Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Truly, the Spark of divine genius resides in this Schubert!"

Out of all the composers I have been exposed to, Franz Schubert is probably the one I can most relate to on a personal level. He was a teacher for a spell, played piano, idolized Beethoven and was a quiet and introspective personality type just like me. Today marks the 180th anniversary of his death. Along with Beethoven, Schubert sat at the pinnacle of the Viennese Classical School of composers. And he wrote a lot of music considering he only lived 31 years. He didn't fare well with his dramatic works but it was his symphonies and in particular his lieder and song cycles, that the man's genius really shone through. The first lied I ever heard of Schubert's was a recording of "Der Erlkonig" by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau back while I was still in high school. I now have in my library a full recording of all Schubert's lieder. The box set includes a recording of "Erlkonig" along with a few recordings of the Goethe poem set by other composers - Zelter, Lowe, Ludwig Spohr. Now I know we all remember these guys. Come on now! While these are interesting settings of Goethe's poem, Schubert's version is just vastly superior to me. (playing all those repeated bass notes is one of the more unique ways of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.)

As for his symphonies, any child of the '80s that remembers the cartoon "The Smurfs" will recognize the opening theme song of the show as the first few lines from the first movement of his "Unfinished Symphony". And why "Unfinished"? Its hard to say though I'm certain it had to do with the fact that Schubert was writing constantly throughout his life. Symphonies by his time were huge in comparison to say a Haydn symphony. Quite likely, his pressing economic hardships forced him to set aside the work so he could dash off a few lieder and he never got around to completing the symphony. I'm hard-pressed to think of another large-scale symphonic work that is only two movements long yet is a staple of most major orchestras today.

Schubert's symphonies were still in the Classical form in many ways though his lieder were truly of the Romantic period. Who knows what directions his music might have taken if he hadn't died so young.