The Magic in Schubert’s Songs

Bostridge_1-040215_jpg_600x644_q85Ian Bostridge at The New York Review of Books:

“Truly,” Beethoven remarked in 1827, “in Schubert there dwells a divine spark.” Franz Schubert himself worshiped the older composer and was a torchbearer at his funeral. In the following year, he asked for one of Beethoven’s string quartets to be played at his own sickbed, days, if not hours, before he died at the age of thirty-one. Many of Schubert’s works contain homages to Beethoven: the Fate theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the animating motif of Schubert’s terrifying song “Der Zwerg” (The Dwarf). His “Auf dem Strom” (On the River, for voice, piano, and horn) takes up the theme of the Eroica’s death march. And the unusual tempo marking of the first song of the Winterreise cycle (Mässig, in gehender Bewegung, moderate, at walking pace), written in the year of Beethoven’s death, might be seen as a valedictory reference to the latter’s piano sonata “Les Adieux” of 1809–1810.

For Schubert’s contemporaries, Beethoven was the colossus, a figure whose titanic energy and sublime originality went on to define the cult of the hero-musician in the nineteenth century. His deafness added a strain of tragedy. And Beethoven could look the part, his image in paint, print, and sculpture portraying the rugged aesthetic adventurer. Schubert, on the other hand, was under five feet tall, bespectacled, and pudgy, “looking not like a god of music but like a harried Viennese clerk with a head-cold,” as a character in J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime puts it.

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