Author: Wolfgang Stähr
ca. 5 minutes

Franz Schubert’s chamber music is an entire universe in itself. Schubert explores the depths of human feelings and existence with his captivating vocal melodies and expressive harmonic language. He can communicate joy and sorrow, love and loss, closeness and isolation in an incomparable way, often shifting between the two within a heartbeat – even without text. His music can suspend all sense of time, as if, while exploring the streets of a large city, you gradually lose yourself in the moment. Our Schubert marathon with members of the Berliner Philharmoniker gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself in these musical landscapes and to experience both Schubert and the musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker from a new perspective.

“Thy song wheels round as does the starry frame, / End and beginning evermore the same, / And what the middle brings we clearly see / Is what the opening was, the end shall be.” Franz Schubert set texts by Goethe more often than those of any other writer to music. These lines from Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan seem made for Schubert’s music.

In Schubert’s music, time passes differently. It is not like the flight of an arrow, or the path from A to B, or from the valley to the summit; nor it is circular, the perfect closed form. It is much more like a Möbius strip, an infinity symbol, the stairs in M. C. Escher’s illusionistic lithographs that seem simultaneously to ascend and descend, or like a ride in a paternoster elevator. Schubert’s intricate, self-reflective forms suspend the sense of time and create the feeling of eternal recurrence: a feeling that seems like a dream or a trance, but sometimes also like claustrophobia or nightmare.

Much has been written about Schubert; more about him than about his music. Yet 227 years after his birth and 196 years after his early death, all of the reports, narratives, accounts, commentaries and analyses merely seem to “wheel round as does the starry frame,” to quote Goethe.

Schubert, the “prince of song”: backhanded compliment?

One of the unshakable Schubert dogmas is the simplistic image of the composer as the “prince of song”. This honorary title originated in the 19th century, during the period of monumental symphonies and colossal music dramas, and was therefore a kind of backhanded compliment.

Hugo Wolf objected to this “pigeonholing” with good reason two generations later, despite the fact that, unlike Schubert, he himself composed almost exclusively songs: “The flattering recognition I’ve gained as a ‘song composer’ makes me sick at heart,” Wolf complained. “What else could it be, apart from a reproach that I only ever write songs, that I am only master of a small genre?” In any case, Franz Schubert wrote sonatas, symphonies, string quartets, masses, operas – and yet still ended up in the cul-de-sac of an ignorantly reductive posthumous reputation.

Can Schubert hold his own against Mozart?

In early 1829, a few weeks after Schubert’s death at the age of 31, his friend and supporter, the lottery director Josef von Spaun, also wrote: “For all the admiration I have given the dear departed for years, I still feel that we shall never make a Mozart or Haydn of him in instrumental and church composition,” and recommended that his biographer describe him as a “song composer”.

In fairness, however, it should be noted that Spaun later contradicted himself and unequivocally sided with those who had always known better: “While his songs received some recognition in Vienna, his equally beautiful instrumental works were dismissed, and only Mendelssohn und Schumann, who were both enthusiastic about Schubert, made the Viennese aware of the splendour of his instrumental compositions, which are now greeted with the greatest applause. Not until almost forty years after Schubert’s death do the Viennese actually know what they had and lost in him.”

Schubert can hold his own against Mozart!

And yet – at the end of the same century, Schubert still had to be defended, and a plea made on his behalf. Antonín Dvořák dispelled all sorts of preconceptions and misjudgements when he published a newspaper article about Franz Schubert in 1894 and placed him on a par with Mozart: “Schubert and Mozart have much in common; in both we find the same delicate sense of instrumental colouring, the same spontaneous and irrepressible flow of melody, the same instinctive command of the means of expression, and the same versatility in all the branches of their art.” This should be emphasized: in all the branches! And Dvořák was also thinking particularly of Schubert’s chamber music: “Especially his string quartets and his trios for pianoforte, violin, and violoncello must be ranked among the very best of their kind in musical literature.”

No one would contradict this opinion today. Nevertheless, there is still no question of repertoire equity. There has been considerable progress, discovery and reflection in the appreciation of the piano sonatas during the past decades, and not only the last and most famous three from 1828, the year of Schubert’s death.

Chamber music as a musical testing room

In chamber music, on the other hand, much remains unexplored, and, even four years before the 200th anniversary of his death, there remains a lot of catching up to do. Schubert had already composed string quartets at a very early age, at first privately. He had learned the violin and viola himself, and he sought and found every opportunity to meet with his friends to play quartets and informally tried out new works with his fellow students or his family.

Schubert’s penchant for the mantra, for repetition, for swirling melodies and encapsulated movements, a hypnotic, evocative, at times even obsessive tension was already apparent in his first quartets. The composer’s very different understanding of form and sense of time can already be heard in the earliest occasional quartets and youthful works.

Schubert sees the whole world in one city

During his lifetime, Franz Schubert was certainly not an international artist like Handel or Mozart, not a music director famous throughout Europe like Haydn, not a titan like Beethoven, nor a star like Rossini or Paganini. The “small territory” where he lived and with which he was familiar was the large city, however: Vienna was the arena of society, of salons, of balls and parties, of the theatre, of discussions, of fashions, of cafes and wine taverns, of modernity, of migration, of pleasure, of seething unrest and suppressed upheavals.

Schubert moved around Vienna, among the people, on the streets and squares, completely in his element. Also as a composer: Schubert created a new, casual, urban, multicultural style of music. In this context, it is possible to hazard a conclusion, or to make an assumption: Franz Schubert’s music is so modern, so forward-looking with its time loops, its transitions to the subconscious, its surrealism, its open forms without beginning and end, its abysses and precipices, and its urban novelties, that conversations about him must inevitably go round in circles. Each generation discovers “its Schubert” for itself, always for the first time, but not necessarily differently. Or, as it says in Goethe’s Divan: “Now sound forth song with thy own proper fire! / Song of the older, of the newer choir.”