Thursday 23 October 2008

Songs of Love and Death

I seem to remember that one of my first walk-on parts on the Thought Experiments blog was as a man whose downtime was devoted to Schubert and Gram Parsons. A man could do a lot worse, though it was never quite the case - and is less so now, when I find myself spending more listening time exploring the endless wonders of Bach than anything else. However, I have just been listening again to Schubert's last sonata, the B flat, D960 - which, if I had to save one piece of piano music from the wreckage of civilisation, would probably be the one. Unlike the cleverclogs who write the liner notes, I have little technical knowledge of music, so my responses are almost entirely emotional (very emotional - music moves me to tears far more easily than any other art form). What I always feel in Schubert's later music is the ultimate pitch of tension between the unstoppable, song-like flow of melody - does any symphony contain more sheer melody than the Great C Major? - and a dark undertow that surely (if this is not too simplistically biographical) has everything to do with Schubert's impending death. It's there most dramatically in the extraordinarily violent crashing outburst of apparent despair that interrupts the Andantino of the A major sonata. In the B flat, that so simple melody of the first movement (Molto Moderato!) flows along in despite of the ominously persistent bass trills that keep stalling it, giving it pause. Then, by degrees, it is pulled into endless remote modulations that take it almost beyond music - but always back it comes, again and again, changed and yet the same, the unquenchable song.
Death is more present in Schubert's music than in any other I know - even at his jolliest, there seems to be a distance, a reserve, as if he is listening from outside the ballroom door, and the note of yearning (sehnsucht) is never far away. In this respect, Schubert and the death-haunted Gram Parsons are not such an unlikely pairing. Both, essentially, write songs of love and death. Parsons' last completed album, Return of the Grievous Angel, seems almost literally to chronicle a death foretold. But nothing so much as the music of Schubert embodies that line of Wallace Stevens: 'Death is the mother of beauty.'


  1. I wonder if just saying "Death" really does the music justice. I'd prefer to think of Schubert's music (or this particular piece of music, anyway) as saying that everything is impermanent, everything changes, and stated with infinite tender-sadness. I have a live recording of D960 here by Valery Afanassiev which takes it very, very slowly. Not to everyone's taste I'm sure, but it really makes you engage with silence as part of the music. Like you, I'd be making my escape with plenty of Schubert in my suitcase (among many other things).

  2. A Franz man Nige?, try the definitive Winterreise, Brendel tinkles the ivories, Fischer Dieskau supplies the words (the Berlin recording on Phillips). Sublime, atmospheric, has never been bettered, both consummate artists at their finest performing music at its best.

  3. So little is known of the detail of Schubert's life, particularly the sad close of it, that most of it is conjecture - did he embrace death, as some suppose, knowing a better life awaited on the other side. Or did he fear it, as many believe, taking as evidence the many 'clues' in D960 and other late works. Listening to the sublime tread of the chorale-like opening Moderato, we can only wonder at the glorious simplicity of it, only to be awoken from our reverie a few moments later by those ominous trills. Death come knocking? Who knows, or cares.
    I agree with your fine description of the 'pitch of tension' that this extraordinary piece places before us, in the otherworldly first two movements most obviously - for me, music such as this embraces the same soundworld as the late Beethoven Quartets, a sense of not being 'created' in the normal way, but perhaps being there already, waiting for a man a genius to notate them.

  4. Schubert, part 2.
    The one piece of Schubert's music I find the most intriguing is the mass in E, his sixth mass. Written as it was in the last year of his life and in a key thought by many to be the only one that could convey the essence of the latin mass. There was no commission for this work so we can assume that it was written solely to express his own, inner feelings. Maybe he was setting his own death to music.
    Schuberts mass in E, to me comes closer than any other to the greatest mass of all, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, both things of great joy and both overpowering.

  5. Not Bach's B minor Malty?
    Thanks, anyway, for all these comments, which have set me off on various lines of inquiry. Mahlerman - so right... There was some problem with posting comments yesterday, so I'm glad at least these got through.

  6. Winterreise with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore. The last song, 'Der Leiermann', is uncanny. Thomas Mann makes good use of the songs in Doktor Faustus.