The Magic in Schubert’s Songs

Gustav Klimt: Schubert at the Piano, 1899; destroyed by fire in May 1945

“Truly,” Beethoven remarked in 1827, “in Schubert there dwells a divine spark.” Franz Schubert himself worshiped the older composer and was a torchbearer at his funeral. In the following year, he asked for one of Beethoven’s string quartets to be played at his own sickbed, days, if not hours, before he died at the age of thirty-one. Many of Schubert’s works contain homages to Beethoven: the Fate theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the animating motif of Schubert’s terrifying song “Der Zwerg” (The Dwarf). His “Auf dem Strom” (On the River, for voice, piano, and horn) takes up the theme of the Eroica’s death march. And the unusual tempo marking of the first song of the Winterreise cycle (Mässig, in gehender Bewegung, moderate, at walking pace), written in the year of Beethoven’s death, might be seen as a valedictory reference to the latter’s piano sonata “Les Adieux” of 1809–1810.

For Schubert’s contemporaries, Beethoven was the colossus, a figure whose titanic energy and sublime originality went on to define the cult of the hero-musician in the nineteenth century. His deafness added a strain of tragedy. And Beethoven could look the part, his image in paint, print, and sculpture portraying the rugged aesthetic adventurer. Schubert, on the other hand, was under five feet tall, bespectacled, and pudgy, “looking not like a god of music but like a harried Viennese clerk with a head-cold,” as a character in J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime puts it. His friends called him “Schwammerl,” mushroom. When the bodies of the two composers were exhumed in 1863, it was noticed that while Beethoven’s skull was thick, with a strong jawbone, Schubert’s cranium was possessed of an almost feminine fineness of construction.

The Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer’s epitaph for Schubert, written for the monument that was erected at his grave in the summer of 1830, conveyed the sense that he had died young and, essentially, unfulfilled: “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even far fairer hopes.” Many of Schubert’s greatest pieces were, at that date, unknown or unappreciated. Compared to Beethoven, his longer works were for decades felt to be rambling or lacking in structure. Hubert Parry summed up a long-standing critique in 1893:

[Schubert] had no great talent for self-criticism, and the least possible feeling for abstract design, and balance, and order…. In instrumental music he was liable to plunge recklessly, and to let design take its chance.

As different styles of classical music have weakened the hold of the Beethoven model, Schubert’s “heavenly length” (Robert Schumann’s phrase for his Ninth Symphony) has come to be better appreciated and better understood, as has his harmonic language. It was the most successful composer of the late twentieth century, Benjamin Britten, who summed up the new appreciation of Schubert, in a lecture he gave on…

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