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A bright, light, beautiful day this will remain throughout my whole life…O Mozart, immortal Mozart…how many, oh how infinitely many such beneficial impressions of a brighter and better life you have stamped upon our souls…I also made the acquaintance of Mme Jenny, an extraordinarily fluent pianist, who however seems to be somewhat lacking in true and pure expression.
14 June…I took an evening walk for once, as I had not done for several months. There can scarcely be anything more agreeable than take an evening stroll in the countryside after a hot summer's day…In the uncertain twilight and in company with my brother Karl, I felt so happy—'How beautiful' I thought and exclaimed, standing still delightedly. A graveyard close by reminded us of our dear mother. Thus talking sadly and intimately ('unter traurig traulichen Gesprächen') we arrived at a point where the Döbling road divides.
15 June…Among all the pictures a Madonna and Child by Abel appealed to me most…[at an exhibition of Austrian painting in the Sankt Annagebäude in the Annagasse] I realise that one has to look at such things often and intently to find and receive the right expression and impression.
16 June…To look on pure, holy nature, must be the greatest pleasure for an artist who, guided by such a one as Gluck, learned to know nature and to uphold it in spite the unnatural conditions of our age. [At a gathering in honour of his teacher Antonio Salieri]
Schubert's evening walk with his brother Karl lies at the heart of a busy and eventful week. We can imagine the sad and intimate conversation between them as they strolled in the fields between Währing and Döbling, and spoke of their mother who had died four years earlier. Nostalgic for the seemingly endless golden summers of childhood, most of us at nineteen believe that we are ageing fast, and that those days 'of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower' are forever lost; the pain of facing the adult world is assuaged by memories of…
'…those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing
Uphold us, cherish and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never.
Schubert's diary of 1816 is full of the strivings of the young would-be philosopher to cope with the difficulties of growing up—intimations of immortality, albeit expressed in prose which is admittedly no match for the glories of Wordsworth's verse of nine years earlier. The day after the evening walk, perhaps on the recommendation of his brother who was to become an accomplished draughtsman and landscape artist, Schubert went to an exhibition of paintings held in the same building which housed Karl's art school. The picture that 'appealed to him' was apparently executed in life-size figures, and entitled The Virgin Mary showing her sleeping Child to the angels with motherly delight. The painter, hardly remembered today, was Josef Abel (1764–1818). Very recent researches suggest that Abel may have painted the composer's portrait around 1815. On 16 June Schubert heard the 'pure, holy nature' of Salieri's Muse. But the day before at the exhibition, he had seen pure, holy nature, albeit on canvas rather than in the flesh. It cannot be mere coincidence that he found himself touched by a Mother and Child the day after being reminded of his own mother. There is no extant portrait of her and, relying only on his memory, it might have been that she had become an icon of purity and goodness in the composer's mind, and that the picture of the Madonna took on the universal features of Everymum.
Throughout his life Schubert measured much in terms of clarity, purity, brightness, and because we happen to have his diary for the period, this is particularly well-documented in 1816. It seems that he was seeking out images of purity everywhere, as if he needed to take refuge from thoughts hounding him in other directions; he needed to find an aesthetic, and perhaps ascetic, counterbalance to his burgeoning sensuality. It is no surprise that the immortal Mozart is 'brighter and better' than anyone else, but the remarks on Madame Jenny's pianism show that there were others who fell short of the ideal. Contrast this with a letter Schubert wrote to Schober in 1818: 'dein Sinn für die Kunst is der reinste, wahrste, den man sich denken kann' (your feeling for art is the purest [my italics] and truest imaginable). Schober was lauded for his 'reinster Sinn'; Madame Jenny lacked 'reiner Ausdruck'; Salieri valued 'reine, heilige Natur.'
For many lovers of Lieder, that word 'rein' is indelibly linked with Ellen's address to the Virgin Mary: 'Ave Maria! Reine Magd!—Ave Maria! Pure Maiden!' And thus we return to the nativity painting, and the profusion of messages and feelings which seem to be tumbling out of Schubert's mind and into his diary: the love of an adolescent boy for his dead mother, his admiration for the pure genius of Mozart and for a great teacher unadulterated (so Schubert idealistically thought) by life's hurly burly, and on the other hand his disappointment that a pianist he has heard lacked the purest of expression. Her art, even perhaps the woman herself, did not measure up to an ideal of purity which he was then to see captured by the painter Abel's brush: Mary, the perfect, unsullied woman fixed in a frame for all time (or so Schubert might have thought—the picture is no longer extant).
As he contemplated the nativity scene, is it possible that the reassuring warmth and the sweet pangs of remembered mother's love were overtaken by a fascination with the Virgin's womanly attributes—the glow of her skin, the warmth of her smile, the outline of her figure? Is it not possible that Schubert made the most of this opportunity to stare long and hard at such a model of feminine beauty? Heinrich Heine was yet to write his celebrated poem Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome (set in Schumann's Dichterliebe) which concludes with the poet finding the Virgin Mary painted on golden leather in Cologne Cathedral headily (and bodily) reminiscent of his beloved. But Schubert might have had an experience even more disturbingly complicated than the poet's, whose own bossy mother was unlikely to have entered Heine's picture: having seen his mother in the Virgin, did Schubert then perceive a beautiful and desirable woman? This might have introduced Oedipus into a scenario already seething with psychological confusion, but in a country where hypocritical double standards abounded, where lip-service of different kinds could be both paid and paid for by those who both adhered to, and flouted, morality, this confusion and mingling of sacred and profane would have been nothing unusual. The almost blasphemous frisson provided by religious art is a phenomenon probably as old as painting itself. (Today, blasphemy is more overt, and teenage girls look to quite another Madonna as a role model.)
We know that Schubert was in love at the time with a neighbour's daughter, Therese Grob, then aged eighteen, and that he had been fond of her for two years. Their affair, if so it could be called, was coming to an end—it was almost certainly without a physical outlet, and doomed for practical reasons, mainly financial. One can imagine his initial joy in believing that he had found a soul mate in a girl with a pretty soprano voice, and his disappointment in finally realising that nothing would come of the relationship. Added to that there was also the age-old frustration of the adolescent doing dutiful battle with his physical urges: one part of him putting his girl on a pedestal, another part of him urging him to knock her off. One can imagine the turbulent feelings of a young man brought up in the bosom of the Catholic church (his father was very strictly religious, 'apt to moralise' as he himself once confessed in a rare flash of humour) coming to terms with repellent or delightful thoughts of impurity, depending from which ankle (tiny feet were a major nineteenth-century turn-on) you looked at them. Young Schubert had been brought up to accept unquestioningly the teachings of the church on morality, but the more rational side of him, prompted by the anti-religious feelings of an elder brother and new friends, fought against them. He was at one with nature when it came to enjoying the countryside in walks with his brother Karl, but uncertain of his own attractiveness and eligibility, and of his right to enjoy his sexual feelings, he was, in Woody Allen's words, 'at two with nature' when it came to accepting his physical self. At least this seems to have been the case in the summer of 1816. The diary for 8 September contains a number of rather ponderous aphorisms, one of which is: 'To a free man matrimony is a terrifying thought in these days: he exchanges it [freedom] either for melancholy or crude sensuality.' It is obvious that Schubert has an ambivalent attitude both to marriage (did he really want to marry Fräulein Grob?) and to what he terms crude sensuality ('grobe [my italics] Sinnlichkeit'). He continues with 'O God, shroud our feelings and senses in numbness'—a plea to be released from all sensuality. But did he really mean this, I wonder? It was these disruptive and Dionysian forces which gave vital life to his compositions, for at this time the music always dared to go further than the man himself. In 1825 the perspicacious Anton Ottenwalt remarked that Schubert's genius seemed unimpaired by 'the passions of an eagerly burning sensuality'. But this was in the future; in 1816 he confides his confusion to his diary, the conflict of his inherent idealism with the powerful propulsions of adolescence. As Stefan Zweig has written in his autobiography 'We find in the literature of the nineteenth century only the merest trace of all the perils, shadows, and confusions of the young man in the big city.' The city he means is Vienna of course, hardly different in this respect in Schubert's time to Zweig's. The extremely discreet diaries and letters of the Schubert circle give little hint of the many passions playing beneath the surface, not to mention the temptations faced by young men who, having escorted flirtatious virgins back to their mothers, made their way home past the brightly painted girls plying their trade, for which Vienna was notorious throughout Europe.
This recording mirrors some of the ambivalence of the age in matters social and sexual. In stark contrast to the religious atmosphere of the opening song, Das Marienbild, two of Seidl's Refrain Lieder, simultaneously coy and suggestive, illustrate not only the Viennese taste of the time in lighter music, but also the artificially imposed and rigorously enforced dichotomy between the world of the 'nice' girl and the 'bad', between the Lied and the Liedchen. A vivid description of 'one thing leading to another' in Die Männer sind méchant is followed by the inevitable tragedy when a 'nice' girl is persuaded, by the most seemingly sincere protestations of love, to surrender her virtue. It is this mixture of sacred and profane in one person, a pure girl with a heart sensual enough to be invaded by devilish tricks, which helps make Goethe's Gretchen the most famous fallen woman in German literature, and Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade a trailblazer in the history of song. A second theme of the recording, related to the first, is Marie McLaughlin's native Scotland, which German speakers, enthused by the Ossian translations from as early as 1760, considered a land of the noble savage, faithful to age-old traditions and possessing a rare purity of sentiment. Gretchen is thus counterpointed at the other end of the recital by Ellen Douglas, a radiant paragon of Scottish womanhood for whom Schubert found some of his most beautiful music. Ossian's Shilric and Vinvela inhabit a world of pagan gods and goddesses, but Ellen's Highland clan is firmly Catholic. In their moments of greatest crisis both Gretchen and Ellen pray, in totally different ways, to the Virgin Mary. Identifying with the plights of his song characters, I doubt whether Schubert ever forgot the appeal and the reproach of Marian purity. Hers, rather than the contorted features of preachers threatening hell-fire, seems to have been for him the acceptable, perhaps even the desirable, face of religion.
At exactly the same time that the famous Ave Maria was composed, and performed with much success by Vogl and the composer on a tour of Upper Austria, Schubert wrote an impassioned letter to Ferdinand (21 September, 1825) which discussed, among other things, an infamous massacre of the Bavarians by the Tyrolese during the Napoleonic Wars in 1809. What Schubert objected to most was the way that a chapel and a cross were erected as memorials to the slaughter—'partly to commemorate and partly to expiate it by such sacred symbols…Thou glorious Christ, to how many shameful actions must thou lend Thy image!' These are scarcely the words of a conventionally religious man—even 'Thou glorious Christ' ('Du herrlicher Christus') has an ironic ring about it. And yet the composer was able to pour all his feeling, indeed his love, into songs to the Virgin, who is a sacred symbol if ever there was one. I believe that this is because the chastening, inspiring figure of Mary, womanhood, das Ewig-Weibliche, call her what one will, stood for Schubert as a corrective to the violence of a male-dominated world, including the violence of war which, for all his adolescent patriotism, and the song-exploration of its pageantry in the ancient or medieval worlds, had come to disturb him by 1825. He valued the attributes ascribed to Mary—mercy, tolerance, gentleness and forgiveness, qualities which we in turn value in his music. If indeed these attributes are feminine (some feminists of today see the Marian cult as a conspiracy to keep women humble in the Virgin's image) Schubert's occasional musical visits to Mary's shrine seem merely one of his ways of acknowledging the feminine in his own nature, a means of personifying the innate goodness of both man- and womankind. If he had been brought up by his parents to revere and respect Mary, this is perhaps one of the reasons why he has an extraordinary sympathy with, and empathy for, women in general. Gretchen's song seems no more written by a man than Juliet's protestations of love to Romeo; character and composer are at one. In a heart-breaking letter written in the wake of his illness, to the painter Kupelwieser in Rome, Schubert quotes Gretchen's lines, and admits that he had, in a way, become his most famous song character: 'Imagine a man whose health will never be right again…imagine a man whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain—My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it never, and nevermore I may well sing every day now, for each night, on retiring to bed, I hope I may not wake again, and each morning recalls yesterday's grief.' In his music of feminine heartbreak and despair Schubert displays a profound understanding of the female psyche. It is not enough for him to play the role of the male observer extending the hand of pity to the social outcast; he seems to understand from within.
It takes little imagination to deduce from this that Schubert regarded himself as something of an outcast too. It is true that he was unlike 'the others', the good-looking young men of his circle, the debonair Schobers and Bruchmanns and Schwinds, as much in visible things like height and build, as in the indefinable musical forces working within him. His genius, and the vast responsibilities this gave him as its vessel, set him apart from an early age. But it also seems likely that the conflicts between duty and rebellion, love and lust, Apollo and Dionysus, Christian and pagan, indeed male and female, were extremely powerful and complicated, and in the earlier years cost him a lot of thought and not a little pain. In this he was exceptionally sensitive, but in large measure he was also simply a child of his time; not even Schubert was able easily to shake off the powerful guilt and remorse which his religious upbringing had inculcated into him as effectively as into millions of others. But fortunately for us he had a means of reconciling the two worlds: the powerful interplay of opposing forces produced much great music. It has often enough been said that Schubert's music has tears in its laughter and a smile shining through its tears, but it may equally be remarked that in his music the forces of the sacred and profane, the innocent and the erotic, are fused into an astonishingly mature and self-accepting entity. It seems likely that the four diary entries quoted from 1816 chronicled a period where Schubert was on the brink of taking to heart something he wrote in September 1816: ;'Take people as they are, not as they should be.' If he had known Shakespeare he might have had the courage to quote Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well: 'Simply the thing I am shall make me live.' Perhaps one of the most succinct summings-up of the composer was by the man who was eventually to introduce the composer to some of Shakespeare's lyrics, Eduard von Bauernfeld. In a diary entry for 8 March 1826, Bauernfeld wrote: 'Schubert has the right mixture of the idealist and the realist. The world seems fair to him.' Many experiences, both happy and tragic, paved his way to that state of balance; he came to accept, and learned to work with, the sacred and profane in his own nature. And we are the lucky beneficiaries of that accommodation.
Graham Johnson © 1991