank as well as in time. The German folk song found in him its highest and finest ennoblement; through him, the ancient German folk song tradition came to life again, purified and transfigured by art.
But if it had only ended there! What of the piano Impromptus, Op. 90 and 142, surely among the greatest short piano pieces ever written, each exploring a different mood, and together forming an encyclopedia of 19th-century piano style;
Or the Symphony Number 8 (Unfinished), packing more tragedy and pathos in the first movement than most composers could work into an entire composition;
Or the (Great) Symphony No. 9, about which Schumann said, “Here, beside sheer musical mastery of the technique of composition is life in every fiber, color in the finest shadings, meaning everywhere, the acutest etching of detail, and all flooded with Romanticism;"
Or how can we forget the Mozartean lilt of the Symphony No. 5, or the Piano Sonata in B-Flat, Op 90?
I hear them all differently now than when I was younger. From whence came to this young composer of humble origins, and maturity beyond his years, a Muse so full of wisdom, and spiritual and intellectual depth? I asked myself these same questions as I visited Schubert’s house, way out in the Ninth District of Vienna, with Schubert scholar Dr. Reinhardt Wizman. Snatches of all these great works played in my head as I walked through the small rooms within which Schubert was to live more than half his life.
There comes a time in all our lives, if we are very lucky, when we begin to understand more fully what it means to be truly “great.” As Pulitzer-winning historian Barbara Tuchman once put it: I “know” greatness when I hear it; I don’t have to explain it.”
In Woody Allen’s 1989 existential drama Crimes and Misdemeanors, the great filmmaker carefully chose his soundtrack used in the scenes leading up to Dolores's death, and Judah’s discovery of her body. He chose parts of the Allegro molto moderato (including the dotted rhythms of the opening) from Franz Schubert's String Quartet No. 15. Though Schubert had only four instruments to work with, the music is almost terrifying in its intensity. Woody Allen understood. This was Schubert’s last quartet, and the composer’s declamation of love lost, the inevitability of death, and the terror of loneliness. It speaks profoundly to us all, or at least I think it should.
What’s so great about Schubert? If you don't know the answer now, in time – I assure you – you shall.