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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 11 - Brigitte Fassbaender

Schubert & Death
Brigitte Fassbaender (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: June 1990
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: May 1991
Total duration: 63 minutes 10 seconds




‘Magnificent. Collectors of this series need not hesitate, and newcomers who try this volume are in serious danger of addiction’ (American Record Guide)

‘19 tracks devoted to some of the greatest songs ever written’ (Classic CD)

‘Superb … a disc to return to time and again’ (CDReview)

‘Fassbaender has never been in better form … I urge you to collect them all, not only for the genius of Schubert but also because they are an anthology of the finest singers of our time’ (Musical Opinion)

‘Deserves to be enshrined as a classic’ (The New Yorker, USA)

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Death and the composer
As the sensibilities of our age demand less Rimbaud and more Rambo, mass murder and destruction as entertainment have blunted the imagination's ability to face the (probably banal) end which is tailor-made for each of us. It takes sudden tragedy, war or terminal il lness to bring real Death (as opposed to his video double) into the twentieth-century home. Time's hand is firmly on the fast-forward button of life until death's cold finger interrupts the jumble of images with a sudden freeze-frame finale. We can find no technological escape from the closest call of all when we are witness to the demise of friends and relations, or when they are witness to ours. The advances in medical skill since Schubert's time count for very little: what was true of the final moments in the composer's lifetime remains true for those undergoing the same experience today. What has changed most is the manner of preparation for the final journey. It is a modern tendency to buy a ticket and squint at the maps at the last possible moment; the literature of earlier times shows that death was planned, with the punctiliousness of a Grand Tour, almost before life itself had begun. The wisdom of driving life and death in tandem is proven by the modern rediscovery of a fact to which many in the nineteenth century, and as we shall see, Schubert in particular, were still privy—that the dying and bereaved find it easier to cope with Death once the euphemisms and evasions have fallen away. (However, the nineteenth century was less privy, in every sense, to such disease-abating sophistications as effective sanitation.)

In Schubert's time, few people bothered to lie about Death's efficacy for he was a constant visitor and everyone saw a lot more of him. On the other hand, quite apart from the co mfort of strong religious conviction, talk of him could not all be tragic, for good conversation was an art, and art in that urbane age had to be varied and entertaining. Everyone experiences a different end, and in deference to Death's inventive versatility in choosing the various manners of our going, the imperishable house guest was dressed up in various romantic guises which firmly placed him where he demanded to be, at the top of life's artistic agenda. Familiarity bred not contempt, but rather a ce rtain fatalistic acceptance of his importance; there was a fervent hope that Death imitated Art, particularly if art had depicted an ecstatic, enthralling, or at the very least comfortable, departure from these earthly realms.

This preoccupation may seem morbid and melodramatic by today's standards, but the very variety of poems about Death challenged Schubert and his contemporaries to go beyond the stock musical responses to black melodrama, and to clothe him in costumes and coats of many colours. This rich range of themes and viewpoints is reflected in this recital which is something of a compendium of attitudes to the concept of Tod und Verklärung as found in Schubert's songs. In Der Tod und das Mädchen the maiden resists in vain the tyrant's advances; with Senn's Schwanengesang as a curtain-raiser, the minstrel in Nachtstück sings his swansong, a paean of joy and gratitude to nature with whom his body is reunited; the dying King of Thule counts his material possessions and values above all these his goblet which had been given to him with love; death will release the waif Mignon from her sorrows and enable her to achieve the purity and innocence of an angel in heaven. The tolling of the passing bell (Das Zugenglöcklein) is the sound of death in an Austrian village; the rippling water of Auf dem Wasser zu singen points to the passing of time and the ephemeral nature of life itself, and the troubled soul in Auflösung dissolves into the ether of other-worldly ecstasy.

Songs about various means of crossing the bar are balanced by a number about life on the other side. The unearthly dance of the spirits in Der Geistertanz contrasts with the gravity of the spirit Thekla's pronouncements; the soul's journey in Pope's Verklärung is a condensation of the Dream of Gerontius; the Gluck-inspired song of Orpheus sends the hero on a journey into hell, and the two Heliopolis settings are also song quests, searching perhaps for the final destination of Vollendung. The last three songs describe life in heaven itself, a pagan paradise of classical allusion and merry-making not quite attractive enough to persuade the poet, in Seligkeit, to abandon the more palpable charms of Laura. The final verse of that song says 'I would sooner stay here'. This is more or less what the maiden says in Der Tod und das Mädchen and the recital thus ends, full circle, with a rather more humorous expression of the death-defying sentiments with which it began.

There is no doubt that songs about death were immensely popular (most of the songs on this disc were published in Schubert's lifetime), but it is interesting to reflect why. Was it simply a ghoulish relish for the works of Jack the Reaper? The poem Der Tod und das Mädchen, written in 1775, expresses horror of death in order to offer comfort in deathly counterpoint. This was an early manifestation of the death wish fashionable among the romantics. Lines of Keats, contemporary with Schubert, come to mind (from Ode to a Nightingale, 1820):

I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath.

In Der Jüngling und der Tod, the poem which Josef von Spaun wrote as tribute, pendant and riposte to Der Tod und das Mädchen, the youth, very much unlike the maiden, actively courts death, and begs to be taken to fairer worlds. The tenor of Spaun's poem is a mirror of a mood found often enough in romantic literature, but it is a mood with which the Schubert circle seems to have been particularly familiar: flattery in the face of disaster, courtly adjustment to the inevitable, was typical of life in the Austrian capital, then as at any other time. This somewhat self-conscious awareness of the ubiquity of death in the Imperial hot-house may explain a more reckless gaiety, combined with a darker, more death-ridden view of life (the Schubertian interplay of major and minor) than in many other societies. The town has always been on the edge of the civilised Western world, threatened by Turks and Russians to the East, French and Prussians to the West. Who knows who the new master will be, and when he will come? In the face of Anschluss (for death is a type of unilateral annexation) it is far more practical to welcome the invader and establish a truce with the inevitable, than to put up a useless struggle. Must one not, at all costs, survive? In nineteenth-century Vienna, riddled with disease, cursed with an unhealthy climate, the most elegant and practical way to placate Death was to welcome him into your midst and pay him lip-service; to ignore him or paint him as an out-and-out villain was to court disaster. This represented a mental inoculation; a little dose of death willingly taken—the making of a work of art which purported to welcome him—satisfied the shades, gave you immunity of sorts, and put off the evil day. Beg for his intercession and (perverse chap that he is) he will leave you alone; he spared Josef von Spaun, after all, until the age of 77. Death was personalised and made, in Dido's words, 'a welcome guest'; those who flirted with him through art, hoped (though unconsciously) that they had somehow tamed him, that a rehearsal of their encounter with him might well postpone the f inal curtain, or at least that his embrace would be gentler thanks to looking him in the eye and giving him his due. Needless to say, the enthusiasm of most mortals for the Grim Reaper is patently insincere; but nowhere were these duplicitous dealings with Death conducted with more charm than in Vienna, and nowhere were human disgust and loathing for the inhuman visitor, more effectively, even gallantly, concealed.

Fear of death has something to do with fear of what may, or may not, lie beyond it. There were a number of artists, the poets Mayrhofer and Bruchmann among them, who were part of group of people, better educated than Schubert, who influenced his thinking, and who conjectured a number of alternatives to a Roman Catholic heaven. They were interested in (among other things) classical mythology, the pantheism espoused by Goethe in poems like Ganymed, and the Nature philosophy of Fichte and Schelling. The bohemians and intellectuals among whom the composer moved, questioned the authoritarian control of the state, and with it the teachings of the state church. We know from a letter from 1818 that Schubert's oldest brother Ignaz was a freethinker and had warned Franz not to bring up the subject of religion in correspondence with their father. Writing to Ignaz from Hungary where he was spending the summer, Schubert wrote: 'Your implacable hatred of the whole tribe of high priests does you credit. But you have no conception what a gang the priesthood is here: bigoted as mucky old cattle, stupid as arch-donkeys and boorish as bisons.' On the other hand, one cannot deny Schubert's heartfelt response to texts (including the ecstatic night hymns of Novalis, set at this time) which celebrated an all-knowing, all-powerful guiding Hand, visible in nature and discernible in all the workings of the universe. Schubert omitted the words 'Credo in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam' from his settings of the mass, but he was not alone in this, for they are hardly words that conjure a vivid musical response. A letter to Schubert from Ferdinand Walcher (25th January 1827) is more specific: it teasingly begins with the line 'Credo in unum Deum' ('I believe in one God') written out in plainchant notation, and this is followed by the words 'Not you, I know well enough'. It was not advisable to be openly atheistic in Metternich's Austria, but it seems that Schubert had been frank (and rather indiscreet) about his re ligious doubts to Walcher. There are a few earlier indications that Schubert had swum against the stream. In a letter to his father and stepmother written on 25 July 1825, he describes his faith as a 'right and true devotion', and he claims that he never 'forced devotion' in himself, and 'never composed hymns or prayers' unless the spirit took him unawares. This can be read as an avowal of a conventional faith of a Bruckner-like simplicity, but it seems to me to be more an acknowl edgement of a deep humanistic feeling outside the scope of organised religion. Later in this article we shall see that Schubert wrote this letter at a time when the circumstances of his life had changed him irrevocably from the high-spirited and irreverent young man of 1818. But in his letter of 1825 he still perhaps remembered his brother Ignaz's warnings, and he may well have put a naive gloss on his doubts in orthodoxy specifically for parental consumption.

The Schubert family was familiar with death in the shape of infant mortality almost a decade before the birth of Franz. 1788 was a particularly bad year: within a space of a few months the composer's sister Franziska Magdalena died at the age of only two months, his brother Karl aged ten months, and his sister Elisabeth, aged two years and five months. Another sister called Anna Karoline was just over a year old when she died in 1791, and a second Franziska Magdalena died at the age of two-and-a-half. Franz Karl Schubert (born in August 1790) died aged just over one month, and Petrus Schubert died in 1793, aged six months. Josef Schubert was just over five years old when he died; his younger brother Franz Peter, the composer to be, was nearly a year old at the time. His three surviving elder brothers Ignaz, Ferdinand and Karl had been born in 1785, 1794 and 1795 respectively. Aloisia Magdalena Schubert lived for but a day in December 1799. The last child of Elisabeth Schubert (née Vietz—forty four years old at the time) and Franz Schubert senior was Maria Theresia, born in 1801; she survived until 1878. In 1806, Schubert's grandmother Susanna died at the ripe old age of seventy-five. What she thought of her nine-year-old grandson Franz, and what he thought of her, we shall never know.

The first real confrontation Schubert had with death was the loss of his mother on the 28 May, 1812. She was fifty-five and he was fifteen. We have no evidence as to how this affected the young composer, but one brief reference in the composer's diary shows that the relationship had been close. Schubert's first foray into verse, a four-stanza poem referring to the flight of time and our inevitable progress to the grave, was written in the month of the first anniversary of his mother's death. His father remained in mourning for not quite a year, and took another wife, Anna Kleyenböck, twenty-nine years old and still of childbearing age. It seems that she was kind to her stepchildren, and that Schubert addressed her as mother, and was fond of her. Schubert's half-sisters Maria and Josefa were born in 1814 and 1815 (and survived) but his half-brother Theodor died as an infant in 1817. Once out of the dangerous period of childhood and adolescence it seems that the composer was free from personal entanglement with death for some years, apart from various images of the Grim Reaper often to be found in the Lieder: the most successful song of all, Erlkönig, culminates in the death of a boy extinguished by a malevolent spirit. From time to time, as might be expected, there were deaths in the Schubert circle—not the composer's friends but some of their relations and acquaintances. The poet Franz von Bruchmann's sister Sybille died of consumption in 1820, and the poem Schwestergruss (set to music by Schubert in 1822) was a moving depiction (like Thekla on this disc) of her message from another world. Most of the music written between 1815 and the end of 1822 is suffused with co nfidence and experimental vitality. The composer suffered setbacks here and there, particularly in relation to his operatic works, but flowing through even these there is the energy of a young man with everything to live and hope for, forging ahead with a career that seemed destined, in the fullness of time, for great public acclaim. Everything changed late in 1822 or early in 1823 when the composer was marked out as one of the epoch's many unlucky and blighted sufferers of syphilis. A diagnosis of this incurable disease, fickle in the manner of its reappearance and final and fatal manifestation, was made more frightening by the (usually long) wait for the sword of Damocles to fall. Only in recent years, with the emergence of a new sexually-transmitted fatal disease, also with an extremely variable time lapse between diagnosis and death, has it been possible for us to find a modern parallel to Schubert's awful predicament: a long-term death sentence inextricably connected with the sufferer's regret and guilt, exacerbated by smug moral censoriousness from some of those around him, and ill-grounded fear of infection through contact, from others. Schubert, who was infinitely more at home with the creation of music than of words, was driven to writing a poem called 'My Prayer' on 8 May 1823:

Behold destroyed in the dust
A prey to unimaginable pain
My tortured life
Nears eternal extinction
Destroy it, destroy me,
Cast everything into Lethe
And then, O God, create a new
And powerful being which can flourish.

The whole poem is an extraordinary mixture of conventional religion and somewhat confused classical allusion. In these last two verses Schubert asks to be cast into Lethe, a river, unlike the Styx, whose waters are drunk for forgetfulness and which are not renowned for their purifying and cleansing qualities. In any case it is tempting to suppose that suicide was on his mind. A fuller commentary on this period will be found in a later article in this series about the year 1823 and the composition of Die schöne Müllerin, and it seems to me no coincidence that this work that ends in the miller boy's suicide in the mill stream, and not the composer's, is something of a turning point and a catharsis in Schubert's life. Far from going under, he was more productive than ever. Writing music was even more of a necessity for him when it seem#%ed probable that his life would be shorter. The inner resilience that enabled a sensitive and hypochondriacal personality to turn into a 'new and powerful being', is one of many extraordinary stories of bravery, in the face of terminal illness, where the least likely people turn out to be heroes. Is the invocation to God in this poem purely a rhetorical device? Or perhaps he is using the word God in the sense that atheists have used that words from Spinoza onwards; 'Deus sive Natura'. What part Schubert allowed his faith, or lack of it, to play in his adjustment to his fate we shall probably never know. The remaining five creative years of his life were in any case aglow with the refiner's fire—barely a note or thought wasted, hardly a work of inferior quality, and in the last years a growing sense of Olympian balance (and dare one say goodness? truthfulness, certainly) scarcely to be found among composing mortals.

It seems to me that the intensity of the central crisis of Schubert's life in 1823 seemed to soften the horror of death's second and final visit in 1828; death had lost its sting of surprise. In the last five years of his life Schubert seems to have already crossed over to the other side, steadily climbing to the heights of Parnassus after a period adrift on the Styx. In July 1825, on holiday in the mountains, he was able to write to his father and stepmother about his hypochondriacal brother Ferdinand: 'He has doubtless been ill 77 times again, and has thought 9 times that he was going to die, as though dying were the worst that can happen to a man! If only he could once see these heavenly mountains and lakes, the sight of which threatens to crush or engulf us, he would not be so attached to puny human life, nor regard it as otherwise than good fortune to be entrusted to earth's indescribable power of creating new life.' This last thought of a natural cycle of life brings to mind Goethe's poem Gesang der Geister über den Wassern: `Man's soul is like water: from heaven it comes, to heaven it rises, and to earth again it must descend, moving to and fro for ever'. When it came to November 1828, Schubert's actual death (very possibly caused by an aneurism, an effect of the the secondary stage of his illness) was relatively undramatic. He at least does not seem to have been very surprised. The largest project left unfinished was the opera Der Graf von Gleichen, but the String Quintet, the last three great piano Sonatas, the Heine and Rellstab songs, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, and the solitary glory of Seidl's Die Taubenpost are all worthy of a great composer's final thoughts. We can detect no panic or fear in his final letter (to his friend the poet Schober, asking for more reading matter)—indeed he seemed resigned to his discomfort, and he seems not have been in pain when he died. Schubert's death was unspectacular enough to be anticlimactic, the sort of death that one feels might have been averted by better luck, more hygienic surroundings, better medical help, and so on. Perhaps this is so if one believes that the composer died of typhoid fever, but if one accepts the diagnosis suggested above, nothing available to the medical resources of his time could have averted Schubert's demise. The tiny room in his brother Ferdinand's house in the (now) Kettenbrückengasse is as unlikely a place for a great man to die as any I have ever seen. 'Here, here is my end' Schubert is reputed to have said, and these last words do not seem to have been spoken in outrage at the dying of the light. In matters of time and place I have the feeling that the very banality of the circumstances and place of the composer's end was what he needed to meet his Death, a rendezvous without a fanfare of trumpets and with a strong sense of dejà vu. Perhaps the final terror was not as great as Schubert had supposed it would be in his months of fear in 1823, and here it is appropriate to ask what exactly he had feared then, and what had inevitably remained on his mind for the five years left to him. Even in the 1820s enough had been written about the sequelae of syphilis for Schubert to know that the tertiary stage of the illness was associated with horrifying dementia and paralysis. He might have seen the effects of later stages of the illness in fellow patients when he was in the hospital in the Alserstrasse (in Vienna's ni,.nth district) in 1823. Years hence (for the illness could take years to exact its final toll on its victims) would he have to endure the worst fate for a musician, his creative faculties benumbed and the stream of his music frozen within a diseased brain? Would all that remained of the endless flow of melody in his head be poisoned at the source, or trapped beneath an impassively frozen exterior? Turned away from the repose of death's tavern, Das Wirtshaus, would this be his form of living death? The parallels with Winterreise, a work of which the singer on this disc is a distinguished interpreter, are clear enough. The odds were that all that would be left of Schubert's song-writing genius would be the convulsive and hollow echoes of what music should be, the organ-grinder's drone. The inept fingers of Der Leiermann are frozen from within, as well as by the winter cold: the music is stuck in a groove (like the solitary phrase 'cré nom', that the syphilitic Baudelaire, once a lord of language, repeated time and again in the stupor of his final illness). The traveller salutes the organ-grinder with the exquisite courtesy that is the etiquette of the dispossessed. 'Strange old man, shall your fate be mine, shall my life and my music be as yours?' Schubert seems to ask. 'Is this to be my living death in the limbo of a single repetitive phrase without harmony or modulation?' The cycle ends on a searing question mark, but, whatever the answer, we feel that death's decision will be faced with humility. And out of this projection of catastrophe is created the highest art.

Winterreise was written in 1827, a year before Schubert died, but he was correcting the proofs of the second part on his deathbed. Like Die schöne Müllerin the work was a means of catharsis, a way of confronting a crisis in his life, his way of looking death—his probable death—in the face. I suspect that it was the unspoken intensity of this personal involvement which upset Schubert's friends when they first heard songs from Winterreise, as much as the uncompromising starkness of the music itself. It was perhaps because of this that the spectre could be faced with a certain equanimity, when he came earlier than expected to take the composer away from friends and family. After all, the death you don't know is sometimes better than the death you think you do. Schubert had had a rich creative lifetime of painting the Grim Reaper in innumerable shapes and guises; he had worked hard to burnish many of his images; now at last Death displayed a type of gratitude. He spared Schubert the very end he feared most—the sad and humiliating fate of the loss of his creative faculties, the end of countless other artists (among whom were his successors Schumann and Wolf) which, had the composer lived longer, would almost certainly have been his lot. And Death had something of his own to give back to Schubert. In his implacable and merciless embrace he carried the consolation of immortality with a promise of the imperishable gratitude of succeeding generations. No friend could have brought more healing gifts.

Graham Johnson © 1991

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