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.

 

Late Quartet

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(A sketch Beethoven made for his String Quartet no. 14 in C# minor, op. 131.)

The last works Beethoven wrote were a series of six string quartets. Why do you think, in the last two years of his life, he turned to this form?

Richard Taruskin suggests that:

The intimacy of chamber music offered the composer the possibility of a heightened subjectivity, a medium where he could speak his inmost, private thoughts and confide his deepest private moods as if to a music diary. There are pages in the late quartets that can seem almost embarrassing to hear in public, as if hearing were overhearing –eavesdropping on the composer’s afflicted personal existence, invading his privacy. 

The String Quartet no.14 begins with a fugue, which Richard Wagner later called “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes,” and which twentieth-century musicologist Joseph Kerman called the “most moving of all fugues.” Schubert said of the quartet, in despair, “After this, what is left for us to write?” And Schumann wrote that the quartet had a “grandeur . . .which no words can express. [It seems] to me to stand . . .on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.”

Why does Beethoven start with a fugue, breaking with the longstanding convention of writing a first movement in sonata form? Does a fugue contain the same spirit of conflict as sonata form? If not, what does it symbolize/suggest?

And the quartet has seven movements — unusual movements. What is going on here? How do the movements differ from each other? How do they carry forward a single unified idea?

 

 
Movement No. Tempo indications Key Meter Length
I. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo C minor cut time About 7 minutes
II. Allegro molto vivace D major 6
8
About 3 minutes
III. Allegro moderato – Adagio B minor common time About 45 seconds
IV. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto A major 2
4
About 14 minutes
V. Presto E major cut time about 5​12 minutes
VI. Adagio quasi un poco andante G minor 3
4
About 2 minutes
VII. Allegro C minor cut time About 6​12 minutes

Is Beethoven perhaps playing with time and space again as he moves, in his last years and in failing health, to embrace the infinite?

In his long poem Four Quartets, completed in 1943, American-British poet T.S. Eliot consciously attempted to imitate the late quartets of Beethoven. He writes in the first of his poetic “quartets,” Burnt Norton:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. . . .

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Is this what Beethoven is getting at?

Christopher Walken, as a master cellist and master teacher, quotes Eliot as he introduces the op. 131 Quartet to his students:

Beethoven as a Black Composer

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(Nadine Gordimer laying a wreath in the black township of Alexandra, South Africa, where protesters were killed by police in 1986.)

The South African novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) has a short story called “Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black,” about a multiracial university professor in Johannesburg thinking back over his life and his identity:

Beethoven was one-sixteenth black

the presenter of a classical music programme on the radio announces along with the names of musicians who will be heard playing the String Quartets no. 13, op. 130, and no. 16, op. 135.

Does the presenter make the claim as restitution for Beethoven? Presenter’s voice and cadence give him away as irremediably white. Is one-sixteenth an unspoken wish for himself.

Once there were blacks wanting to be white.

Now there are whites wanting to be black.

In 1934, the Jamaican-born journalist Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966) published a book called 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof (a title borrowed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for a recent book of his own). As Gates notes about the author of his own book’s namesake:

Sometimes, [Rogers] was astonishingly accurate; at other times, he seems to have been tripping a bit, shall we say, as in his “Amazing Fact #8,” which I quote in full: “Beethoven, the world’s greatest musician, was without a doubt a dark mulatto. He was called ‘The Black Spaniard.’ His teacher, the immortal Joseph Haydn, who wrote the music for the former Austrian National Anthem, was colored, too.”

Both claims are false, I am afraid, though I love the work of both composers! But no one can get everything right all the time, correct?

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Speculations that Beethoven was of “Moorish” ancestry date back to the composer’s own lifetime. Nineteenth-century biographers have described his dark complexion, “flat, thick nose,” and  “thick, bristly [and] coal-black” hair. J.A. Rogers and others later suggested that Beethoven’s mother had transmitted African ancestry to her son by way of her Flemish forebears; the Low Countries had been under Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, and Spain had been ruled by Muslims (or Moors) originally from North Africa off and on from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.


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(Spain in the 11th century.)

The notion that Beethoven was black became popular in the 1960s and 1970s during the Black Power movement. Stokely Carmichael mentioned it in his speeches to students, as did Malcolm X in his famous Playboy interview with Alex Haley in 1963.

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The claim of Beethoven’s black ancestry has been refuted by scholars, but the idea has cropped up again in recent years. A project called Beethoven Was African aims to show that the polyrhythms Beethoven uses in his piano sonatas bear a resemblance to the polyrhythms of west African drumming.

Reviewing the Beethoven Was African project, the music critic Tom Service writes:

My initial response to the question, “Are Beethoven’s African origins revealed by his music?” that has been asked at the website Africa Is a Country, is a definitive “no”. It is based on questionable premises that lack real historical evidence, at least to the story of Beethoven and his music over the past couple hundred of years.

This is far from a new idea. Here, Nicholas T Rinehart outlines the century-long history of the “Black Beethoven” trope and analyses the cultural and racial politics that have made this such a potent idea. He suggests our attraction to the notion that Beethoven was black is a symptom of classical music’s tortured position on race and music: “This desperation, this need to paint Beethoven black against all historical likelihood is, I think, a profound signal that the time has finally come to make a single … and robust effort [to reshape] the classical canon.” 

Read Rinehart’s article here.

The Beethoven-was-black trope also raises questions about what race is; about what identity is; and about how we categorize both ourselves and others by highly subjective markers.

Does the fact that Beethoven’s music expresses an ethos of struggle, and triumph over it, point to markers of the composer’s “blackness”?

Does the fact that the Nazis lionized Beethoven and his music militate against his perceived blackness?

What do you think?

The piece often used as a marker of Beethoven’s blackness is his last piano sonata, op. 111 in C minor. The second movement is in theme-and-variations form, and the variations become more abstract as the piece continues. Two of the variations are highly syncopated, which has led some to retrospectively credit Beethoven, in this sonata, with “inventing” ragtime or even jazz.

Babatunde Olatunji demonstrates west African polyrhythms.

Daniel Barenboim demonstrates Beethovenian polyrhythms.

 

Beethoven Miscellany

Ear trumpets that Beethoven used to compensate for his hearing loss:

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One of the roughly 140 “conversation books” that Beethoven used to communicate after 1818: his friends would write questions and comments in the book, and he would answer vocally.

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A list Beethoven made of his food expenditures:

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Beethoven’s funeral procession in 1827 (does it remind you of Eroica, movement 2?):

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The Hero’s Funeral

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You will recall that, in the BBC film about the first rehearsal of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the second movement — the funeral march — causes general consternation among the listeners. The Princess Lobkowitz talks breathlessly about picturing the funeral cortège, with black horses; the Prince’s nay-saying cousin, the Count von Dietrichstein, who has earlier dismissed Beethoven, is truly moved, even disturbed, by the music; and the Princess’s maid weeps openly.

But . . . who has died?

On November 22, 1963, Erich Leinsdorf, the Vienna-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who had come to the United States in the 1930s as a refugee from the Nazis, was preparing to lead his orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov, when he got word of President Kennedy’s assassination. The orchestra’s music librarian, William Shisler, quickly pulled the parts for the second movement of the Eroica instead. Listen to Leinsdorf’s announcement from the podium of the assassination, the shock of the audience, and the way that the orchestra plays. Does this performance of the second movement sound different to you? How?

In 1944, when it was abundantly clear that Germany was losing World War II, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler led the Vienna Philharmonic in a recorded performance of the Eroica. How is this orchestra’s performance of the second movement different? Do you have the sense that it is informed by the knowledge of what is going on outside the concert hall?

In fact, Wilhelm Furtwängler is a controversial figure in the light of history. Unlike many of his peers among the German artistic and intellectual classes, he did not go into exile during the Third Reich.

The crucial question which would plague Furtwängler for the rest of his life was why he stayed behind when all the other great artists fled. The standard explanation is that he lacked moral fortitude. But, as so often emerges with ethical issues, the full story is far more complex. If anything, the opposite is true: Furtwängler stayed primarily out of a sincere, albeit naive, conviction.

Out of the depths of his cultural and intellectual roots, Furtwängler regarded Hitler and Nazism as a passing phase in German politics. . . . Furtwängler saw two Germanies: the permanent, cultural one of which he remained a proud member, and an irrelevant, political one which was a temporary nuisance. To Furtwängler, there was no such thing as Nazi Germany, but rather a Germany raped by Nazis. Furtwängler truly believed that by maintaining his artistic convictions he would succeed in resisting Hitler and upholding the everlasting purity of great German culture. All of his wartime activities were bent upon achieving this goal.

Furtwängler believed to the depth of his soul that music was a force for moral good, a route out of chaos that would assist the cause of humanity. In 1943, he wrote: “The message Beethoven gave mankind in his works . . . seems to me never to have been more urgent than it is today.” He later told the Chicago Daily Tribune: “It would have been much easier to emigrate, but there had to be a spiritual center of integrity for all the good and real Germans who had to stay behind. I felt that a really great work of music was a stronger and more essential contradiction of the spirit of Buchenwald and Auschwitz than words could be.” 

. . . Furtwängler had dedicated his entire life to perpetuating the traditions of German culture . . . . German music was the sole reason for his existence. Indeed, in 1938, after the annexation of Austria, the already overworked conductor doubled his duties by taking charge of all musical activity in Vienna, as he felt compelled to preserve that city’s proud tradition and in particular the independence and excellence of its famed Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which was threatened with State control.

The Nazis needed Furtwängler . . . Hitler deeply admired his artistry. The [Nazi] Party itself was keenly aware that Furtwängler was the foremost symbol of the past glory of German culture and that his loss [if he left Germany] would be a final blow to national prestige which would validate all the foreign criticism.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to see Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for Hitler’s birthday in 1942 as, at best, a misunderstanding of “the message that Beethoven gave mankind in his works.”

What do you think that message is?

 

Fake News

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Who said it, Trump or Beethoven?

I hear that in the [Allgemeine] Musikalische Zeitung  someone has railed violently against the [Third] symphony . . . I have not read the article. If you fancy that you can injure me by publishing articles of that kind, you are very much mistaken. On the contrary, by doing so you merely bring your journal into disrepute.

(Emphasis in original.)

Night and Dreams

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Two Men Contemplating the Moon (Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1830).

Words and images you will encounter over and over again in the Lieder of the Romantic era: night, dark, moon, dream — in German, Nacht, dunkel, Mond, Traum (German nouns are capitalized).

Think of the thick, dark (dunkel), overgrown forests in which so many of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm take place, and recall that the Brothers Grimm were philologists (linguists) as well as folklore collectors. The brothers’ other great project, in addition to their folktale collecting, was the publication of what is still today the most comprehensive German dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch.

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In the Wörterbuch, the Grimms provide another meaning for dunkel, in addition to “dark”: dämmerndmeaning dusky, dim, like twilight, the indeterminate time of day when the light yields to the dark. This haziness and indeterminacy is another prominent idea in Romanticism, in which imagination and what it produces have a greater value than reason and what it measures.

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Rocky Landscape in the Elbe (Friedrich, 1823).

In his song “Mondnacht” (Moonlit Night), notice how Schumann begins with a feeling of indeterminacy in the piano, and how, when the voice enters, it appears to be singing just a fragment of a melody. The poem is by Joseph von Eichendorff.

The text in translation by Richard Stokes:

It was as though Heaven
Had softly kissed the Earth,
So that she in a gleam of blossom
Had only to dream of him.

The breeze passed through the fields,
The corn swayed gently to and fro,
The forests murmured softly,
The night was so clear with stars.

And my soul spread
Her wings out wide,
Flew across the silent land,
As though flying home.

Here is Brahms’s setting of the same text.

How are the two musical settings different? Which do you think is more effective in capturing the “night” feeling of Eichendorff’s poem? Why?

 

Mountain Music

2016c31db0e4087f080df6baeeaf7b5fThe sound of the French horn provides one of the most emblematically Romantic timbres in nineteenth-century music. Why is that?

The French horn derives its origin from the hunting horn (in German, waldhorn or forest horn) — a brass instrument played while hunting on horseback to call back the hounds from the hunt.

Some horns, like the alphorn, were used in mountain regions to communicate and signal across vast distances.

And horns were used in the Middle Ages to call troops to battle.

So the sound of the horn is associated with the pastoral, with nature, and with the simple folk, peasants and hunters, people steeped in forestcraft and woodlore, men and women who are close to the land, and also with centuries past. The idea that the simple folk are the inheritors of a unique knowledge and wisdom is an important Romantic trope, part of the culture of resistance to the advancing technological specialization and industrialization of the age.

The nineteenth-century Männerchor (men’s chorus) was meant to imitate the sonic ambience of the woodland horn, and to evoke a feeling of the pastoral and the out-of-doors.

Brahms wrote his Four Songs for women’s choir, harp, and two horns — including the “Song from Fingal” — to evoke both folk music and a sense of nostalgia for the past: the first song is self-referential, about the effect of hearing a harp played in the landscape; the second song is a setting of “Come away, death” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; the third song is about a gardener who loves a lady in vain, and anticipates his death from grief; and the fourth is a setting of a German translation of the Ossian verses. 

Years later, Brahms would return to the pastoral sound of the horn to open his second piano concert on B-flat Major, op. 83. As Bill McGlaughlin has observed, this is more than music: it is a landscape in sound; the horn almost seems to call out of the mists, as if from one mountaintop to another.

And of course you remember Beethoven’s horns in his Symphony no. 3. What does Beethoven intend his horns to mean?