Some Winter Wonders

Clara Molden/Telegraph/Camera Press/Redux
Ian Bostridge at the Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, 2012

Is Schubert, among great composers, the most immediately moving? I would think so. But he was also the most phenomenal in the amount of work he produced. Even next to the prodigious output of Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart, Schubert’s accomplishments seem truly inconceivable, considering that he lived for only thirty-one years, and that the quality of many of his works is so remarkable. Already by the age of seventeen he had written some of his greatest songs, while the mounting distinction of his later instrumental works, up to the great String Quintet—his last chamber work—is staggering. In his well over six hundred songs he was able to elevate the genre to its highest level, matching what Haydn accomplished as a grandmaster of the string quartet: the creation of a vast panorama, a kind of comprehensive musical cosmos.

When Schubert was born in 1797, Vienna was the musical capital of Europe. Of the three composers responsible for the city’s preeminence, Mozart was dead, and Haydn had more or less retired; only Beethoven remained active during Schubert’s short life. Though the two composers lived in the same city, they were hardly, if at all, in touch. Both wrote their audacious final chamber music works virtually next door to and independently of one another within a period of little more than three years. In 1827, the year Beethoven died, Schubert had started composing Winterreise, his supreme song cycle.

Arnold Schoenberg, in a text drafted for the centenary of Schubert’s death, expressed his boundless admiration for Schubert’s “originality in every detail next to a crushing figure like Beethoven.” While Schubert was soon recognized as the undisputed master of the lied, his standing as an instrumental composer was slower to develop because of the mistaken notion that he had tried, unsuccessfully, to follow in Beethoven’s footsteps. It was only in the twentieth century that opinion of him gradually freed itself from a range of further prejudices—that he was a mere lyricist and melodist; that his compositions went on for too long; that his style did not develop; or that his untimely death prevented the achievement of true mastery.

To Schubert’s contemporaries, even those of his Vienna circle, much of his output was unknown. Works of paramount importance like the “Unfinished” Symphony and the “Great” Symphony in C Major were unearthed only later, tucked away in the drawers of his brother Ferdinand or of his careless friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner. Only gradually, and posthumously, did his instrumental music take hold among performers and the public, with the piano sonatas the last to be recognized. And only after 1951, when Otto Erich Deutsch produced his Schubert catalog—one of the monumental achievements of musicology—was it possible to investigate the full scope of Schubert’s greatness.

It didn’t help that after the death of the singers…

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