B5. Cervantes and Schubert
The early days of Facebook were much more fun. We didn’t feel coerced into giving our entire lives over to the public domain, and rather than fanpages, we simply made groups about whatever we wanted. It was much more fun, much more whimsical, and much less creepy.
I remember one group in particular that had a fun title: ‘Brahms Will Understand Me!’ - professing that even if your parents, teachers, and friends have no sympathy for your problems, you will one day talk to Brahms, pour your heart out, and Brahms will understand you with perfect sympathy … Who can deny, there are so many things about Brahms’s music that make its composer seem like an incredibly sympathetic person to other people’s emotions, but in Brahms’s personal life, he was anything but emotionally sensitive - forever taking glee in utter tactlessness. He once left a party by saying “If there is someone here whom I have not insulted, I apologize.”
Many of us need music with exactly the sort of compassionate sensitivity one finds in Brahms. Those of us who listen to classical music can find equal (some would say greater) doses of it from Bach, or perhaps also Handel and Beethoven in their more lyrical moments, occasionally even Mendelssohn, perhaps Chopin too, and Verdi, and Dvorak, and Elgar, and Vaughan Williams, and Copland, and etc. But that kind of spiritual understanding can just as easily be derived form The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, some might also say U2, or any Top 40 Country Song.... Some musicians simply have the power to make us feel less lonely. It’s one of the most (if not the single most) mysterious things which music does: it can describe to us our own emotional state in such an articulate way that we suddenly feel as though someone else has been through precisely what we’ve been, and therefore we do not travel upon our road alone. And after hearing it, our emotional states are transformed because we no longer feel the emotion which the music describes. The music, in this sense, plays us.
But I know of no musician, before or since, who plays us with more virtuosity than Franz Schubert. For me, Mozart and Beethoven will always be the very greatest composers because, in their different ways, they hold laughter and tears in such perfect balance. Beethoven, like Shakespeare, juxtaposes the two at every turn. Mozart, like Chekhov, creates a space where both are possible,and makes us do the juxtaposing for ourselves. But it is only for rare moments in artistic history that such ‘lifeness’ is possible, even the greatest composers can’t quite maintain that ‘sweet spot.’ Before Mozart was Haydn, and great as he is, Papa Haydn errs too much on the side of laughter. After Beethoven was Schubert, and fils Schubert errs on the side of tears.
Haydn is perhaps the greatest communal composer – pure dirty jokes and beer (it’s only with the accumulation of the centuries that this music seems refined – Haydn's spirit was pure Hungarian peasant). You want to listen to his music with an audience of strangers – secure in the knowledge that you’ll like each other more after you hear it. But you can’t listen to Schubert with anyone whom you don’t trust. Unlike many people, I don’t believe that Schubert either is the greatest composer who ever lived or the most talented, but I do think Schubert is the greatest composer to listen to alone – greater even than Bach or Brahms. There is a vulnerability and intimacy to his music that is not to be found in anywhere else in art. A nameless friend, once in crisis, heard me from the next room listening to Alfred Brendel play the slow movement of Schubert’s D960 Sonata and dissolved into helpless sobs. There is that now famous Arvo Part quote in which he declared in his broken English that Schubert’s pen was 50% ink, and 50% tears. Of what other composer can such a statement be said without making us think that this is the music of an unbearable narcissist?
The difference between Schubert and his predecessors is that Schubert thought nothing of writing the music reflecting his darkest thoughts – Beethoven also wrote music reflecting own emotions, and because he was perhaps the first to do so as a principle, it was an heroic achievement. Schubert took it for granted that he should confess his innermost thoughts to the page, and as such wrote music that sounded vulnerable to a point to which no other musician has ever arrived. Beethoven is made of rock, indestructible because he has struggled. Schubert is made of ether, and can blow away simply with a gust from the open window. Mozart and Beethoven will distance themselves from their darkest thoughts with humor and sweetness, not so with Schubert, who will follow his heart to wherever it leads him, regardless of how unpleasant.
But Schubert also differs from later composers in that there is nothing about his darkness which seems lachrymose or unearned. Who can listen to the opening of the Unfinished Symphony, the theme from the slow movement of Death and the Maiden, and so many songs from Winterreise and Schwanngesang without feeling as though you’re gazing into a spiritual black hole? Yet the black hole never sucks you in as it does with later composers. At Chopin’s worst, he’s like the teenager who thinks he’ll never fall in love again. There’s nothing wrong with Chopin that an old Playboy won’t fix, but Schubert sounds heartbroken from long experience, as though he knows that hope for love is truly lost. At Tchaikovsky’s worst, he’s like the couple who screams at each other at a bar, you want to tell him (them) to sober up and hail a cab. But whereas Tchaikovsky makes a scene, Schubert simply says ‘this is what’s happening to me’ as a good friend might subtly allude to the intractability of all his problems after dinner in a way that makes us both feel the sadness and regret that his life has to be this way. At Mahler’s worst, he makes us feel the weight and breadth of his spiritual anguish like that college professor whose every comment is TMI about his personal life. Schubert simply shrugs his shoulders and says ‘this sucks’ with an equanimity that tells you that he’s simply calling it as he sees it. And it’s Schubert’s equanimity which makes his tears all the more devastating, the moments of joyous respite more moving, and the moments of fun seem so genuinely earned – even if Schubert is less fun than either Mozart or Beethoven (let alone Haydn).
More even than Mozart, Schubert’s greatest music seems already bathed in the next world, and it sounds as though written by a composer who never reconciled himself to this one. There is something so fragile, so will o’wisp about Schubert’s music that it threatens to break apart. It was a terrible tragedy that Schubert did not live past 30, and we have every right to feel deprived of what he might have given had he lived merely as long as Mozart. But still more than Mozart, there is a sense that someone with Schubert’s temperament could not have lasted in our world any longer than he did.
Schubert was a manic depressive who could write eight songs in a single day yet could also go weeks without writing anything. For a few years, he isolated himself by living with his family and taking a job as a schoolmaster – a job for which he was completely ill suited. At no point in his life was he able to support himself without enormous assistance, and he relied on the generosity of family and friends for financial assistance. His sole consolations were the music he was able to produce, and the friends who appreciated his talent and did everything they could to sustain him for longer. Schubert may not have been well known to the Viennese public, but he was superbly appreciated by the people who knew him personally, and he wrote almost solely for them.
There seems to be a ‘movement’ to restructure the classical canon and put Schubert at the very top – in the last few years I’ve read/heard this suggestion from Clive James, Roger Scruton, and (the late) Peter Porter. No doubt, this is a much healthier attitude towards Schubert than the ‘pleasing tunesmith’ attitude which Germans had in the wake of Wagnerism. And there are some compelling arguments to be made that Schubert is the greatest: he excelled in as many genres as Beethoven and Mozart - including a few at which the two giants did not excel. Schubert has all the tragic force which Mozart seemed to lack, he is the equal of (perhaps superior to) any melodist, and his treatment of form was towering - albeit extremely unorthodox and much misunderstood. But for me, Schubert cannot be the greatest of all composers. He’s just too vulnerable.
Schubert’s music has a richer interior life than virtually any other music ever written, yet where is the exterior life? There is good humor in Schubert, but no humor. Schubert has tears, but no moving past them. Many people would say that invariant spiritual darkness of Winterreise is more true to life than the triumph of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It probably is for many people, but none of us wants to hear that we’re one of them unless we have to. Beethoven gives us hope that we can achieve something better. Where is that hope in Schubert? And even if that hope remains unfulfilled, can we learn to cope with that spiritual darkness? Are there things in Schubert’s black hole which make life worth living?
These are questions which Schubert did not live to answer. I have no idea if he could have. Perhaps Schubert took such bad care of himself that another illness could have just as easily carried him off, or perhaps the gift of this most poetic of composers would have burned out like Wordsworth or Whitman. Or perhaps he could have written all the great works Mozart died before writing. But it remains to be said, Schubert’s music lacks hope, it lacks curiosity about the wider world, it lacks the sense that even indignities are worth suffering, it lacks all those qualities which Cervantes has in abundance.
(Part 2 soon)