A lost paradise of purity

Terror and transcendence in the late masterpieces of Schubert

Jonathan Gaisman

Of all the premature deaths among the ranks of the creative, none is more painful to contemplate than Franz Schubert’s. His cutting off in November 1828 at the age of 31 was not as brutal in strictly chronological terms as Keats’s at the age of 25 in 1821, but there is with Schubert a yearning to know the music which he never composed that is even greater than the regret for Keats’s unwritten poems. All Schubert’s works are in a sense early works, and it is striking to think that by the time Haydn reached the age at which Schubert died, he had written none of the music for which we now revere him. (Schubert’s last excursion from Vienna, the month before his death, was to the elder composer’s grave in Eisenstadt.) 

Schubert contracted syphilis in 1822 and would thereafter have been aware that he was not to live out a normal span. It is not difficult to discern in his music the presumed effects of this knowledge; Tom Service has even written an article about an 1824 piano work (D784) entitled “Schubert’s syphilitic sonata”. Once infected, he had to cope with severe pain and visible, socially embarrassing symptoms, though these were interspersed with periods of remission. In a famous letter to the painter Leopold Kupelwieser in March 1824, he describes himself as “a man whose health will never be right again” and who is “the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world”. Whilst it is generally undesirable to map biographical elements onto abstract music in the absence of external evidence, in Schubert’s case the evidence is to hand. There is moreover a directness of utterance, an absence of artifice or gesture in his music, which make him for many the most lovable of all composers. His genius is to draw us in to the melancholy of his interior world, and at the same time to set before us a vision of unattainable beauty, albeit one suffused with the ineffable sadness of transience.

One unmistakable feature of the composer’s late masterpieces makes it particularly affecting to think of him approaching an untimely end. It is sometimes thought that expressionism in music is the province of the 20th century. We associate with Gustav Mahler above all the psychological mood which is the aural equivalent of Munch’s Scream: the dissonant chord which forms the climax of the first movement in his tenth symphony is a powerful example of the composer staring into the abyss. But it was Schubert who, almost a century earlier, wrote the first music of existential terror. There is no such music in Beethoven, for all the vast range of his expression, and although the Dies Irae in Mozart’s Requiem vividly depicts the horrors of the Last Judgment, there is an objectivity and poise in the writing which makes any inference of the composer’s own state of mind from the music an Amadeus-style exercise in confected sentimentality. (The commendatore music in Don Giovanni may be a nearer case, but opera falls into a somewhat separate category.)

It is instructive to contrast the Requiem with Schubert’s own last religious work, the Mass D950 (June 1828). The Sanctus, which typically celebrates God’s holiness and majesty, is here a nightmare: Schubert’s music begins unexceptionably in E flat major, though the whispered piano is unusual, before building to a terrifying fortissimo outburst in the unforeseeable key of B minor. (A not dissimilar effect is to be found in the same movement of the Mass D678 from 1822). This is the music of dread, not of adoration. He also eschews the consolatory tone normally associated with an Agnus Dei in favour of a four-note cantus firmus whose implacable menace is clear, even without the knowledge that this is the same cell as provides the spare accompaniment in his subsequent ghost-song Der Doppelgänger. In German folklore, the encounter with one’s own double is a sign of imminent death; the D950 Mass communicates not so much the fear of that death as the premonition of a personal hell. As Graham Johnson has written, it is the vision of the “soul-searching syphilitic only too aware of the meaning of peccata mundi”. 

The ternary form is one of the commonest musical ground-plans. Its A-B-A layout looks back to the Middle Ages; it underlies the Baroque da capo aria, and has a distant cousinship with sonata-form. It is commonly encountered in the slow movement of a classical symphony, chamber work or sonata, as well as in songs of every period up to the present day. Of its essence is that the central episode provides contrast with the outer sections, and it is no surprise to find Schubert making full use of this form in his last instrumental works, as he had throughout his career. But what marks out several of these late pieces is the way in which the music of terror of which he was the pioneer pervades and disrupts their slow movements, even though much else in the works appears serene, confident or even boisterous. The A major piano sonata (D959) and the string quintet (D956) are exemplars, and the piano trio in E flat (D929) is a formally more complex case of the same phenomenon; but it is the sonata which stands at the extreme verge.

Schubert’s last three piano sonatas (D958-960) were completed in September 1828. Perhaps the most obvious allusion to death in general, if not to his own mortality, is the macabre Totentanz which is the unremitting tarantella finale of D958. Likewise, the bass trill that is never far below the surface in the seemingly unruffled first movement of D960 announces that “Even in Arcadia, I am present”. However, the andantino of D959 is on a different plane of alienation. It is all the more aberrant in a work which is generally so warm-hearted and affirmatory. Alfred Brendel writes of its “desolate grace behind which madness lies”. The movement begins with a barcarolle in F sharp minor; this was an uncommon key for Schubert, though he had used it in 1817 for an unfinished sonata, whose first movement is similar in mood if not metre to the andantino. A closer link is with his 1823 song Pilgerweise, also in F sharp minor, in which the poet Franz von Schober, Schubert’s closest friend, depicts a pilgrim who wanders from house to house, longing for love, but who is only able to repay in flowers the relief which people’s kindness affords him. Schober is traditionally blamed for having encouraged Schubert to consort with prostitutes, and thus for his illness. He may even have written this poem subsequent to his friend’s infection and as a sympathetic reflection of his mental condition.

In the opening section of the andantino, which recalls the first bars of Pilgerweise, there is a sense of music hypnotised, rooted to the harmonic spot. Nothing prepares us for what is to come after 68 bars of controlled monotony. Then it is as if the subtext of the Lied has burst into existence. The middle section begins with a meandering figuration which starts logically enough in the dominant key, C sharp minor, and ushers in some conventional diminished seventh arpeggios, but thereafter, like Lear’s, the composer’s wits begin to turn, and the listener too loses comprehension as the music stalks through C minor and E minor
before fragmenting into the most lurid and anarchic bars written in the 19th century. They need to be seen on the page, and cannot be conveyed in words. Schubert’s biographer Brian Newbould does his best, calling this middle section “the wildest outburst of fantasy Schubert ever committed to paper”, and referring to “its torrential scales, pulse-threatening rhythms, trills, shock harmonies, writhing chromaticism, fragments of recitative, dramatic silences and stabbed chords”. Jonathan Biss comes close to the mark in speaking of “a composed hallucination”, for it is precisely that transgressive unrealism which is so shattering. We live now in an age which congratulates itself on the fact that art has succeeded in dispensing with aesthetic boundaries; however we do not always recognise what an impoverishment such freedom brings with it. If there are no conventions, it is impossible to be unconventional. In the middle section of the andantino, Schubert flouts every compositional principle, every concert-goer’s expectation. No wonder that András Schiff has said that the piece’s “modernity is incredible even today”. It is in effect a nervous breakdown in music, all the more remarkable from a composer who was writing at the dawn of the Romantic era but whose idiom and language are still classical.

The episode culminates in a hysterical outburst of repeated fortissimo C sharp minor chords in the treble, at which point a hesitant figure in the tenor register seeks as it were to crawl away from the fury; but its attempts at shelter are interrupted by further vicious blows, and it is hard even for the most restrained imagination not to conjure up something akin to a punishment beating. The anger eventually exhausts itself, and the music finds its way to the wounded consolation of C sharp major, before the barcarolle is resumed. Heraclitus is reputed to have said that one cannot step into the same river twice. In the Schubert movements which contain these violent central episodes, aftershocks in the form of enhanced rhythmic complexity are threaded into the music of the resumed opening sections and heighten their intensity, as if the composer
is conveying that one cannot after such infernal visions hope to regain a wholly undisturbed mind.

It is hard to listen with actual pleasure to the nightmare music of the andantino, or even the equivalent, disturbing passage in the sublime string quintet. These are dark nights, to be endured and survived by the listener as much as by the composer. Fortunately, the music moves on, and although the shadows remain, something like brightness returns; the scherzo and finale of D959 are touching and luminous. Likewise, Schubert’s last song was not Doppelgänger, but Die Taubenpost, a tale not of a spurned lover haunting the street where his sweetheart once lived, but of a young man imagining his longing to be a carrier pigeon sent on a daily journey to his beloved. Yet there is no facile symmetry between these stories, any more than exists between the contrasting elements in the composer’s bipolar mind. Schubert claimed not to know of such a thing as happy music, and especially in his last works the the transcendent sorrow, which for ephemeral creatures must underlie all joys, is never absent. This is the reason why music-lovers cherish Schubert so deeply—not for the blackness of one side of his nature, but for the poignancy which underlies the cheerfulness of the other.

Thus, despite the lover’s hopefulness in Taubenpost, we sense with tender concern that his ardour will ultimately be unreciprocated, and the lines of his contemporary come to mind: “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;/She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” How we realise that all will not go well for the protagonist is a mystery but, as Johnson writes, it is thus that Schubert “engages our pity without asking for it; and the radiance of the music draws us even closer to the hidden suffering”. His last song is our possession for ever, the lover’s pining preserved like the image on the Grecian urn. The half-light of the composer’s delight in life is not comprehended by the darkness in which it shines. Finally we come to realise that the very fact of Schubert’s wretchedly premature death forms part of his measureless bequest, of which Alfred Einstein truly wrote that “the feeling he inspires in later ages is an infinite longing for a lost paradise of purity, spontaneity and innocence”. 

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