Musical Times

Image making

Image making

Gritten, Anthony


Schubert studies Edited by Brian Newbould Ashgate (Aldershot, 1999); xiii, 277pp; 55. ISBN 185928 253 9.

The life of Schubert Christopher H. Gibbs Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2000); xiii, 21 Ipp; L30 / 10.95 pbk. ISBN 0 521 59426 X / 0 521 59512 6.

‘Schubert had an image problem.’ So begins Christopher Gibbs’s new biography, setting the tone for an essay on Schubert, man and music, and the various images of the composer and his art that have been created both during his own life and since. The problem, according to Gibbs, is really quite simple: `Schubert had a “Beethoven complex”.’ Present throughout his adult life, it became especially acute after Beethoven’s death, as Schubert pondered the rhetorical – but soon to be very real – question that Franz Grillparzer had asked in his funeral oration (at which Schubert had been one of the torchbearers): `Who shall stand beside Beethoven?’

What is it that, according to these two books, characterises Schubert’s music both individually and in distinction to that of his immortal beloved? Certain themes recur frequently, used with a degree of confidence, even relief, because they are taken to concur with images of his personality and life. One is Schubert’s manipulation of small details. In a quiet, elegant essay on `Am Meer’ Edward Cone describes how a single falling semitone in various transpositions holds the song together (rather like a `promissory note’), both relating the mysterious framing chords to the main body of the music and allowing for several possible subtleties in Schubert’s response to Heine’s poem. In a fascinating essay on `Schubert’s transitions’, Susan Wollenberg identifies four broad types of transitions, which she characterises in terms of `losing the way, ‘decisiveness’, ‘hesitancy’, and `moving unobserved’, the last of which she calls a `poetic transition’, it being the least selfconscious of the four. What characterises these is related to the carefully calculated function of their details, and is a quality which she describes in terms of ‘surprise’, ,unexpectedness’, ‘unpredictability’, ‘suddenness’, ‘revelation’, `sleight-ofhand, ‘deception’ – in short, `magic. Roy Howat and AndrAs Schiff, both writing on the piano sonatas, also dwell on the role of surprise in Schubert’s music.

That Schubert’s music thrives on surprise is unsurprising. However, underlying Schubert’s surprises and drawing him into the orbit of his idol are the ‘violence’, `brutality, ‘force’, ‘disruption’, and ‘aggression’ towards the imperatives of Classical (Beethovenian) syntax that are necessary to overcome both the inherent ‘difficulty’ of making small gestures look outwards beyond their own expressive presence, and their ‘reluctance’ at being coerced into such larger dynamic roles. Magic and violence: the one dependent on the other for its aesthetic effect, and thus coexisting in gestures that are routinely described in Schubert studies in terms of paradoxical juxtapositions like `significant detail’, `important detail’, and `tiny but decisive changes’. Such details dominate Schubert’s music and give rise to what Gibbs calls the `innovative narrative strategies and manipulations of a listener’s feeling of time’ in his late works. They are small, subtle, easily overlooked, light, little, easily underestimated.

A post-structuralist like Derrida would no doubt have much to say about this metaphysics of presence, about the impossibility of establishing a hard and fast distinction between interdependent terms (magic and violence, detail and structure), but the point is this: that Schubert’s music responds to the post-Beethovenian predicament with its own challenge, valuing precisely those qualities that are sidelined in Beethoven’s music. As Gibbs puts it, whereas Beethoven’s music is controlled by ‘exhaustive’ epic tonal dramas imposed from above, Schubert’s music is guided by ‘leisurely’ domestic melodic narratives that are created by inflecting the smallest details of the music. Choosing to avoid a direct confrontation with the demands of the monumental, the heroic, the epic, Schubert chose instead to emphasise `quite different’ qualities. In doing so, he became literally counter-revolutionary, and set an example for later composers, including Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Janacek, and Berg.

Another issue running through both books is Schubert’s allusion both to other composers’ music and to his own, and this includes the quotation of his own songs in his instrumental music. Allusion, however small, detailed, or fragmentary, was fundamental to Schubert’s musical practice, both as a way of inscribing his music into tradition and as a way of keeping what Brian Newbould refers to as the `memory of other music alive and vital. Memory is certainly likely to have been a more precious quantity to Schubert than it is to us, and he would probably have cultivated a much more richly nuanced memory than our modern technologically short-circuited memories. Loose, discursive similarities such as the allusion to – the memory of – the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no.7 in the slow movement of the late

A major sonata reflect an important element of Schubert’s musical practice, namely the role of the imagination in complementing the necessary vicissitudes of memory, and their dual role in the cultivation – Bildung – of moral character. Now, two centuries after his birth, the precise extent of the rich musical tapestry within which Schubert wove each work is revealed only by imaginative leaps, connections, and juxtapositions.

From this perspective, it is worth reading Jan Smaczny’s essay on Schubert and the Bohemians. Usefully debunking a popular image of the extent of Schubert’s direct influence on Dvorak, Smaczny uses the notion of a composer’s stylistic ‘inheritance’ to come to terms with the fact that many of the relations between musical works are often better understood in terms of a shared stylistic background or context than in terms of a direct or specific reference. Only when the similarities are with Beethoven (as Elizabeth Norman McKay observes in an essay on the string and piano duos), and then only because of Beethoven’s unique historical status, does it become feasible to speak of direct modelling and imitation; even then, it is important to establish where Schubert’s Beethovenian ‘inheritance’ ends and, as McKay puts it, his ‘mastery’ begins.

A good example of this is the close relation between the E6 Piano Trio and the Eroica, which Gibbs discusses in his penultimate chapter. To my ears at least, the relation is even more obvious than Gibbs seems to contend, though I had always thought of the relationship simply as a stylistic ‘inheritance’ rather than as an explicit homage or, as Gibbs concludes, a Tombeau de Beethoven. But his argument is persuasive, and I look forward to reading his forthcoming article on the subject.

Does Schubert still have an image problem? Perhaps, for Roy Howat’s essay `Architecture as drama in late Schubert’ makes a passionate plea for performers to think more about the dynamic energy of the piano sonatas and to linger less on their `heavenly length’ – which, as he says, `can look after itself’. However, there is no doubt that while none of the writers here can avoid having to construct his or her own image of Schubert, most of them are at least aware that that is what they are doing.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Autumn 2000

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