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12 June 2024

Franz Schubert’s songs of grief

The composer, who died at 31 in 1828, left behind six great works imbued with the spirit of departure.

By Michael Henderson

Every December, for 12 winters, I placed a red rose on the snow-capped grave of Franz Schubert. Vienna was then my city of choice, and nobody is more Viennese than Schubert. “You will never understand us,” a member of the Vienna Philharmonic told me, “unless you know his music.”

The rose-bearing, prompted by a wish to honour the composer I love most, hardened into a ritual. “Blessed Cecilia,” I would begin, quoting WH Auden’s invitation to the patroness of music, “appear in visions/To all musicians, appear and inspire.” Soon I found myself plucking random thoughts from the pages of a flawed life. Schubert had become my confessor.

First came childhood memories of hearing Fritz Reiner’s 1960s recording of his Unfinished eighth symphony, with its gravely beautiful melodies that suggested a realm of unimaginable sadness. A decade later, Bernard Levin’s essays in the Times nudged me towards the chamber music, and the importance of listening, not hearing.

Eventually it was Alfred Brendel’s performances of Schubert’s piano music which unlocked the gate to the meadow in which I have wandered, happily and unhappily, throughout adulthood. Perhaps no pianist, except Artur Schnabel, has done more to reveal Schubert as Beethoven’s equal – and what a claim that is! Schnabel “discovered” the piano music after a century of indifference. Brendel, with his middle-European compound of intellectual rigour and playfulness, put it at the centre of the repertoire. 

“Thank you for the consolation of your music.” How many other visitors to that grave have said something similar? James Merrill’s tribute in verse to his fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop – “… your art/Refused to tip the weight of being human/By adding unearned weight” – may also be applied to Schubert. He never wrote a false note.

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It has become a cliché to say Franz Schubert’s death in November 1828 is the greatest loss in the history of music. Yet it’s true. Mozart, who died at 35, had completed a life’s work. Schubert was 31, and, viewed from this distance, was only getting going. Had he been granted as many years as Beethoven, his contemporary and hero, who knows what he might have achieved?

A solitary man, who would now be diagnosed as bipolar, Schubert knew he was living under a sentence of death. As a torch-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral in March 1827, he urged mourners to toast a great one, and drink “to the one who shall follow”. In the next 19 months, drained by the syphilis that led to death from typhoid fever, he composed or completed six works that will last until the end of time: the song cycle Winterreise; the String Quintet in C major; the B-flat major piano trio; and the three final piano sonatas.

Why does this music affect people so deeply? Partly because it is imbued with the spirit of departure, and we are honouring the loss of a gift cut short in the prime of life. Partly because Schubert, like Anton Chekhov and Philip Larkin, understood the sadness that lies at the heart of things. Though he, like them, transformed the coal of that sadness into diamonds of emotional truth.

The unforced lyricism of his work has an unearthly beauty. But that beauty is never innocent. As Brendel has written of those late sonatas, Schubert “likes to move at the edge of a precipice, and does so with the assurance of a sleepwalker”. His happiness, Brendel says, “is but the surface of despair”.

In those modulations between major and minor keys – which effortlessly shift from joy to melancholy – lies Schubert’s authentic voice. The American scholar Harold Schonberg compared it with the sight of the moon peeping from behind clouds on a windswept evening; an appearance at once startling and inevitable.

This is a world of dreams, which disturb as they enchant. No composer enchants like Schubert, and none looks deeper into the soul. Unlike Beethoven, who took on the sins of the world, and sought to reshape that world in his own image, Schubert never raised his voice. Even in his most turbulent moments there is serenity. All is known, he seems to be saying, and all will be forgiven.

Music may console, but we must never bend to ourselves a joy. An honest response to grief comes naturally, or not at all. Since my mother died at Easter, Schubert has taken my hand, just as he did all those years ago. I didn’t go looking for him. He came to me.

In Berlin, a week after her death, I attended a “Schubert Marathon”, performed by principal players in the Berliner Philharmoniker. They began with the Trout Quintet and ended six hours later with the C major quintet and its famous slow movement of tremulous acceptance.

Back in London, at Wigmore Hall on 5 May, the Aquinas Piano Trio played the B-flat Trio No 1, a work whose slow movement is less questing, perhaps, but no less haunting. Here is the Schubertian sadness that ennobles; music as confession and benediction.

These concerts, memorable as they were, served as a prelude to Paul Lewis’s performance of Schubert’s last three sonatas which concluded the annual music festival at Chipping Campden on 24 May. Lewis, who in his salad days had lessons with Brendel, has lived with Schubert for three decades, and continues to find new ways of presenting this unparalleled leave-taking.

Schubert wrote the sonatas in the last four months of his life, and while the sonatas in C minor and A major hover on the entrance to eternity, Lewisis in no doubt that when he composed the final work, in B-flat major, “he had passed over to the other side”. We are in the spirit world – but then with Schubert we often are.

It is often agreed that the three greatest composers, in terms of importance, are Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. Those men changed the way music was written, performed and understood. Yet, as Kingsley Amis wrote of literature, “importance is not important”. The quality of the work matters above all other considerations, and no composer is loved more profoundly than Schubert, who heard only one concert of his music, on 26 March 1828, the first anniversary of his hero’s death.

This autumn I shall return to Vienna, that beautiful, eerie city, and walk the cobbled streets which haven’t changed much since Schubert trod them, heartsore. I shall board the tram at Schwarzenbergplatz, buy a red rose at the gates of the southern cemetery, and place it once more on the grave of a man who repaid the world’s indifference with music that exalts all who receive it.

This year I shall have more to tell him and every word will be true.

[See also: The Born in the USA fallacy]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency