The bicentenary this year of Franz Schubert's birth in 1797 has seen music scholars returning to the puzzles of the composer's life and works with renewed enthusiasm. Half-answered questions about the circumstances and impact of Schubert's illness and early death, the reasons for his tendency to leave works unfinished, his sexuality, his religious and political beliefs, the influence of friends and other composers and most of all what he might have achieved had he lived longer - have been re-examined, remodelled, and recycled.
It has been an opportunity for the Schubert experts, all with a healthy appetite for musical analysis, debate, and informed speculation, to ignore once more Robert Schumann's impatient declaration: "It is pointless to guess at what more (Schubert) might have achieved. He did enough; and let them be honoured who have striven and accomplished as he did.'' But who can blame them for flouting this advice? The way Schubert led his life and went about his work could hardly have been better planned to excite the sleuthing instinct in academics. He had a wide circle of artistic and intellectual friends, allowing for numerous letters and notes to be found, and accounts given (of varying reliability) of events and conversations. Yet most of Schubert's friends were unaware of much of his more impressive instrumental works, written in the shadow of the hallowed achievements of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
Schubert was undoubtedly a prolific composer. His roughly 1,000 works were produced in an active working life of 18 years. The pace of his creative output was such that many projects were left by the wayside, as the next challenge presented itself. These circumstances, along with some of the more significant events in Schubert's personal life, have left serious scholars having to search for evidence to distinguish myth from truth, or half-truth.
Brian Newbould's Schubert: The Music and the Man, covers the ground comprehensively with a combined biographical and analytical review of old and new material. This 465-page volume, which includes a full list and index of Schubert's works, succeeds in its "paramount'' aim: to offer a conspectus of the composer's output, minimising ghetto treatments of the genres so that all are seen as "one outcome of the same overarching musical impulse''. The discussion is organised in such a way as to enable the reader to dip into the book and find information and analysis on the songs, piano music, chamber music, church music, symphonies and so on, without losing sight of the social, biographical and artistic context. This is of utmost importance, the author says, because, despite a well-deserved reputation as the Liederfurst (Prince of Songs), "Schubert did not regard himself as a song-composer who also wrote sonatas'' but as a composer who was prepared to take on the full range of genres "combining the relish and wonder of an amateur with the discipline and technical rigour of a professional''.
The book constantly underlines the composer's fluency and flexibility, the speed of his creativity and phenomenal productivity. This was at least partly due to Schubert's familiarity with the Viennese classical style, having relished exposure to the likes of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven from an early age. This common musical tongue, based on an orderly system of tonality, enabled Mozart to "compose a quite elaborate piece while playing billiards and hold it intact in his head for days before writing it down'', we are told.
But Newbould is determined to relieve the reader of any false impressions that may have arisen over the years. He dealsauthoritatively with anecdotes which may convey the wrong message. For instance, he teases out the truth behind a story recounted by Anselm Huttenbrenner, the composer and pianist who was one of Schubert's circle. Anselm wrote that, after a night of drinking, Schubert sat down and composed the song "Die Forelle", writing a note in the margin to Anselm's brother, Joseph, offering a song he had just written "at 12 o'clock at night''. Many of Schubert's songs exist in several versions, and this is one of them. It had originally been composed the year before. The song had simply been written down from memory for a friend.
This was one occasion when a piece was not rewritten by Schubert to incorporate second thoughts. But the composer's extensive sketching and resketching of works, along with the trail of unfinished works he left, give some fascinating insights into his creative thinking. Newbould offers a wealth of analysis of these, and some original explanations. The period 1818 to 1822, for instance, was a time of "high aspiration'' as Schubert "tried to move on from a long-practised teenage style and stretch his technique and imagination to realise more, probing personal visions''. Newbould goes on: "He seemed to lose patience if he met with obstacles in the progress of a work, and once he had set something aside for even a short time he presumably saw it as yesterday's casualty when he had his sights fixed resolutely on tomorrow's challenge.'' Another likely cause of interruptions and changes in direction of Schubert's artistic flow were events in his life, often strongly influenced by fellow artists and friends in theBildung circle. Notable among this group was the composer's lifelong friend, Franz Schober, a pillar of the circle and yet a "work-shy hedonist, notable for sensual rather than intellectual pursuits''. Newbould suggests: "It has to be considered whether the fact that Schubert's compositional activity was reduced by a third in 1817 and much more severely diminished in the years after that is due wholly to causes unconnected with Schober. The composer's contracting of syphilis in 1822 demands consideration in the same light.'' Newbould successfully weaves these biographical elements into his account of Schubert's creative development, without overplaying them. There is a fresh look at "inconclusive'' evidence on Schubert's sexual orientation, his political and religious beliefs. But always the music is the focus.
Any reader wishing to delve further into Schubert's personal and social life, and discover more about the individuals who helped shape his musical career and the reception of his work, would do well to turn to Schubert and his World, Peter Clive's biographical dictionary. The book contains a handy chronicle of Schubert's life, followed by over 300 biographical entries on the composer's friends and acquaintances, including poets, librettists, publishers, patrons, musicians, and those who made a significant contribution to knowledge of his life. The dictionary devotes plenty of space to a fresh examination of the lives of some of the well-known friends, including Schober, the baritone Johann Vogl, the painter Moritz von Schwind, the civil servant Joseph von Spaun, and the civil servant and poet, Johann Mayrhoffer.
These entries inevitably include references to others, leading the reader outward from this intimate circle to some of the less obvious, but equally interesting connections. The reader can learn, for instance, how Spaun was responsible for taking Schubert to the opera, where he came to know a number of works, beginning with Joseph Weigl's Das Waisenhaus and Die Schweizerfamilie. Turning to the entry on Weigl, we find that, like Schubert, Weigl was a pupil of the composer Antonio Salieri. Among Salieri's less well-known pupils was Karoline Unger, a contralto who has the distinction of being the only singer known to have been coached by Schubert, for an opera role. She later became an outstanding interpreter of Schubert's Lieder. The French tenor, Adolphe Nourrit, who met her in Venice in 1838, described her as a "distinguished artist'' who had been "brought up to revere Schubert''. Nourrit made some successful appearances himself, including some commissioned by the impresario Domenico Barbaia. The amount of detail provided even at these outer limits makes for entertaining reading. We find that in his youth, Barbaia worked as a waiter, inventing the "barbaiata'', a drink made with coffee or chocolate and cream, and operated the gambling tables in the foyer at La Scala, Milan. In 1809, he was appointed manager of the royal opera houses in Naples. Twelve years later, he also took over the management of the Karntnertor-Theatr in Vienna. The reader, having reached this point in the biographical journey and looking back at where it began, might find it ironic to learn that Barbaia was blamed for dashing Schubert's hopes of developing his talent for German opera.
It would almost be possible to read the whole dictionary in this way, taking whatever route is of interest. The book also includes an index of works, so that the reader can discover which of the persons featured in the dictionary had an association with particular points in Schubert's creative life.
Taking Newbould's book once again as a starting point, certain musical or biographical issues may whet the Schubert scholar's appetite for further investigation. Newbould suggests, for example, that the "myth that Schubert was indiscriminating in his choice of texts for songs'' should be laid to rest. Schubert's choice of poets was made on the basis that "if there was something in a poem that fired a response, that was good enough reason for adopting it''. A similar argument is picked up by Susan Youens, a contributor to The Cambridge Companion to Schubert, edited by Christopher H. Gibbs. She suggests that Schubert was willing to adopt a text brought to his attention through his artistic circle "as long as the poem had music in it, his music''. She goes on to a closer examination of how Schubert defined music in poetry, and how he made his choices, and why those choices sometimes left him open to the charge of poor taste.
Youens's discussion is just one of 16 contributions to the Companion, focusing on issues ranging from an analysis of Schubert's inflections of classical form, by Charles Rosen, to a review of images and legends of the composer, by the editor. The pieces are divided into three parts, the first concentrating on musical, political and cultural contexts, the second on genre and aspects of style in Schubert's music and the third on the reception of the music over the years in Germany, England and France. Gibbs describes his book as "a collection of exchanges - historical, critical and analytical'', exploring "some of the factors that have restricted the serious understanding and interpretation of Schubert, and that have made him an elusive figure to this day.'' In part one Leon Botstein examines Schubert's relationship with Vienna, the city of "danger, opportunity, squalor, and beauty", where the composer was born and where he first made his name. He argues that the "struggle for the soul of Schubert" has been most intense there, from the foundation in 1863 of the Schubertbund, a leading choral society, through to the first world war, when Schubert had emerged as "the quintessential emblem of an antimodern politics of nostalgia: the symbol of a simpler, more homogenous, and coherent Viennese world".
Gibbs points out that myths and legends surrounding the composer's life were often the result of society's need for a particular image at a particular time. He asks: "Why, for example, did it take some 30 years before anyone thought to write down the quite interesting news that Schubert visited the dying Beethoven? Probably because the incident never happened. But history needed such a story by mid-century."
As in Newbould's book, the important question of Schubert's position as a composer in relation to Beethoven is a recurring theme. Presumably, the contributors did not agree to focus on this, so it is interesting to see how many ways it crops up in essays focusing on quite different aspects of Schubert's life and works. In part three, Gibbs shows how, in a "scientific and practical" league table of the "lasting worth" of composers, published in Leipzig in 1897, Schubert was placed "literally in a class by himself", on a par with Beethoven and Mozart. Perhaps it is the way Schubert and his music stubbornly refuse to fit into a category with others that has held such a fascination for music lovers and scholars for almost 200 years.
Tony Tysome is a reporter, The THES.
The Cambridge Companion to Schubert
Editor - Christopher H. Gibbs
ISBN - 0 521 48229 1 and 48424 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 340