Only those who know longing ...
Franz Schubert’s Unfinished und Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth
Inspired to strive for the highest beauty: Franz Schubert’s Seventh Symphony
The poet speaks, fabulating as though narcotized in the nocturnal space. This much is already indicated by the title, My Dream, though it was added later by another hand. What this allegorical tale, penned by Franz Schubert on 3 July 1822 and published by Robert Schumann in 1839, formulates in words could be taken as a programme for his composing: “Through long, long years I sang my songs. But when I wished to sing of love, it turned into sorrow. And when I wished to sing of sorrow, it turned into love. I was divided so between love and sorrow.” He could also have said: (unquenched) longing.
Longing. By the second part of the tale, the passionate wish is manifested to be close to others, to be part of a circle resembling Schumann’s Davidsbündler. And in a letter of 21 September 1824 to his friend Franz von Schober, Schubert writes: “I would exclaim with Goethe: ‘Who will bring back just one hour of that sweet time!’...that time when we filled one another with enthusiasm, inspiring us all to unite in our striving for the highest beauty.”
Reality cannot offer this highest beauty. The Metternich era is defined by repression and depression, Biedermeier principles and the repudiation of poetry. Compensating for this striking deficiency is the utopian “lovely art”, the “holde Kunst” given expression by Schober in An die Musik, written in 1817 and immediately set to music by Schubert (D 547). In the poem, music is characterized as a medium that “transports one to a better world” but even there it reflexively perpetuates idealistic form.
No other composer presents this dialectical construction as clearly as Schubert. The poetic equivalent is found in the writings of Theodor W. Adorno: “In the presence of Schubert’s music”, he wrote, “tears fall from our eyes without questioning the soul.” This applies to many of his works, but especially to the symphony of which the composer began his fair copy on 30 October 1822: the so-called Unfinished. It is practically surrounded by myth: that of the universal in the particular and of the eternal in the finite. In other words, the myth of the perfectly finished in the unfinished.
Right from the beginning of the opening movement, it is hard to avoid the word revolutionary. Cellos and basses murmur in unison, not knowing what to opt for: the music insists on the interval of a 5th. The violins, too, gyrate dimly in the depths at first before something resembling a harmonically consistent first theme emerges, but it is spun out almost amorphously, like the beginning of an endless melody. Only the expansive, almost sumptuous G major theme achieves the degree of contour expected, but then it is abruptly halted. The tutti forces’ loud intervention suggests a ban on singing, indeed on any form of further progress. These two ideas dominate through to the development section. Thereafter Schubert bases the movement and its tensions above all on the extraterritorial opening motto, including some violent eruptions.
The Andante con moto which follows takes up the idiom of the first movement but is domiciled in unclouded E major. The magic inherent in this musical portrait is that of the compositional substance per se: it is no longer the working-out in the Beethovenian sense here that determines the symphonic process, which is dominated rather by the instrumentation of the moment itself and represents probably the greatest single emancipatory act in the transition from Classicism to Romanticism.
There is a striking similarity of tempo and gait between the two movements, as though Schubert understood them as a single unit, a twinlike totality. This is also an indication of the composer’s increased self-confidence: a creation, he may have thought to himself, must not necessarily satisfy classical demands in order to be finished and self-contained. And so the B minor Symphony probably remained intentionally unfinished – perfectly unfinished.
Viewed through an inverted opera-glass: Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth
Scene change. Toblach (Dobbiaco), September 1908. A work – in short score – is finished, secure for all eternity. And its creator? He’s sitting in the summer house where he composes, and because he absolutely must communicate his success to the world, he picks up his pen again – this time not to compose but to write a letter in which he declares: “A beautiful time was granted me, and I believe it is the most personal thing I have yet created.” The work is based on Hans Bethge’s poetry collection Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), published in 1907, which contains German adaptations of 8th-century Chinese lyrics. Mahler was magically attracted to the aura of these poems and their supple melancholy, and he didn’t hesitate a moment: in the summer months of 1908 he set to work composing selected verses from the “Chinese Flute”.
In this music, Mahler questions life’s purpose if death awaits at its end. Perhaps the most compelling characterization of what Mahler describes here in music was formulated by Adorno, who regarded the cycle as part of an overarching conception: “Like a centre of latent energy, the Kindertotenlieder transmit their radiations across the whole of Mahler’s work, starting with the Fourth Symphony. ... Their specific relation to Das Lied von der Erde may be found in the recognition that so much in youth is apprehended as a promise of life ... while the aging person is made aware by memories that such moments of promise were, in reality, life itself. Mahler salvages these missed and lost possibilities by observing them through the inverted opera-glass of childhood, from which they could still have been realized. Those moments are signified by the choice of poems for the third, fourth and fifth songs.”
Musically these three pieces (Von der Jugend, Von der Schönheit, Der Trunkene im Frühling – Youth, Beauty, The Drunkard in Spring) correspond to the song prototype, in character as well as in length. Contrasting with them are the movements which, in terms not only of size also of their temporal dimension, expand or even burst the boundaries of song form. Whereas the introductory Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow) is eight minutes long and establishes a symphonic impression (taken up in the next piece, Der Einsame im Herbst – The Lonely One in Autumn), the finale, Der Abschied – The Farewell – definitively breaks free of the sphere of the song. This passing away, departing and disappearing lasts for half an hour, and it is not unreasonable to consider the Abschied a vocal-symphonic Adagio, such as Mahler had already composed for the Third Symphony and would soon again for the Ninth. An ornament known as the turn (in which the main note alternates with the notes one step above and below it) becomes an important motif of this last movement of Das Lied von der Erde. It dominates the increasingly karstified musical landscape in which the baritone sings of the birds “huddling silently on their branches”. It underlays the wait for the “last farewell”, and becomes the mainspring of thematic processes even where it is active only in the background. The turn becomes the symbol of bidding farewell, a terse intimate gesture, a final singable remnant: a stylized sound of nature. Perceiving it is like life itself: beautiful and sad, light and dark. Or, as Paul Valéry put it: “poésie pure”.