The music of life

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

Franz Schubert, an 1875 oil painting by Wilhelm August Rieder.-

Franz Schubert, an 1875 oil painting by Wilhelm August Rieder.-

THE Viennese composer Franz Schubert died young, in 1828. He was only 31 years old then and had been suffering from syphilis (which had plagued him continuously for at least six years before that) and a variety of other illnesses that indicated his g radual physical debilitation.

In his short life, his musical output was immense and impressive, although this was perhaps not as evident to his contemporaries, even his friends. The poet Franz Grillparzer penned the words that became his epitaph: The Art of Music here entombed a rich possession but even far fairer hopes.

But Grillparzer was wrong. Of course, he had his reasons to underestimate his friend. After all, for most of his only-too-brief adult existence Schubert was known as a bon vivant, a young and cheerful man about town who relished the company of his friends and who seemed to see music as simply another extension of socialising and having a good time. Schubertiades evenings of good music, fun, friendship and sufficient quantities of the food and wine that would fuel all of these became renowned and eagerly looked forward to among his large acquaintance.

But this was only one side of him, and although his friends got to see some of his creative aspect when his compositions were performed during the Schubertiades, they did not (indeed, could not) grasp the whole of his incredibly prolific output. Despite the relatively short time he had to compose, Schubert created an amazingly large number of works more than a thousand have been recorded. He explored many forms: the huge range of songs that expressed dramatic potential and brought out the lyrical and musical possibilities of some of the best German poetry of his time; nine symphonies (including two movements of the famous Unfinished one); around 30 works for chamber ensembles, and a vast amount of sonatas, dances, impromptus and other music for the piano.

But much greater than quantity was the quality of his music, which does not reveal a tragic lack of fulfilment, as Grillparzer suggested, but rather a sense of completeness. His more well-known works, such as the delightful Trout quintet for piano and strings or the Unfinished Symphony, are by turns grand and sparkling. And his later work, which incorporates much more of his despair and yearning, still ultimately reflects a fundamentally peaceful resignation and acceptance of the inevitable.

Indeed, because Schubert was known for the enchanting lyricism of his melodies, some of his deeper musical attributes have received less attention. Thus his subtle and profound use of sonority and tonality, not only to add colour to the melody but even more to express emotion, are often not so well recognised. Yet, it is often in these that the real expressivity of his music lies, as well as its philosophical basis.

Nowhere is this more evident than in what is definitely one of his masterpieces, the String Quintet in C Major, which was composed in his last year and must rank as one of the finest works in the entire chamber music repertoire.

Even the choice of instruments is telling. When he wrote the String Quintet, Schubert had already shown that he was a master of the string quartet (composed of two violins, viola and cello), by producing some of the most beautiful and touching pieces ever written for this combination. For the quintet, he chose a second cello rather than the more customary second viola. The second cello enhances the lower registers of the ensemble and adds a deep richness to the sound, creating a more noble and complex texture. This is enhanced by Schuberts innovation in occasionally making one of the cellos combine with the first violin in singing some of the main themes.

Spaciousness and with it graciousness are pervasive features of this piece, especially in the expansive introduction to the first movement, the lyrical second theme, and in the wonderful slow phrases of the second movement. But these are interspersed with passages of almost fierce intensity and passion. Within the overall beauty, there is a lot of tension in the music, with both the tonal modulations and the complex harmonies almost constantly suggesting a striving that fails to achieve its object.

It has been argued that when Schubert wrote this music, he already knew somewhere inside himself that he was dying, or would die very soon. It has also been argued that through this music he was expressing his inner disquiet at this fate.

For example, in the first movement, the recapitulation of the main themes does not in any way provide reconciliation: rather, the first two themes are presented again in quite different ways, more sharply and in darker shades. In the slow Adagio, the most hauntingly beautiful, nocturnally meditative passages frame a middle section of throbbing and brusque intensity that breaks into the pensive tranquillity almost like a cry of despair. The third movement, a Scherzo (or joke), is hardly funny. Instead, it has expansive proportions and a great deal of tonal variety and contains a slow middle section that is almost like a funeral march.

So does this music then suggest that perhaps Grillparzer was right after all in focussing on the tragedy of unfulfilled possibilities in Schuberts life rather than his obvious achievement? Not really, because the music as a whole still leaves the listener with a profound sense of fulfilment. The fourth closing movement is much slower than final movements traditionally were, set at a moderate pace that still manages to capture some of the energy of a folk dance. The piece ends, remarkably, with a strong positive assertion in the form of two unlikely chords played extremely loud by all five instruments.

So, despite (or maybe because of?) the notable contrasting moods that Schubert expresses in this music, this string quintet is quite possibly perfect: in its form, expression and the range of emotions that it manages to define and transcend. Music like this could not possibly emerge from or result in unalloyed unhappiness. And even if it did emerge from initial despair, it transcends and sublimates it into much more fine-grained emotion that is much more akin to ecstasy.

Listening to music such as this, therefore, brings to mind the words of the French writer Stendhal, who wrote in his collection On love, I have had proof this evening that when music is perfect, it sets the heart in exactly the same conditions as that produced by the presence of the beloved; which is to say music gives the most intense happiness available on this earth.

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