You are here
Proximity to genius can be as much burden as inspiration. When his friend Josef von Spaun once assured him that he had indeed amounted to something, Schubert replied "I, too, believe that I could become something, but who could do anything after Beethoven!" Yet somehow Schubert managed an "inconceivably great originality next to a crushing figure like Beethoven," as Arnold Schoenberg wrote at the centenary of Schubert's birth. "Close to such crushing genius, Schubert does not feel the need to deny its greatness in order somehow to endure. What self-confidence, what truly aristocratic awareness of one's own rank which respects the equal in the other!"
Schubert never lacked for confidence or inspiration when it came to songs. In 1816, the year that Beethoven composed An die ferne Geliebte, Schubert wrote over 100 songs, with another 200-some composed previously. In September 1816, Schubert turned to Goethe's Wilhelm Meister for three "Harfenspieler" songs, all in A minor and revised in 1822 for publication as Schubert's Op. 12, "Gesänge des Harfners" (Songs of the Harper). Earlier that year Josef von Spaun had sent a volume of Schubert's songs on texts by Goethe to the poet, who returned them unopened. This was a bitter blow, but Schubert's intense response to Goethe's poetry remained unabated - Schubert eventually wrote over 70 settings of poems by Goethe. These three are somber, haunted pieces, with reflective, elegiac vocal lines and substantial, varied accompaniments.
The long and sentimental ballad "Viola" by Schubert's close friend Franz von Schober may not be as serious in subject or elevated in tone as the Goethe poems, but in 1823 Schubert lavished an equal measure of his best invention upon it. There are splashes of word painting in it and great range of mood, as well as a musical motto for the recurring "Snowdrop, snowdrop" verse, with varied accompaniments.
Schubert left more than just his B-minor Symphony unfinished, and other works exist in a fragmentary state because of the chaotic way his pieces circulated in manuscript through a circle of friends. "Pflicht und Liebe" (Duty and Love) is one of these, though just barely, as Schubert finished all but the final measure of the vocal part. Written in 1816, its quasi-operatic C-minor lament probably reflects Schubert's own failed relationship with Therese Grob. Of the other fragments in this group, "Lebensmut" is thought to date from the last summer of Schubert's life, and "Johanna Sebus" finds him setting Goethe darkly again, in 1821. The sprightly, incomplete Allegretto in C major may have been intended as a finale for the Piano Sonata in C, composed in 1815. The Andantino in C major is another probable relic of 1816, and the Allegretto in C minor is a later work, probably after 1820.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.