5 Ways of Looking at Schubert

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Currently I’m a little obsessed with Schubert. He’s always been one of my favorite composers, but I haven’t worked on any of his pieces in a long time – so when I started looking at the D. 899 set of 4 Impromptus recently, I was reminded of all the things I love about his works.

He’s harder than most composers to categorize. Although he lived a very short life (1797-1828), he somehow managed to catch both a bit of the classical era’s “golden age”, and the beginning of Romanticism – he was alive early enough to hear Mozart at the height of his powers, but also late enough to hear Beethoven’s final, ground-breaking works. Because of this, his own style wavers between strictly Classical and heart-rendingly Romantic. He adhered to well-known classical forms, but also delved into then-newer types of music – impromptus, lieder cycles. Furthermore, while he idolized Beethoven’s grand and heroic style to the point of obsession, his own works remained hauntingly intimate and delicately intricate. Because of all of these factors, it’s hard to describe him in the more concrete terms you could use for someone like Haydn or Prokofiev. Perhaps because he drew from such a wide variety of influences, he has a sound and style that is uniquely his own, in a way that was innovative the way no one else had been innovative before.

As I’ve been thinking of his music a lot lately, I’ve realized there are basically five angles that you could approach in looking at his works, and his style.

1. Adherence to Classicism

Yes, he is definitely a classicist. Even though some of his works aren’t the sort of thing Haydn for example would write (Impromptus, song cycles, “klavierstucke”), he was still a truly classical composer. He staunchly adhered, for the most part, to the time-honored forms of his time – the string quartet, the symphony, the sonata, and sonata-form. His pieces often use classical mannerisms that feel like echoes of Mozart’s works. Even within the larger forms of the work, even the way he crafts some of his phrases into “periods” (question/answers) rings of classicism. A good example of this can be some of his string quartets, one of which can be heard here.

2. Obsession with Beethoven

Schubert was famously obsessed with Beethoven, so much so that he was a torchbearer at his funeral and, only a year later when he himself was dying, asked to be buried with his idol. This preoccupation with Beethoven and his style pervades almost all of Schubert’s works, sometimes almost subconsciously. Some have complained about Schubert’s lengthier works and their seemingly rambling quality (a characteristic fellow composer Robert Schumann staunchly defended as “heavenly length”). I think a lot of this length might have to do with his attempt to imitate Beethoven’s style. A lot of Beethoven’s late works are long, much longer than someone like Haydn might have written them. Their forms seem to dissolve into a purely emotional outburst, structures giving way to artistic freedom. A lot of Schubert works do the same; but their self-conscious nature might be what many refer to when they complain of excessive length. Schubert tends to be more repetitive than Beethoven (although he rarely repeats anything exactly – there are always new colors, new modulations, new inner voices that pop up if you pay close attention.) Length aside, Beethoven’s late works often have a stream-of-conscious quality, which Schubert sought desperately to emulate. His works ended up doing that in a way that was different from Beethoven’s. While the latter’s have a sort of grand, universal sort of feel to them, in which all the emotions of the world seem to have been laid out, Schubert’s tend to be like the subtle private musings of an artist. It’s like reading a beautifully written private diary, an act that seems almost intrusive, as opposed to sitting in awe before the almost scriptural magnificence of Beethoven’s writings. Both are like narratives, like a journey, but the end result is different. Nevertheless, the influence can be clearly seen. A good example of a Schubert work that does this can be found here – if you listen to it in comparison with this one, by Beethoven, the correlation becomes clear. Another think to notice is the use of contrasts in a lot of Schubert’s music – Beethoven was famous for doing the same thing. While Schubert tended to use them more elegantly as opposed to Beethoven’s emphasis on pure drama, again the connection between them is difficult to ignore.

3. Vocal composer

His most famous works are definitely his absolutely incredible lieder; the song cycles that he seemed to write so easily and yet with such astounding skill. It’s hard to imagine the kind of genius required to write something like his Erlkonig at the tender age of 17; a song so skillfully and dramatically evocative of the images that the words try to paint. But it isn’t just the ideas and mimicry that the music can conjure; it is the flawless grace with which Schubert writes for the voice. It is impossible to imagine these works as being written for anything but the human voice.  It is no wonder that they are absolutly required repertoire for any classical singer. Once you’ve heard his lieder, it is hard to hear any of his instrumental music without thinking about them. Even in his impromptus and piano sonatas, the same vocal lines and richly textured images he tries to paint using sound are impossible to ignore. No matter how you classify Schubert and how you analyze his style, his role first and foremost as a composer of song cannot be overstated. Is it any wonder that composers such as Schumann and Brahms, themselves fine writers of lieder, were so enchanted with him?

4. Precocious composer

When people think of classical prodigies, they think of composers such as Mendelssohn or Mozart. And while it’s true Schubert didn’t learn singlehandedly how to play the violin at 5, or memorize huge collection of the works of Bach to perform as a small child the way the two former composers did, it’s still significant that he wrote most of his works before he was even thirty. He may not have been a prodigy, but he was still very young to have written as much and as well as he did. We have only his incredibly work-ethic and explosive credity to thank for leaving us the large volume of work that it did. Unlike Brahms, who burned much of his work, or Rossini, who simply stopped composing once he was rich enough to retire, Schubert’s output is frankly enormous given the fact that he died at 31. He was known to fall asleep with his glasses on so that he could start working again right away when he awoke. So while many of his works are of a depth, maturity, and universality that would be incredible at any age, it’s important not to forget he was young. It is all too easy to start seeing them as ponderous, but they were the work of a hot-blooded young man who was passionate about both his works and the world. They are spirited, filled with the anxious eagerness of someone who is still growing up. You can hear a lot of this youthful eagerness in pieces such as this one. One can only imagine the soul-searching depth his pieces would have reached had he actually been able to grow old, the way Beethoven or Bach did. It boggles the mind. Which leads to the fifth lens through which we can view his music –

5. Obsession with Death

Some of his best works came out of the late period of his life, when he knew that he was slowly and painfully dying of incurable syphilis. It is impossible to ignore the fact that death was, for a significant period of time, always on his mind. But unlike Mozart’s religious fascination with death as a liberation, or Beethoven’s all-too-human struggles with mortality as outlined in his late string quartets (inscribed with the words “Must it be?” and “It must be!”). Schubert had an approach all his own. Death seems to be a journey to him, not a destination but a passage. There is nothing too sanctified about it, but there is no gritty darkness to it, either. In fact, this “journey” outlook on life begins to leave its mark on all of his late pieces. The Wintereisse song cycle is hauntingly lonely and soul-searching. You get the sense right away that the story is about much more than just a traveler escaping his beloved. There is a sense of inevitable destination, of something that must be reached alone and with painfully beautiful elegance. But this journey is outlined in pieces that are less literal as well. For example, his C minor impromptu from his D. 899 set (found here) seems to outline a coming-to-terms with mortality as well. From the almost march-like, lonely introduction; to the fiery middle section with its incessant pounding and repetition of the dominant pitch (the pitch in a scale that has the most tension in it, as opposed to the tonic “home” pitch); to the almost angelic and sudden shift to major in the ending, this is almost a journey not towards death, but rather towards the mindset needed for it. It is poetic, compelling, and absolutely heart-rending. In fact, this angle of Schubert’s music may actually be the most important. Whatever his influences were, whatever forms he decided to use, whatever genres he felt most comfortable in, behind it all was this unending, obsessive driving force behind it – the awareness of his own mortality at a tragically young age.

So there you have it, five ways to look at a composer who seems to, and will always, defy any concrete categorization. In looking at influences, pre-occupations, and stylistic inclinations, you can begin to understand his inspirations and manner of work; but it his unique sense of aesthetics and unusual understanding of death that provide the soulful and unforgettable quality to his works. A man stuck between eras, torn from the world in a painful and all too early death, remembered as innovative and yet old-fashioned, with a style uniquely intimate and personal that was all his own – never before heard, and never to be replicated again.


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