Time to follow my Lieder

Schubert's bicentenary falls next year. Mark Bostridge reviews a biography which sets the bandwagon rolling
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
On 19 November 1828, the composer Franz Schubert died in his brother's house in an outlying suburb of Vienna. He was just a couple of months short of his thirty-second birthday, and the cause of his death, hotly debated ever since, was probably typhoid fever compounded by the syphilis from which he had suffered since 1822.

The last year of Schubert's life had been accompanied by an extraordinary outpouring of creative production, perhaps only equalled by Mozart in his final months. To this period belong a major sacred work, the Mass in E Flat, an impressive collection of 14 songs, the last three piano sonatas, and most significantly of all, the String Quintet in C and the great Symphony in C Major. Even as he lay on his death-bed, the lower part of his body covered in gummata - the skin eruptions of tertiary syphilis - he was correcting the proofs of his song-cycle, Winterreise, that devastating expression of isolation and despair.

Although at the time of his death Schubert's fame as a songwriter was firmly established in Austria and Germany and was beginning to spread to other parts of Europe, his instrumental work, much of it unpublished, had to wait longer for recognition. Several of the string quartets and the "Unfinished" Symphony remained unperformed until the 1860s and, astonishingly, it was not until the first quarter of this century, when the advent of broadcasting started to extend the orchestral repertoire, that Schubert's first six symphonies began to be widely played.

Schubert's bicentennial year is 1997, which offers plenty of opportunity for the confirmation of his position, alongside Beethoven, in the front rank of instrumental masters, and for a reassessment of his life and work. There will be national celebrations centring on the Musicians' Grove of Honour in the Viennese cemetery where Schubert and Beethoven are buried, and in Britain the Hyperion Complete Edition of Schubert's songs will be finished. Elizabeth Norman McKay's biography is an early contribution to the inevitable slew of publications and documentaries.

In spite of the heroic efforts of Otto Eric Deutsch, earlier this century, to document Schubert's life, there is a dearth of biographical material. Surviving examples of Schubert's own writings are limited to 11 short entries in a diary or notebook, a handful of poems, a prose allegory and a number of letters, including some two dozen to family and friends. McKay presents a useful distillation of the findings of Schubert scholarship from the past couple of decades, and compensates for the paucity of evidence, especially about the composer's early years, by including a fair amount of background detail. At times this is allowed to bulk too large, and we are in danger of losing sight of Schubert himself as the social, artistic and political life of Metternich's Vienna dominates the foreground.

When it comes to interpreting Schubert's character and personality, McKay relies heavily on the idea, which has been a staple of Schubert biography from the beginning, of his dual nature: the contrast between the poet and the hedonist, between the "man of light", given to simple pleasures, and the "man of darkness", who resorted to drunkenness and sordid sexual pleasures. McKay is interesting on Schubert's depression, and she sensibly dismisses, for lack of evidence, recent suggestions that Schubert was a homosexual who may have picked up his syphilis in a gay brothel. But her central conclusion - that Schubert's periods of creativity were in some way closely connected to his cycles of manic depression - seems far too glib, and also highlights the most disappointing aspect of the book: McKay's timidity about drawing more inspiring links between Schubert's life and art.

Her treatment of the song-cycle Die schone Mullerin is a case in point. Schubert began composing it shortly after he discovered that he had syphilis, and its genesis is thus closely interwoven with the beginning of the end of his life. The poems by Wilhelm Muller which Schubert selected (and those he omitted), the way in which the miller's daughter becomes increasingly a figure of fantasy rather than reality, the shocking manner in which the miller contemplates his own death in one of the final songs - all these are elements which, if read sensitively, could allow us some insight into Schubert's state of mind. And yet McKay passes over the cycle with the minimum of comment. It is this rigorous separation of the music from the life which prevents McKay from getting close to the tragic insistence of the voice which can occasionally be heard in Schubert's letters:

"Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who, in sheer despair over this, ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain."

`Franz Schubert: A Biography' by Elizabeth Norman McKay is published by OUP at pounds 25.

Comments