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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 31 - Christine Brewer

Schubert & Religion
Christine Brewer (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)
Download only
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: July 1998
Total duration: 74 minutes 29 seconds

This thirty-first issue in The Hyperion Schubert Edition presents a programme of Schubert’s religious music. While the composer’s own religious stance might best be described as ‘ambivalent’, he nonetheless turned to religious texts throughout his short life. Here we have the mighty ballads Hagars Klage (in which Hagar, concubine to Abraham, laments her exile in the desert) and Mirjams Siegegesang (which sees the prophetess Miriam rejoicing in the Israelite camp after Pharaoh and all his troops have been drowned in the Red Sea). The latter work includes a sizeable role for chorus. A particular curiosity is the setting of Psalm 92: written for baritone and chorus, this is the only example of Schubert using a Hebrew text. The second version of Die Allmacht is a fragment for chorus (here performed in a completion by the late Reinhard van Hoorickx and Dietrich Knothe) for chorus and shows the exuberant and celebratory side of the composer when addressing a text so full of praise.

All of the music on this album is also available as part of the specially priced box set The Complete Songs of Franz Schubert: ‘This is an archive of glorious Lieder singing as much as it is a definitive treasury of the greatest Lieder ever composed’ (The Guardian).


‘Some fascinating discoveries’ (Classic CD)

‘An amazing disc in this matchless series – Unmissable’ (Classical Express)
Was Franz Schubert religious? Even if we must define ‘religion’ in order to answer that question, there is no such thing in this case as a straightforward, unequivocal ‘Yes’ (as with Haydn and Bruckner, for example, or Duparc and Chausson). Indeed, the bits and pieces of documentation at our disposal are so various and contradictory that the conundrum seems almost insoluble. And even if Schubert himself had been available for questioning, he might not have been helpful. A man has the right, surely, to keep his religious convictions (or lack of them) to himself; in a country like Vormärz Austria, Church and State were inextricably linked, and professions of atheism shut off all avenues of advancement in official circles. (Even the pantheistic philosophy of the God-revering Spinoza was denounced as nothing less than atheism.) As we shall see, there is a certain amount of evidence that Schubert was sceptical about the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, the catalogue of his liturgical music, together with songs and choral music on religious themes, also speaks for itself: setting texts in praise of God was an ever-present part of the composer’s musical existence.

Was Schubert himself a practising Christian, or at least a Christian in terms of his beliefs? A century ago most music-lovers would have replied: ‘The answer to this can be heard in the music—of course he was a believer.’ The phrase ‘in his own way’ may have been appended, allowing the composer a ‘simple and uncomplicated’ faith (Schubert has long been patronized in the guise of affection). And English music-lovers would surely not have minded if Schubert had veered toward Protestantism. In fact it would have made him dearer to many a Victorian. At the end of the twentieth century the composer’s public is much less church-going than it used to be, and an extraordinary phenomenon has come about where listeners take on a God-like role: they imagine that, in terms of the details of Schubert’s daily life, he must have been made in their own image. For example, those with a strong faith (of any denomination) find it almost impossible to imagine that Schubert, whose music has been for them a source of spiritual companionship and consolation, was not a fellow-believer. And those who do not believe in God also wish to see in Schubert someone like-minded, free of mental strictures and superstitions, a man who composed for the here and now. Does it matter if the music was composed to the glory of God, or to celebrate mankind? Some Schubertians do not care as long as they have the music; but many need to feel that the composer was ‘on their side’, as it were.

It is as if we use Schubert as a touchstone of normality—albeit a higher form of normality to which we all aspire: to be in touch with the divine (whatever that may be) at the same time as keeping one’s feet on the ground. (Perhaps the time-honoured linking of Schubert’s name to the adjective ‘normal’ is the reason why the composer’s sexuality is such an emotive issue.) The day-to-day life of many people consists of struggling with an unsympathetic job, and looking forward to having a drink in a pub with friends after work. This is reflected in the Biedermeier Schubert, otherwise known as ‘Schwammerl’—the unwilling schoolmaster whose height and girth suggested a ‘little mushroom’. Countless people have been comforted and reassured by associating this image with the music they love, although the same shape also suggests the unleashing of terrible nuclear power. More recently we have seen the emergence of different Schuberts: for example, the well-read man who was a much greater intellectual than anyone thought; the formidable creative powerhouse, quick to anger and withering in his contempt for the pretentious; the promiscuous voluptuary, reckless in the pursuit of pleasure; the freethinker and political rebel subject to fits of both elation and depression; the secretive member of a thriving gay subculture, an Aids victim of his time, and so on. These refashionings of the Schubert myth seem variously to fit the music as far as a new generation of listeners and scholars is concerned. Nevertheless, contesting projections of Schubert foster proprietary attitudes and conflicts. The case put forward (originally by American scholars, but most recently by the German Christoph Schwandt) for Schubert’s homosexuality may bore and irritate the majority of people who do not care one way or the other, but the subject will continue to be discussed as long as the prejudice of ‘us and them’ exists in human beings, and as long as people attempt to invest their idols with their own characteristics. There are those heterosexuals who believe that music of such depth and sanity, of such all-embracing humanity, could only have emanated from a source at one with their own perception of life-enhancing joy. (Schubert’s lack of wife and family can easily be ascribed to his financial circumstances, his unfortunate illness and to his youthful demise.)

Increasing study of the Viennese Biedermeier world of secrecy, double standards, political corruption and sexual indulgence have made for an intriguing revisionist viewpoint. In recent times some scholars (not always gay themselves) have been anxious to place Schubert in the homosexual pantheon. There has been a vigorous reaction against this proposition which goes far beyond the discussion of facts and the weighing-up of probabilities; once again ‘ownership’ of Schubert lies at the heart of the matter, and the struggle has become particularly fierce. The stakes are high for both camps: Vienna fights too hard to keep its legends intact, and the politically correct universities of the New World seem too determined to debunk the Biedermeier myths which must have, after all, some basis in reality. The gay faction has long been allowed to claim the brilliant and tortured Tchaikovsky, Lorca, Britten, even Michelangelo and many others; but it seems that Schubert, beloved by the world as a very special agent of spiritual grace, will not be allowed into the same company without a struggle. In this way, and in others with regard to his artistic achievements, Schubert stands together with Shakespeare. If the composer were homosexual, the popular stereotype of the neurotic and highly-strung gay artist might have to be modified; and perhaps also the definition of spiritual grace. The majority of music-lovers believe that sexual distinctions are irrelevant in the face of an art which unites human beings of whatever hue or persuasion. But it is only when everybody takes this for granted that the acrimony will cease. The combination of the two issues, sexual and religious, also makes for some interesting speculations. If the composer was gay, is he automatically debarred from having been a composer of strong religious beliefs? In the eyes of some people this is no doubt the case. Was one of the reasons for the composer’s equivocal attitude to religion to do with his sexuality? Does the argument for Schubert’s atheism (if we imagine the composer fighting off the priests in his dying moments as depicted in Fritz Lehner’s biopic) make it easier to construct a more relevant picture of the composer for modern times?

If at the moment the sexual debate rages more fiercely than the religious, this is surely a sign of the preoccupations of our own era. In reality the two issues are grist to the mill for the same revisionist tendency in Schubert studies. And once again it seems curious that some of us require this composer, perhaps more than any other in the history of music, to mirror our own individual perceptions of what is both interesting and good. ‘Why Schubert?’, we may ask. And the answer lies in his very approachability. Bach, with his formidable brood of children, seems both too gigantic and distant in time; Beethoven was surely too dauntingly choleric (perhaps too drunk, and certainly too afflicted with loss of hearing) for most of us to identify with him; and Mozart’s blinding genius places him on a pedestal far apart from ordinary humanity. But Schubert seems to belong somehow to our everyday experience of the world’s ups and downs of which he was the supremely even-handed commentator. He balances the laughter and the tears, the private and the public worlds, the learned and the purely inspirational, in a way that makes us imagine we have a custom-made relationship with him. Unlike the more daunting Olympian musical personalities, the smallness of his stature and his comfortable embonpoint endow him with a humility and ordinariness that we find endearing. If his music is awe-inspiring, it retains this quality at the same time as being infinitely approachable.

Most of us lead insignificant lives and accomplish little; but here was a man who, on the surface at least, led a similarly uneventful life and who nevertheless accomplished much without boasting about it. Indeed, no one knew exactly how much he had achieved until long after his death. He is both a nonentity at the same time as being a somewhat unlikely world celebrity and hero. Who could have guessed that he would become even more famous (and certainly better loved) than his dashing contemporary Lord Byron with his handsome looks and his deliciously dangerous reputation? The sense of Schubertian ‘ownership’ goes back to the time of the composer himself, when the factions supporting the singers Vogl and Tietze argued over the best way to perform his lieder. After he died, many people who knew him hardly at all claimed to have been close friends: from these sources stem some of the unreliable stories that began the spinning of the Biedermeier legend. Ever since then, many a singer has felt that a colleague’s performance, however accomplished, is not quite 'my' Schubert—in other words ‘I know Schubert better than you’. They secretly cherish the thought that he or she has an interpretation, yet to be heard, which will one day uniquely convey the essence of the composer. A celebrated London singing teacher once told me fiercely that no one understood Schubert as she did. And I daresay she was right. At the end of the day, we musicians all struggle adequately to express the Schubert in each of us, the distillation of all that is musical and profound, loving and selfless. It is for this reason that his music terrifies many singers who shy away from the Schubertian challenge. But if Schubert is in our lives, his music goes deep into the soul and psyche and resides in our musical conscience—that part of the performer which refuses to sell out to superficial success and quickfire financial advantage. And I know of no composer whose music seems to be such an infallible test not only of a singer’s technical and musical accomplishments but also of a performer’s emotional resources. The successful undertaking of an all-Schubert recital has something about it which reminds one of the trials endured by Tamino and Pamina in Die Zauberflöte. When we ask whether Schubert was a religious composer, the first part of our answer must be that his music provokes something of a religious response in those who perform it; but here too there are many and different definitions of ‘religious’. In most cases it is the music—and also the man who wrote it—which are the objects of veneration. Composers are saints whose magical relics can be bought in CD jewel-cases in the Virgin Megastore. And these ‘relics’, when applied to the ear, work mightily to our spiritual advantage.

Schubert’s own background is all that we might expect of someone born into a poor but scrupulously religious Viennese family at the end of the eighteenth century. His own home was certainly more strictly observant than many (his father was Moravian-born, his mother originally from Silesia—parts of the world which were much less laissez faire in these matters than metropolitan Vienna). The parents must have struggled hard to rear God-fearing children, but almost certainly veered toward a strictness which produced a counter-reaction. We know that in one case they failed utterly in their objective; Schubert’s elder brother Ignaz (born 1785) was, almost notoriously, a freethinker, but he was very careful not to parade this fact before Franz Schubert senior. When Ignaz wrote to his composer brother in 1818 (Schubert was in Hungary) much of his letter was a somewhat amused description of a family gathering which involved the erection of a makeshift altar to a saint, and the kissing of relics. Some of the guests crept away, unwilling to take part in the ceremony supervised by Schubert’s father. Ignaz added a postlude to his letter: ‘If you wish to write to Papa and me at the same time, do not touch upon any religious matters.’

But this is to jump forward in the story. The composer’s first music lessons were with Michael Holzer, the organist and Regens chori of the Lichtental parish church, round the corner and down the steps from Schubert’s place of birth. Holzer seems to have been a kind and affectionate teacher: ‘This one has learned from God’, was his pronouncement upon his pupil. From the very first, Schubert was told that his gift came directly from above; it is inevitable that the joy and pleasure he felt in composing should have been associated in his young mind with religion. Moreover, the Lichtental church was, and remained, loyal to its most distinguished musical parishioner. Schubert’s first church music was written for Holzer’s choir, and his less ambitious church music was always assured of a sympathetic hearing in this environment. The ban on women’s voices in church had been lifted as recently as 1806; it was thanks to this new dispensation that Therese Grob, said to have been the composer’s first love, was allowed into the choir. Thus it was through church music that Schubert had his first experiences of love, and of being a professional musician. Throughout his life it was to be the one branch of his output which, even more than the songs with piano, was more or less assured of public performance soon after he had written each work. Schubert lived at a transitional time when it was still forbidden for Masses to be performed in the concert hall, but when it was becoming acceptable to lavish greater musical resources on the form in the churches. Every composer likes, nay needs, to hear his music performed. Perhaps it is for this reason that Schubert wrote so regularly for the ecclesiastical establishments of a town still hungry for a constant turnover of new religious works. This might be a needlessly cynical explanation of his ongoing enthusiasm for this type of music. After all, if childhood conditioning is an important factor in the adult’s religious outlook, all the foundations had been firmly laid in Schubert’s case for a life of unquestioning faith.

It was when he won a scholarship to the Stadtkonvikt as a member of the Hofkapelle choir that the composer encountered new influences. The quiet faith of his local church was replaced by high-and-mighty manifestations of state religion. At this school daily confession was obligatory, and it could not have been long before it became obvious to the young man that the Church and Government were hand in glove in implementing measures (including rigid censorship) designed to keep ordinary people in check. Any signs of political or moral liberalism were quickly suppressed, and a quick-witted teenager could not have been insensible to the atmosphere of menacing repression lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. Schubert no doubt encountered among the priests some good teachers but there were also brutal bigots who vented their frustrations on their pupils with cruelty and violence. The composer’s dislike of the priestly tribe comes vividly to the fore in a letter from Hungary to his brother Ferdinand in 1818: ‘You have no idea what a gang the priesthood is here: bigoted as mucky old cattle, stupid as arch-donkeys and boorish as bisons. You may hear sermons to which our most venerated Pater Mepomucene [Father Maria Johann Nepomuk Priegl in the Rossau] can’t hold a candle.’

Most of Schubert’s school contemporaries came from wealthier and possibly less strictly observant families. The stage was set for a wide range of influences which were no doubt to change the young man’s religious views as much as his musical tastes and reading habits. It is here that he must have begun to question some of the dogmatic aspects of the Roman Catholic faith. In 1813 he wrote a poem (since lost) in the style of Klopstock’s odes to God’s omnipotence; and yet in 1814 his practical knowledge of religion was singled out as being ‘bad’ in a report at the teacher’s training college. He was obviously not an enthusiastic Bible student, but these poor marks are completely at odds with his extraordinary track record as a precocious composer of religious music of various kinds.

For almost every sign of Schubert’s leanings towards a conventional religious viewpoint, there is a corresponding fact or quotation that seems to oppose it. For example, although he wrote six Masses, he never chose to set the text complete. In every case the phrase ‘et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam’ in the Credo was left out. There are many further variants in his Mass texts, some of them tiny, but what Schubert chose to omit sometimes seems very significant. In the second and fourth Masses (G major, D167, and C major, D452) the phrase ‘qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ is omitted; in the third Mass (B flat major, D324) the phrase ‘consubstantialem Patris’. In the two great Masses of Schubert’s maturity, his fifth and sixth (A flat, D678, and E flat, D950) we search in vain for ‘Patrem omnipotentem’ as well as ‘genitum non factum’. In the A flat Mass the phrase ‘ex Maria virgine’ is absent. Perhaps most remarkable in the two last Masses is ‘confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem mortuorum’. Schubert constructed this phrase by shortening the much longer ‘confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum. Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum’. Thus mention of sin and resurrection are wiped out at a stroke. The Latin is as suspect as the theology; and it fails to make much sense. It might be argued that this was a slip of the eye if it had happened in only one Mass, but it seems a quite deliberate act of editing. It is also interesting that whereas it was usual to write the words ‘Laus Deo’ (‘Praise be to God’) at the end of a Mass, these words are never found on a Schubert manuscript.

It might be argued that all these adjustments stemmed from musical convenience, but it seems more likely that they represent subtle but significant personal rebellions. By 1814, when the first Mass (F major, D105) was written, the composer seems already to have decided that his conception of religion was not exclusively Roman Catholic; his decision to drop the reference to ‘unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam’ is evidence of his distrust of a Church that reserves divine grace for its adherents alone. Some of those reputedly assured of salvation, the high-and-mighty bigwigs of Church and State, must have seemed to Schubert the least worthy of a special place in paradise. From time to time he was drawn to writing works for church performance with German texts (Deutsches Salve Regina, D379; Stabat Mater, D383; the great oratorio fragment Lazarus, D689; Deutsche Messe, D872) which veer towards a more Protestant tradition of church music. As we shall see towards the end of this disc, the composer was also willing to write music for the synagogue. Strong and unquestioning Catholicism was the family religion, but there is no doubt that the composer’s relationship with his own father was difficult and stormy. Schubert senior had a tyrannical side to his nature and this, more than anything, may have been a factor which prevented the boy from giving his heart to his father’s church. The Masses of 1815 and 1816 shy away from words which bow to the authority of the Father; mention of the Father’s omnipotence is finally erased from the text of the late Masses.

Despite all this, it is extremely hard to make out a case for a consistently anti-religious attitude on the composer’s part. Indeed, apart from the stream of church music and religious songs, there are a number of references to God and Christ in the letters which suggest the opposite viewpoint. Writing from Steyr to his brother Ferdinand (21 September 1825) Schubert refers to an infamous episode from 1809 when the Tyrolese ambushed the Bavarians and killed a large number of men from a high vantage point. This massacre was commemorated with a rough cross on the Tyrolean side of the Salzach, as Schubert says, ‘partly to expiate it by such sacred symbols’. The composer’s distaste for the cynicism with which the symbol had been erected is clear enough, but he still seems to revere what it represents: ‘Thou glorious Christ, to how many shameful actions must Thou lend Thy image … Thy image is set up by them as if they said “Behold! We have trampled with impious feet upon God’s most perfect creation; why should it cost us pains to destroy with a light heart the remaining vermin called Man?”.’ The reference to Christ as ‘God’s most perfect creation’ seems sincere enough, and the contempt for the cynical exploitation of the trappings of the church would be worthy of a Luther. This letter was written at the time when Schubert was setting the poetry of Ladislaus Pyrker, above all Die Allmacht. We know that Schubert was genuinely impressed by Pyrker, who seems to have struck the composer as a genuine man of God. Here was someone who had accomplished many social reforms during his tenure as Patriarch of Venice, a cleric who was artistically gifted and also an enthusiastic admirer of the composer’s art. It was during this holiday period in 1825 that Schubert also wrote to his family about the composition of the Walter Scott setting Ave Maria, more properly known as Ellens dritter Gesang: ‘I never force devotion upon myself and, except when involuntarily overwhelmed by it, never compose hymns or prayers of this kind, but then it is usually the right and true devotion.’ It is true that this letter was specifically intended for parental consumption, but there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the composer’s statement. It is still a fact little known to the world at large, however, that this song was never meant to be squeezed into Latin garb for church performance.

Pyrker’s presence provided a radiant spiritual aura to the summer of 1825, and this seems typical of the composer’s life, which seems to have been influenced by a succession of mentors at different times. It would be foolish to underestimate the extent to which Schubert’s beliefs were moved this way or that by the personalities of various friends and mentors throughout his life. Was he easily led? Not exactly. He was wary of outside interference and new acquaintances, and he needed to know that new members of the circle were talented and had something to say for themselves. But once he had admitted them to his heart, his mind became receptive to their ideas, and he sometimes found it difficult to see their faults and limitations. The people in whom he put his trust did not always deserve it. Franz von Schober comes to mind—a man who exerted a pull on the composer’s affections (both as friend and librettist) which seems out of proportion to his sincerity and talent. As it happens, Alfonso und Estrella, the opera that the pair wrote together, develops a theme which Schober touches on in the poem Trost in Liede also set by Schubert: two of the main characters sing the lines ‘through the power of love, joy and sorrow are wedded’. This is a sentiment found elsewhere in Schubert’s songs, and the Catholic scholar Robert R Reilly has pointed out that this is ‘the message of the Cross’. The Christian tone of the opera is also unmistakable; at the end there is a miraculous chain-reaction of forgiveness and repentance set off like a bushfire among the main characters. ‘Mercy redeems our guilt’, sings King Froila, and the opera concludes with redemption for all. It would be hard to imagine such a denouement in a work by artists not raised in the traditions of Roman Catholicism.

For all his charm and enthusiasm, Schober was an intellectual lightweight. There were others of greater substance, above all Johann Michael Mayrhofer, who contributed more substantially to Schubert’s education and literacy. We know that Mayrhofer was not responsible for introducing Schubert to Goethe’s works (Gretchen am Spinnrade predates their meeting) but it seems more than likely that he did introduce the inquiring teenager to the Greek and Roman classics and enable him better to understand the subtleties of Goethean thought. It seems almost certain that Schubert set the pantheistic text Ganymed as a result of Mayrhofer’s encouragement—it makes a believable companion piece to the mythological settings of Mayrhofer’s poetry also dating from 1817. Goethe had rejected positive religion in favour of a veneration of God/nature which derives from the poet’s reading of Spinoza in 1785. His was an holistic or antimechanistic, anti-Newtonian view of the universe: ‘Spinoza does not prove the Being of God, Being is God. And if for this reason others scold Spinoza for being an atheist, one would like to name him and praise him as theissimum, indeed, christianissimum’ (letter to Jacobi, June 1785). On the other hand, the idea of miracles was for Goethe ‘a blasphemy against the great God and his revelation in nature’. These two viewpoints are incompatible: the quotation about miracles implies a distinction between God and nature. Such pronouncements were typical of the poet’s ambivalence towards religious matters. This inconsistency—the determination to ‘contain multitudes’ (as Whitman justified his own self-contradictions)—has about it much which also suggests Schubert. When Goethe remarks that the crucifix is ‘the most repugnant thing under the sun’ we are reminded of Schubert’s written comments about the Tyrolean cross in Upper Austria. On the other hand Goethe once referred to the Gospels as ‘messages from God’. The fluidity of the poet’s religious viewpoint is summed up by his famous maxim, ‘Wir sind naturforschend Pantheisten, dichtend Polytheisten, sittlich Monotheisten’ (‘We are pantheists when we study nature, polytheists when we write poetry, monotheists in our morality’). This too seems something with which Schubert would not have disagreed, although it is arguable that on matters of sexual morality the composer and the grand old man of letters would not have seen eye to eye.

It is impossible to know exactly when pantheism came up for discussion among the Schubertians, but it is highly likely that it was in the company of the serious and learned Mayrhofer. An issue such as this had been examined not only by Goethe, but also by such philosophers as Hegel, Fichte and Schelling, names not unknown to Schubert and his friends who attempted, as far as censorship allowed, to keep abreast of the latest trends in German thought. Rather than deny completely that life had a religious element, the Schubertians seem to have been open to new ideas, and here there were moods and fashions, as in the intellectual life of any group of young people. Thus there seems to have been a pantheistic phase in the composer’s development which corresponded to his settings of Friedrich von Schlegel (see Volume 27 of The Hyperion Schubert Edition), and a related, though by no means identical, enthusiasm for the mysticism of Novalis, more Catholic perhaps, but just as controversial. It seems likely that Schubert lost interest in the later writings of Schlegel as the poet, once a man of the intellectual left, hardened into an arch-conservative, but there is some slight evidence that the composer was passingly interested in such cult-like subjects as hypnosis and magnetism, also pursued by Schlegel in Vienna. Among the composer’s friends it was Franz von Bruchmann who suddenly became extremely religious, damning the behaviour of his former friends with evangelical language that shows clear indications of fear and guilt on his part concerning the probable homosexual leanings of some members of the group. This born-again extremism seems not to have impressed Schubert who simply moved away from the close friendship with Bruchmann that had existed earlier. The one thing that seems certain is that Schubert was not a man attracted to extremes of any sort.

One of the most often cited pieces of evidence concerning Schubert’s lack of faith comes from a note written to him by his friend Ferdinand Walcher in 1826. The letter, something of a jest, begins with Gregorian chant and the phrase ‘Credo in unum Deum’ (‘I believe in one God’) penned in old notation. This is followed by Walcher’s own words meant for Schubert’s eyes: ‘Not you, I know well enough.’ This has always been taken to show that Walcher (no doubt following a discussion on the matter) accepted that Schubert, unlike him, did not believe in God. This is possible of course, and a stinging renunciation of faith may have come the night before from the lips of a composer subject to depression and the lingering effects of his illness. He might have felt that he had very little to be thankful for in terms of the Almighty’s intervention in his affairs. But here it seems to me that the words ‘one God’ are significant. Had Schubert perhaps been talking to Walcher about the fact that God can go by other names—as the words of Mozart’s masonic cantata have it: ‘Whether his name is Jehovah—whether he is named Fu or Brahman’? Or had Schubert proposed a pagan Parnassus that would have appealed to Jung? One of his most haunting songs, Die Götter Griechenlands, bemoans the end of the beautiful civilization which acknowledged the gods of Greece. In one of his poems which he sent to Schober in 1824 the composer refers to ‘the gods’ in connection with the sacred art of song. It does indeed seem that, like Goethe, Schubert became polytheist when it came to writing his own poetry. A poem written in 1820 (this was a period of the composer’s life which was perhaps the most lively in terms of musical and philosophical experimentation) was entitled The Spirit of the World. This concerns the same sort of implacable controller of destinies that we encounter in Hardy’s poetry, and in The Dynasts. The third strophe clearly shows that Schubert’s imagined Almighty was infinitely forgiving as he voiced these lines:

Nichts ist wahr von allen dem,
Doch ists kein Verlust;
Menschlich ist ihr Weltsystem,
Göttlich, bin ich’s mir bewusst.
Yet no harm it be for them
Short of truth to fall:
Frail and human is their world,
Godlike understand I all.

What seems clear is that at any one time Schubert felt different things about the question of religion. At one moment he seems overcome by a musical feeling which we (and he) could only call devout; at others—as in the late cycles—he sees the world as a dark and unfriendly place where man can expect no redemption by divine intervention. At one moment he seems happy to set to music conventional depictions of God’s power and grace; and at others he seems drawn to alternatives. ‘Why not?’, we may ask. It is clearly nonsense to put forward a case for a cheery mushroom-shaped composer comforted by church ritual, secure in his place in the divine order of things. He was far too metropolitan, his life too complicated, for him to embrace the unquestioning faith of his forefathers. He had moments of real anger and bitterness associated with religion and its hypocrisies and false promises. The mortal blow of his terminal illness, contracted late in 1822 or early in 1823, must have made a difference to his faith. On the other hand, Schubert seems to have been too much of a mystic, and at heart too much of a life-embracing optimist, to enter the grimly nihilistic world of, say, Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, music which purports to be religious but which in fact uses biblical words to show the bleakness of the abyss into which that composer saw himself descending.

It is in Schubert’s music that we hear, time and time again, that he was not a man to lay down the law in a dogmatic and rigid manner; there is nearly always a way out, an alternative enharmonic modulation which provides consolation. (It might be argued that Winterreise is shocking because the normal Schubertian avenues of escape and redemption are denied us.) Robert R Reilly, writing from a Catholic viewpoint, avers that Mozart’s music has a preternatural purity and perfection that somehow escaped the mark of original sin, a sign of life before the Fall and a promise of paradise. He continues: ‘Schubert’s music communicates from the near side of that catastrophic divide. It is the songful lament of the wanderer who has been banished, yet who must find the difficult way back through suffering and death.’ Thus a religious scholar perceives the music and the composer’s struggle. And there is a side to the composer himself which believed this too, particularly when in desperate straits at the time of his illness. ‘It sometimes seems to me’, he said, ‘as if I did not belong to this world at all.’ On the other hand we must not mistake Der Wanderer and Winterreise as being typical of the entire oeuvre; there is so much joy and promise in Schubert’s music, such celebration of the here and now, such lack of self-pity and self-consciousness, such ineffable grace which comes from we know not where. Or do we?

At a risk of casting Schubert in my own image—the standard fault, as I have pointed out, of all Schubert commentators—I would suggest that in matters of religion this composer refused to take a definite stance. (To say that he ‘sat on the fence’ seems too inelegant a phrase for a metaphysical question; one might be tempted to wonder when and how the iron entered into his soul.) Time and time again we hear the vocabulary of charming, and comforting, circumlocution in the music, as if to say: ‘On the other hand—think of it in this way.’ And we are equally delighted with the alternative. The hedging of bets, in any case, is something typically, even deliciously, Viennese. We are all imprisoned by the time in which we are born, and the language and culture which is native to us, but how many of us have the keys which were possessed by Schubert to let us out of those prisons? He had the means to roam gloriously free in musical realms which satisfied his deepest spiritual and emotional needs, and these daily journeys, launched from his writing-desk, kept him sane and unblemished at times of pain and strife. As a composer he was touched by something divine (and such a phrase may be written, with the greatest sincerity, even by a non-believer). As a man trapped in his own time and background, he seems to have been subject to the doubts and uncertainties on the matter of religion that beset all but the most determined worshippers and atheists. But determination in this sphere also suggests something rigid and unbendable, and this is not our Schubert—or, perhaps I should say, mine. Religious thought and speech came easily to him; it was part of the language of his childhood and upbringing, and at times he reverted to this vocabulary of easy faith with the pleasure of someone coming home to something familiar. At other times he seems angry and on fire, doubting and questioning like Goethe’s Prometheus, making a stand as an angry young man, determined to find a new path for a new era. On occasion he was no doubt ready to denounce God and deny His very existence. (One has only to listen to the unaccompanied Seidl setting Grab und Mond to hear this.) But whatever he said, and whatever he believed from time to time, he was always able to journey into musical realms which must have touched him, as they touch us, with the wing-tip of paradise.

We return to the thoughts of one of Schubert’s older contemporaries, the man whom the composer respected possibly more than any other, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that Schubert’s beliefs were similar to those of his greatest poet. It is possible briefly to sum up Goethe’s pantheistic philosophy thus: Because man is part of nature, and hence of the divine, he shares the basic impulses of all natural things to develop upward and outward in the pursuit of an ideal. In this striving (which is an end in itself) lies man’s sole reason for living. We are also reminded of the Platonic ideal, the ascent towards divine perfection which Mayrhofer would have expounded to his young friend. If the determined accomplishment of this journey upward and onward is the mark of a religious man, then we can indeed answer the question which opened this essay with a resounding ‘Yes’. There are few who have aspired to higher things than Franz Peter Seraphicus Schubert; there are also few who have been such unselfish guides, or who have helped so many others to take the first faltering steps on the same journey- wheresoever it may lead.

Graham Johnson © 1998

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