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Schubert à la Mode

In response to:

'Music à La Mode' from the September 22, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

I wish to take issue with Charles Rosen’s article “Music à la Mode” in the New York Review of Books of June 23, 1994. After summarizing Maynard Solomon’s theory about Franz Schubert “cruising for boys,” Rosen writes that “this created consternation among Viennese musicologists and their allies, who saw a takeover of Schubert by the Homintern, and have proceeded to invent an Immortal Beloved for Schubert like Beethoven’s and even to suggest that the keys of Schubert’s works are a secret code that identifies the name of the lady.” Since it is my work that Rosen is spoofing here, let me go on record that there is no Viennese plot to manufacture a heterosexual Schubert, just a Canadian seeking the truth.

I find it curious that so much space has been devoted in the press to publicize Solomon’s 1989 article from 19th Century Music about Schubert’s alleged homosexuality, but now that I have challenged this theory, Rosen does not even have the courtesy to mention my name. Is this an attempt on the part of the old boys’ network (or the new ideologues) to keep the public from reading my critique of Solomon’s scholarship? (See my article “The Peacock’s Tale: Schubert’s Sexuality Reconsidered” in the Summer 1993 issue of 19th Century Music.)

The memoirs of Schubert’s friends are full of his devotion to Caroline Esterházy, but perhaps this “fact” is unknown to musicologists and theorists who for so long have preached that music is autonomous from biography. If Solomon cites Eduard Bauernfeld’s diary entry from August 1826 about the ailing Schubert needing “young peacocks” (in German folk medicine eating peacock flesh was thought to cure illness), then he should also cite the same Bauernfeld’s diary entry from February 1828 about Schubert being seriously in love with Caroline Esterházy. Music becomes involved here because Schubert dedicated his Fantasie in F minor, written in early 1828, to Caroline.

F minor was traditionally a key of hopeless love, but the topic of key characteristics has been ignored by the same formalists who have ignored biography. The secret code of keys in Schubert’s works, as mentioned by Rosen, was part of my paper read at the annual American Musicological Society Meeting, Montreal 1993. In the last year of his life Schubert wrote such major works as the Piano Trio in E flat (autograph score owned by Caroline), the Violin Fantasy in C (citing the love song “Sei mir gegrüsst”), the Fantasy in F minor (dedicated to Caroline), the String Quintet in C (with the passionate “autobiographical” F minor section in the slow movement) and the Mass in E flat. The choice of keys here seems deliberate. Considering Schubert’s comment that all of his works were dedicated to Caroline and aware of the romantic era’s penchant for ciphers, I made a tentative connection between these keys and the initials of Schubert’s and Caroline’s names: F S (Franz Schubert) = f Es (F minor, E flat major) and C Es (Caroline Esterházy) = C major, E flat major (the common sound beginning their last names being Es, German for E flat). Rosen seems unaware that I presented this theory as a tongue-in-cheek attempt to bring attention to my 1983 book on the history of key characteristics, published by UMI Research Press. (I leave it to others to prove or disprove this notion about Schubert’s “romantic” use of keys.)

Perhaps we should study what it is about Schubert that makes him so attractive to fashionable political ideologies. Why did the Nazis abuse Schubert to promote their theories of pure Aryan race? This seems ironic now that a new portrait has surfaced (once owned by Parmenia Migel Ekstrom of New York and purchased on my recommendation by the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna)—a portrait rejected as Schubert by several Austrian art historians because of the Jewish-looking features. (See my book on Josef Abel’s (?) oil painting of the young Schubert (?), published in 1992 by Hans Schneider Verlag.) And why, when the evidence is so questionable, is Schubert being promoted now with such passion as a homosexual composer?

Rita Steblin
Vienna, Austria

Charles Rosen replies:

Dr. Steblin’s previous attempt to bracket Nazi cultural policy and gay rights, which she repeats here, I found morally repellent. Dr. Steblin may have a physical disgust of homosexuality and it may be understandable that she should wish to protect the great Viennese composer from an accusation of such horror. Nevertheless, I do not know a polite way of characterizing the insensitivity that would call Nazism a “fashionable political ideology.” Since Dr. Steblin insists on having her criticism of Maynard Solomon’s interesting and challenging essay taken more seriously, it is only fair to say that she did convict Solomon of the misinterpretation of a few, but by no means all, of the many documents he cited relating to social and sexual life in Vienna and to Schubert’s personal life and his circle of friends. Her own arguments in this letter, however, dissolve like cobwebs at the slightest touch.

It is difficult to credit the naiveté of Steblin’s view that Schubert’s devotion to a young woman of an important and influential family—a woman with whom he not only had no sexual relations but even no hope of sexual relations—provides any evidence for his exclusive heterosexuality. Schubert’s love for, friendship with, or crush on, Caroline von Esterházy remained platonic. Indeed, his choice of Caroline to play the role of a hopeless love object tends to bolster the theory that he was not just bi-sexual but homosexual.

The idea that “in German folk medicine eating peacock flesh was thought to cure illness” is untenable for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whatever medieval bestiaries may have fancifully imagined. Do we know of anyone—aristocratic, bourgeois, or just plain folks—having eaten a peacock for medicinal reasons at that time in Germany, or anywhere else in Europe for that matter? In her article in 19th Century Music, Dr. Steblin cites only a very late twentieth-century dictionary for this odd belief, and Professor Kristina Muxfeldt points out that this dictionary entry is probably derived from the passage in Cellini translated by Goethe and quoted in Bauernfeld’s diary—so that Steblin’s explanation is circular. We are still left with the question whether hunting “young peacocks” in Cellini is to be interpreted sexually (hunting birds in Machiavelli’s correspondence is openly an allegory for picking up boys near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence). In her article, Dr. Steblin claims that the Schubert circle could not have had the modern knowledge of Cellini’s homosexuality. Not even in early nineteenth-century Vienna were they that ignorant of the scandalous accusations of sodomy aimed at Cellini by his contemporaries.

I do not know for whom F minor was “a key of hopeless love,” but certainly not for Schubert, who wrote two long, magnificent song cycles without a single song in F minor. (B minor might be a better choice for his representation of hopeless love, the key of “Die liebe Farbe” and the original final key of Winterreise.) When Dr. Steblin writes, concerning the pieces of Schubert’s last years in C major, E flat major, and F minor, “The choice of keys here seems deliberate,” she is right—but it is her choice, not Schubert’s, out of many works including masterpieces in A major, G major, and B flat major. She says that her theory was only “tongue-in-cheek,” although she displays it again with every appearance of expecting it to be believed. Perhaps she should take her tongue out of her cheek and present her more credible research.

It will probably never be proven whether Schubert was straight or bent: that kind of evidence is not often forthcoming. We owe a debt to Maynard Solomon, however: along with the unwitting help of Dr. Steblin’s research on Schubert’s unfulfilled relations with women, he has conclusively demonstrated that the composer was a man of ebullient and powerful sexuality living in a society in which his nature had to be repressed. It is interesting that all treatments of Schubert’s sexuality have been forced into trying to decipher a code: it suggests there was something to hide. We have learned a great deal from the controversy. But, as I implied in my review, determining simply whether Schubert was homosexual or not would not tell us anything really important about his personality. So long as we are ignorant of crucial details, like whether Schubert was passive or aggressive, preferred immediate satisfaction or extended foreplay, I do not care if he slept with men, women, or horses.

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