The Unknown Schubert

Ashgate, 2008
Co-Editor (with Barbara Reul)

“Those who love Schubert are frequently forced to ponder the limits of what can be known about anyone, especially great artists whose genius in its totality was not fully recognized until after their deaths. No longer available to answer our pressing questions, Schubert has left us yearning for information and explanation, while his friends, caught up as young adults always are in their own lives, are seldom as forthcoming as we wish they had been. Only much later, after memory had ample opportunity to exercise its powers of erasure, addition, exaggeration, recombination, invention, and more, did they offer their testimony to a life devoted so completely to the music swirling in his head that the paucity of words was probably inevitable. Guesswork and speculation: Schubert scholars engage in suchlike out of a yearning to go beyond the point where the facts stop, to connect known dots with missing links. Now that various mythical Schuberts, such as the one who wrote music in a quasi-unknowing trance of inspiration and the cozy-harmless ‘Blossom time’ Schubert, have been discarded, we wonder all the more because the Schubert that has emerged in the wake of such exploded narratives is so complex. The furor over his sexuality, the debates about his views on religion, the nature of his friendships and relationships, and when, how, and why he composed certain works and abandoned others: there are so many matters we do not know, either at all or with the degree of certainty those of us who so love his music would like to have.

[…] It makes perfect sense to end my brief preview of wit and wisdom in these pages with a special doff-of-the-hat to Lorraine Byrne Bodley’s essay on the Schubert Berio Rendering. Because people have always regretted what might have been, they view Schubert’s death at not quite thirty-two years of age as a tragedy, and so it is, in all the obvious senses. But lateness is not always obedient to chronological convention: ripeness can occur at a preternaturally early point under the impress of genius and grave knowledge. In Schubert’s late works, opposites are not resolved; youth’s vitality goes hand in hand with awareness of imminent death, and both are evident in the particell to Schubert’s last symphony in D major (D.936a), an unfinished farewell to the world that was first revealed in 1978. Because this music is beautiful even in its sketchy state, it has invited ‘completions’ of various sorts and to varying degrees, much as Bach’s last unfinished work in the Art of Fugue has drawn those desirous of imagining how it might have ended and who wish to join hands with Bach in sublime partnership across the centuries. What more wonderful ghostly presences at one’s shoulder could there be? But Berio’s rendering is unlike most reconstructive endeavors because he refused to pretend that true completion was either possible or desirable. Instead, a modern composer facing his own mortality reminds us that ‘Schubert’s Tenth’ is something we will never have, and he weaves the music of the particell into a tapestry of unresolved antinomies, including reminiscences of the contrapuntal exercises (‘nursery devices’ again) from the composer’s last weeks of life and sounds from Berio’s own musical realm. The haunted mélange hints at obscure profundities, at mysteries neither Schubert nor anyone else understands. There are things we can know, enigmas we can plumb, and those we cannot, not now, probably not ever.”

Prof. Susan Youens,
Professor of Music, University of Notre Dame 

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