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The Classical: An Introduction to Schubert

By ; August 7, 2011 at 3:30 PM 

Pfft… Classical music? Really? Why on earth would anyone listen to that? I mean, all the pieces are so long, didn’t these composers realise that I’d have fifty thousand other songs vying for my attention? Besides, when it isn’t being far too loud and dramatic it’s so slow and boring that you fall asleep. Not to mention how insanely complicated it always is – there are so many key changes that you can’t keep up – how are you even supposed to listen to this stuff, never mind play it?! Not only that, but the dynamics are so ridiculous that you’re always either struggling to hear anything or covering your ears in pain. There aren’t even any lyrics! Maybe when I’m very old and very bored I’ll give it a try, but right now I’ve got better things to do than listen to this old drivel.

Of course, that’s not a fair assessment of classical music any more than it’s a fair reflection of your opinions. Nevertheless, people can be very sceptical and reluctant when it comes to this particular body of work. For the most part, however, people are just intimidated, which is reasonable enough when you consider that “classical” in its loosest sense covers just about everything in the nine hundred years from the advent of musical notation up to the emergence of jazz, and ultimately, that other, equally misnamed genre, “popular music.” Where do you even begin with a listening project like that? Well, with any luck, you’ll start here, with The Classical, and with one composer at a time. This month’s composer was a master of melody and melancholy, who wrote over six hundred songs (Stephin Merritt eat your heart out) and quite a few other masterpieces (despite having his life cut even shorter than Mozart). A plump and prolific man known to his friends as Schwammerl (the little mushroom), but better known today as Franz Peter Schubert.

If you don’t have time to read this whole article, you can find all of this month’s music on this YouTube playlist or on this Spotify playlist.

In case you were wondering, Schubert’s glasses still survive and put him in the running for the best bespectacled composer prize, alongside Mahler’s pince-nez and Shostakovich’s various looks, including the Elvis Costello, the Soviet Bond Villain, and yes, the Harry Potter.

#4 – Schubert Dip

Stanley Kubrick’s use of some of classical music’s more dramatic numbers is well known. But when he needed music fitted to a film which employed careful pacing, subtlety and intimacy, it was to Schubert that he turned:

“Every work Schubert left us is an early work” – Donald Tovey, musicologist.

Classical music doesn’t really have the 27 Club, but it does have something roughly one third as good – The Curse of The Ninth, and Franz Schubert was one its earliest inductees.

“Whobert?” Good question, to which the answer is, perhaps one of the most underrated of all famous composers. Unlike his predecessors Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert’s name is not one which has become a byword for musical genius, and his work has not always enjoyed the slavish following of better-known composers. This has also been compounded by the fact that he is frequently confused with the slightly younger but equally gifted composer Robert Schumann, who was himself a great champion of Schubert’s work, and coined the famous phrase “heavenly lengths” to describe his expansive style. While most classical music lovers would, I think, hesitate to say that they considered him the greatest composer ever, a large number would still say that he was their favourite. The main reason for this disparity is that Schubert simply didn’t live long enough to fulfil his potential and capitalise on his considerable talents, but still managed to produce a handful of formidable masterpieces which earned him a very high rank in the classical canon. As the inscription on his grave (next door to Beethoven’s in his native Vienna) put it – “Music hath here entombed a rich treasure, but even fairer hopes.” I could use any number of glib journalistic analogies to illustrate this point further, so I will: Schubert was the Ian Curtis, the Freddie Mercury, and the Buddy Holly of classical music. He is thought to have suffered from cyclothymia – a mild form of bipolar disorder, but in the last six years of his life Schubert also battled with syphilis, an illness which was rife in Europe during his lifetime, likely caught as the result of too many trips to the brothel under the influence of some of his more dubious friends.

That’s syphilis pictured on the far left, in case you were wondering.

Whether it was the neurological effect of the illness, the debilitating results of the only known treatment, which was to drink Mercury, or simply the knowledge that the disease was incurable and almost certainly going to kill him sooner or later, Schubert’s musical output was altered radically after his diagnosis with syphilis in 1822, and it is in this period that his music became gradually more substantial, acquiring qualities of seriousness and psychological depth, but also sublime lyrical beauty. In 1827, Schubert served as a torchbearer at Beethoven’s elaborate funeral, and a little over a year later, he too was dead, with most of his work, aside from a few songs, unknown to the Viennese public. Aside from these facts, details of Schubert’s life are fairly scarce.

“No relation can be established between Schubert’s life and work, or rather, properly speaking, because there is no life to establish a relation with” – George Grove, musical encyclopaedist and Schubert rescuer.

That said, it is worth mentioning a few details that we do know for certain. Schubert was, like Mozart and Beethoven before him, a child prodigy who grew up in a musical family. The family would all join in to perform young Franz’s many string quartets, which perhaps accounts for his intuitive grasp of chamber music later in life. As an adult, and in spite of his kindly appearance, Schubert was a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, and by all accounts insensitive man, frustrated by his lack of mainstream success as a career composer, shy around women, frequently forced to take up dispiriting teaching posts and sleep on friends’ floors to make ends meet. As one of his friends later remarked: “Schubert was as undistinguished as a person as he was distinguished as a composer.” Like many artists before and since, it was only after his death that he gained real recognition, as something akin to a cult grew up around his music, and efforts were made by a number of later composers to collect and organise his works, preventing them from being lost amongst the ever-rising tide of musical banality that engulfed Vienna over the course of the nineteenth century.

And speaking of Vienna, it’s well worth considering the political and social context in which Schubert lived and worked, since we know so little about him as a person. In 1815, with Napoleon finally defeated, the great powers of Europe met in Vienna in an attempt to restore the continent to its pre-war state: dominated by absolute monarchs with a careful balancing of power to stop revolutions and dictatorships from occurring ever again. Despite everything that had happened in the previous decades, they more or less succeeded in their aims, at least as far as the map of Europe was concerned, but a great deal was beyond their control – revolutionary and nationalist ideals bubbled below the surface, while oppressive ministers like Klemens von Metternich struggled to keep a lid on what they perceived as subversive elements in society. Schubert was just one of the many dangerous Romantic renegades who ran into trouble with Metternich’s police, as the book group he attended was deemed a danger to society. Perhaps more significant on a practical level for composers and musicians however, were the social changes that had occurred in Austria and throughout Europe, with the gradual collapse of the old aristocratic order and the rise of a new and prosperous middle class who, crucially, owned pianos. This created a huge and constant demand for new amateur piano and chamber pieces which could be played easily by the well-brought-up children of well-to-do families, as well as simple dance numbers for social occasions. Composers could no longer rely on one-off commissions from the rich, but had instead to produce works regularly to compete on the open market. Beethoven’s solution to this problem had been to obstinately ignore it, but Schubert was able to produce works which were popular enough without having to make too many artistic compromises, while working on more ambitious pieces at the same time. Critics have sometimes accused him of pandering to this comfortable Biedermeier class with ingratiating tunes, but this misrepresents his work. Schubert was, in fact, frequently a victim of this fickle new audience, and had the misfortune of coming to maturity at the exact moment when a new musical craze was sweeping Vienna, namely, Rossini. It is a testament to the quality of Schubert’s music that he overcame all of these challenges, often through sheer hard work, and even managed to conquer death itself to gain his rightful place amongst the greatest of musical masters.

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