How did he do it?
Almost 1,000 works in less than 20 years (and he died younger than Mozart). Bayan Northcott assesses the legacy of Schubert on his 200th anniversary...
Friday 03 January 1997
How to explain, then, that by his 18th birthday, and when he was teaching full time in his father's school, he had completed not only his First Symphony, but a setting of Goethe's Gretchen am Spinnrade so original and mature as virtually to reinvent the German lied; that, over the next 12 months, he was to complete some 150 more songs, including the revolutionary Erlkonig; and that, by the age of 20, his output ran to four further symphonies, a string of singspiels, quantities of church music and dozens of further songs, amounting to some 500 items in all? And so it was to continue. Over the next five years, he was to complete the Sixth Symphony, the "Trout" Qintet, a succession of sonatas and the "Wanderer" Fantasia for piano, and yet more theatre music culminating in the full-scale opera Alfonso und Estrella. Not even the catastrophic onset of syphilis around his 25th birthday in the winter of 1822-23 could stop him, for it was then that he composed the "Unfinished" Symphony and Die Schone Mullerin, following these up, on his partial recovery, with another grand opera, Fierrabras, and the Rosamunde incidental music.
At 27, he went on to produce the Octet, the A minor String Quartet and the Grand Duo for piano, four hands. Between 28 and 30 came the String Quartets in D minor ("Death and the Maiden") and in G major and, scholars now believe, the vast score of the "Great" C major Symphony. At 30 he composed Winterreise and the two delectable piano trios. And, in that fevered final year of 1828, he completed the symphonic Mass in E flat, the songs later gathered as Schwanengesang, the ineffable String Quintet and those haunted last three Piano Sonatas - all these interspersed with the usual part-songs, piano pieces, church settings, dances, and so on to the end. And among his papers, though long unrecognised, lay substantial sketches for yet another symphony - his 10th. A creative career, even if one includes juvenilia, of a mere 18 years, yet running to 998 works in the catalogue of Otto Deutsch. Surely no composer in Western music - not Purcell, not even Mozart, who lived those few precious extra years into their mid-thirties - packed quite so much uniquely characteristic or sheerly great music into so short a span.
And, by an irony of history, perhaps no comparable composer of the last 250 years has taken so long to be truly understood and fully valued - if he is even now. Not that he was ever in danger of passing into the semi-obscurity that dogged Bach and most of his predecessors. Thanks to the publication of some 200 of his songs during his lifetime, Schubert was already recognised well beyond Vienna as the most fertile and moving song-composer of his generation; indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the great German lied tradition through Schumann and Brahms to Mahler, Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss could ever have evolved without his exemplary achievement. The other items of his output that had found ready publication were his shorter piano pieces - Impromptus, Moments Musicales, sets of waltzes. And these, too, rapidly proved seminal to the development of the Romantic character-piece - the Songs without Words of Mendelssohn, Schumann's suites of miniatures, Grieg's Lyric Pieces and those sublimations of the genre, the intimate and concentrated late piano pieces of Brahms. Yet only a handful of his sonatas and chamber works had been printed by the time of his death, while his entire orchestral and theatre music remained in manuscript - and publishers like Diabelli, to whom such pieces were posthumously assigned, showed no hurry to get them out. Not until 1853 was the String Quartet made available; not until 1865 was the manuscript of the "Unfinished" Symphony diplomatically extracted from Schubert's old friend Anselm Huttenbrenner and given its world premiere.
There is another paradox here. During his short career, Schubert's music had tended to appeal more to amateur musicians and lay listeners than to his fellow professionals; the young friends who flocked to his Schubertiades were more often poets, painters, civil servants. Yet, for many decades after his death, he became virtually a composers' composer. It was not so much the critics who published articles in his praise as Schumann and Dvorak; not so much the musicologists who edited and pushed the manuscripts at publishers as Schumann and Brahms. Few singers did so much to promote the songs as Liszt in his more than 60 transcriptions of them for piano. Beyond all this, one gets the impression of several generations of 19th- century composers almost covertly appropriating Schubert's innovations, so that the spaciousness of his later religious music sometimes now sounds to our ears strikingly prescient of Bruckner, the minuet of the A minor Quartet uncannily like Brahms, and Der Doppelganger sung in Russian becomes pure Mussorgsky. Even Wagner was prepared to concede a few Schubertian turns in Die Walkure.
But he also dismissed Schubert, with Mendelssohn and Schumann, as "minds of second, third or fourth rank", reminding one that, for many of the era's analysts, critics and performers, Schubert remained an indulgent, diffuse child of nature who could hardly hold a candle to the mastery and power of Beethoven. The history of the "Great" C major is symptomatic: probably completed in 1826 and copied into parts the following year, it lay neglected until Schumann disinterred it in 1839, raved about its "heavenly length" and persuaded Mendelssohn to conduct its (heavily cut) premiere in Leipzig. Yet attempts at performances in Paris and London over the next few years were scuppered by the derisory reaction of the players to its technical difficulties. Even in the 1890s, when it had edged into the repertory, Bernard Shaw was still asserting that "a more exasperatingly brainless composition was never put on paper". Nor was this the end of the misunderstandings. It is only a decade or so since Charles Mackerras realised that all the printed editions had the wrong initial time-signature, and that Schubert intended not a slow introduction but an opening at the same beat as the rest of the first movement; and scholars are still puzzling over the exact meaning of certain dynamic markings in the manuscript. Listeners and commentators, meanwhile, might continue to wonder how it is that a work so obsessively dependent upon rhythmic and thematic repetition somehow sounds ever new, and why it has often been the maturest interpreters (Sir Adrian Boult, Gunter Wand) who have found the most meaning in this ultimate expression of Schubert's youthful ambition.
And yet, compared with the recent Mozart and Purcell anniversary jamborees, the bicentenary of Schubert's birth on 31 January looks like proving a relatively quiet affair. True, there are to be celebrations at the Wigmore Hall and, in the autumn, on the South Bank, the year-long ministrations of Radio 3 and the imminent completion of Graham Johnson's great enterprise to record, at last, all the songs for Hyperion. But one might also have hoped at least for an updated reprint of Otto Deutsch's vastly informative classic Schubert: A Documentary Biography. And where are the symposia of new research and comment? After all, Schubert's very psychology has been in question ever since the New York scholar Maynard Solomon argued in 1981 that he was "the central figure in a coterie of homosexual and bisexual Viennese artists". And the fact that the late sonatas, which many musicians genuinely felt to be thin in substance and awkward in technique until Artur Schnabel began championing them between the wars, now strike us, under the fingers of a Brendel, as profoundly, in their very different way, as the late Beethoven sonatas, suggests a shift in sensibility that demands explanation. There still seems so much to learn from, not to say about, the nondescript little man who briefly brought forth such mysterious abundance almost two centuries ago
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