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Johann Chrysostomos Senn

born: 1 April 1795
died: 30 September 1857
country: Germany

The life of Johann Senn was something of a waste and a tragedy. Two years older than Schubert, he was a proud and patriotic native of the Tirol. His family moved to Vienna in 1810 and the boy was sent to the Stadtkonvikt where Schubert was also a pupil. He is thus numbered among the composer’s earliest and most lively friends. We have the impression that Senn was loved for his freedom of thought, his fearless intellectual vivacity, and his affectionate nature. On 20 January 1820 there was a farewell party for one Alois Fischer who was about to return to Salzburg. The secret police, highly suspicious of such potentially seditious student meetings, infiltrated the gathering. Soon afterwards they searched the homes of all who were present. Apart from Senn, four people were arrested including Schubert and Bruchmann. Schubert must have remembered this terrifying brush with authority for the rest of his life, for the Metternich police had a reputation for extreme brutality. These four all received official warnings and their parents were notified (one can imagine the scenes of paternal rage in the Schubert household) but Senn fared by far the worst. The police had found the diary of one of Senn’s friends in which it was written that, of all the people known to the author, Senn alone was capable of dying for an idea. This immediately marked the poet out as very dangerous, an impression that was confirmed when a police examiner, almost admiringly, labelled him a genius. Senn was imprisoned for fifteen months and was then exiled from Vienna. It is true that the poet was fiercely patriotic to his native Tirol to the point of being a separatist, but Vienna was the only significant cultural centre of the nation, and a young artist cut off from his friends and important artistic influences lived in a wilderness – beautiful certainly, but not conducive to the intellectual development of a young man.

Bruchmann, devoted to the poet in almost a romantic manner, kept in touch with Senn, and lent him money. He regarded Senn as something of a Christ-like figure, who had been sacrificed to pay for the sins of the entire Schubert circle; but the friendship between these two men utterly different in temperament dissolved as Bruchmann’s political and religious beliefs became more right-wing and hard-line. Before this happened, however, Bruchmann visited Senn in September 1822; he brought back two of the poet’s manuscripts and passed them on to Schubert for musical setting. (It is interesting that it was also Bruchmann who was the middle-man in arranging for two of Platen’s poems to be set; he emerges as something of a secret agent engaged in subterfuge with political and sexual outcasts.) Senn later served as soldier and journalist, but far from Vienna he had no means of making money from his writings and he eventually turned to drink. We do not know a great deal about Schubert’s feelings for Senn, but he must have regarded his old friend with the admiration reserved for those who share one’s own beliefs and suffer monstrous ill-treatment on that account – ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’. The poet’s reputation no doubt took on something of a mythical status with this group of angry young men, ashamed that they, unlike Senn, had been cowed into submission by the state. Nevertheless, it seems that the group kept in close clandestine touch with the poet for some years after his exile, and that his thoughts and opinions continued to exert an influence on the Schubertians. Schubert’s loss of interest in Friedrich von Schlegel and his works (see Volume 27) may well have been influenced by Senn as late as 1825. (For these details about the poet’s life after 1820 I am indebted to the researches of Lisa Feuerzeig.) If Senn had remained in Vienna the whole balance of the composer’s circle would have been different; it is even possible that Franz von Schober would not have achieved quite the same influence over Schubert if Senn had been there to challenge him. The poet’s autobiographical sketch written in 1849 mentions Schubert with nostalgia, and Senn also wrote a sonnet on the composer.

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