Schubertiades in a Police State

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Schubert’s room, as drawn by his friend Moritz von Schwind, 1821.

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Franz Schubert at age 16.

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Franz von Schober.

The Austrian poet Franz von Schober (1796-1882) was evidently the driving force behind the Schubertiades, the semi-private salon gatherings at which Franz Schubert premiered many of his Lieder. Schober was in fact such a close friend of Schubert’s that together they were known as “Schubert” among their circle of friends, a mashup of their names à la Javanka or Brangelina.

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84th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals

Schubert’s setting of Schober’s poem “An die Music” (To Music) has become one of his best-loved Lieder. In the text, the poet addresses music as an allegorical figure of healing:

You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s mad tumult wraps around me,

Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!

Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you

Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!

A historian-blogger known to me only as Richard has written an extremely engaging and wonderfully detailed history of the Schubertiades.  The entire series of articles is worth reading; here are some excerpts.

In January 1821 Schober invited some ‘good friends, preferably ‘spirited men’ to an evening at his house. Schubert himself would play a lot of ‘wonderful songs’ and afterwards ‘punch would be drunk’. The name Schubertiade had not yet been invented, but this event, programmatically mentioning Schubert and his music, can be considered the first of the series.

As far as we know Schober was the prime mover behind the Schubertiaden. It is presumed that it was he who came up with the name Schubertiade, that fine piece of branding that set Schubert and his music in the centre of the event. The word not only bound Schubert to the event, it also gave no indication to the [Viennese] secret police . . . that anything else might be happening. When the music stopped and the punch was drunk and the dancing started we know nothing of what was discussed in that round: in those dangerous times nothing of importance was written down, even in the most private diary. Viennese culture had become an oral culture long before this and as such its detail is lost to us.

. . .The present writer is convinced that Schubert gained no substantial advantage from these events apart from admiration, respect and a feeling of belonging. Well, we all like those. They may have been an important psychological gain for him and may even justify Joseph von Spaun’s opinion that the Schubertiaden had been essential for his development: Schubert would not have been Schubert without them. But the fact that Spaun feels the need to write this at all exposes the question: whilst accepting the psychological gain, what was the professional gain for Schubert?

As we wrote in [a] previous piece the Schubertiaden were fundamentally selfish events – they kept their house musician busy entertaining their guests, paid him nothing, gave him a buffet and some drink and kept the knowledge of his talent as a composer, his genius and fame, firmly bottled up in the febrile, self-regarding scene of the Viennese salon. The typical conclusion of Schubert’s salon appearances was a sausage supper, some drinking and then some dancing, as Schubert, the resident piano-player . . . would be expected to knock out gallops and ecossaises [social dances of the era] into the early hours of the morning. After about midnight the ladies would be escorted home and the men would then retire to a coffee-house for a nightcap and a smoke.

Your gloomy author exaggerates, as so often? On the 26 March 1818 Franz Schubert gave a ‘Private Concert’ in the hall of the Austrian Music Society in Vienna. At last! we murmur, at last! The hall was packed, the audience reception ecstatic, the reviews equally so. The net income for Schubert was 800 florins W.W. (= 320 Gulden, fl. K.M.). On the downside, he did not get free sausages to eat or punch to drink and he did not need to spend a couple of hours afterwards playing dance music for the guests. He still got to go to the coffee-house afterwards.

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The concert program from Schubert’s only public concert, 1828.

For most of Vienna, at least those people who had even heard of him, Schubert had just been a passing phenomenon. His music was hardly published, scraps of manuscripts accumulated in drawers throughout Vienna and Germany. By the beginning of 1829 Schubert had gone and it would be more than another 20 years before anyone tried to remember him or rediscover who this ‘Franz Schubert’ was. . .

It was Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) who started the process – that is, it was a musical resurrection: Schubert was reborn through the quality of his music. After that, some biographers attempted the rediscovery of the life. The first one of these biographies (Kreißle’s) appeared more than 37 years after that winter day in 1828. For a hundred years after his death people were still finding manuscript scores in drawers and tucked into books.

That is the trajectory of Schubert’s life. . . . The modern modish word ‘depression’ is not correct here. Schubert never seems to have evidenced the classical characteristics of the depressive’s checklist: no listlessness, no apathy, no black moods or sleeplessness (that we know of). On the contrary, he was driven by an almost superhuman work-ethic. He never succumbed. But, in Die schöne Müllerin and the Winterreise, in the late trios and piano sonatas, we cannot fail to hear it. The roots of that melancholy are easy to find.

 

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