schubert and beethoven

The title page of the first edition of Schubert’s “Eight Variations on a French Song” (D. 624), published 1822. The dedication is to Beethoven “from his worshipper and admirer Franz Schubert.”

It is no secret that Schubert had a profound respect for Beethoven, that he sought to emulate him and pay tribute to his works. There are countless references to Beethoven, whether intentional or unintentional, in Schubert’s compositions. For example, the opening of one of his last piano sonatas, D.958 in C minor, clearly references Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80.

Despite all of Schubert’s aspirations to become like Beethoven, however, their music is still deeply different–evidence of their individual and contrasting personalities. Hans Gal, renowned music scholar of the twentieth century, keenly captured what makes the two composers so different:

It was Schumann who, speaking of the Great Symphony in C major by Schubert, coined the expression “heavenly length”. This is the enthusiast’s name for a peculiarity of Schubert’s idiom which has never ceased to provoke annoyed opposition. In general, a feeling of length is attributable to vagueness, to a lack of precision. With Schubert the case is different: what appears as length comes from a superabundance of ideas, from the greatness of a conception that demands the corresponding space. And it comes from his nature, from the enthusiastic way in which he seizes his material, and never tires of enjoying again and again the magnificent visions he has created. In this respect, too, the experience he did not live to acquire would have had a moderating, cooling effect. All this does not alter the fact that his mature instrumental creations have a right to stand alongside Beethoven’s as achievements of the greatest importance and originality, and that all those composers who came directly after him seem like pygmies beside a giant. Schubert was the only successor of Beethoven who could meet him at the same level, with a vision of the same cosmic amplitude.

The contrast between them is that of will-power as opposed to imagination, between an energetic, assertive nature on the one hand, and a pensive, contemplative nature on the other….Beethoven’s most frequent expression mark, to be found on every page of his music, is sforzato, a sharp accent. Schubert’s most frequent dynamic indication…is pianissimo. Beethoven’s form, the form of the man of will, could never be his. Therefore, it does not make sense to measure his ideal of form against Beethoven’s. The example of his great contemporary could strengthen him and help him on his way, but his instinct directed him towards different solutions, which were better suited to his character.

Sources and further reading:

  • Hans Gal, Franz Schubert and the Essence of Melody (New York: Crescendo Publishing, 1977).
  • Paul Reid, “Beethoven and Schubert” (2013).

stranded on a desert island (#3)

A blog series in which a musician shares which three pieces they would choose to listen to, if they were hypothetically stranded on an island and could only listen to those three pieces for the rest of their life. Want to contribute? Contact me here!

This week one of my closest friends, Lauren Tokunaga, shares her choices:

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music worth a thousand words

At mid-day on the 15th a letter came from the doctor with enclosures. I handed it to Frau Schumann in fear and trembling!  Were her leters being returned or was it a reply? She opened the letter, and could hardly stammer, "from my husband"; she could not read it for some time. And then, what unspeakable joy; she looked like the Finale to Fidelio, the F major movement in 3/4 time. I can describe it in no other way. One could not weep over it, but it fills one with a deep and joyful awe.

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Joseph Joachim on September 17, 1854, after Robert Schumann’s institutionalization.

And the F major movement in question:

O Gott! O welch’ ein Augenblick!
O unaussprechlich süßes Glück!
Gerecht, O Gott, ist dein Gericht!
Du prüfest, du verläßt uns nicht.
O God! O what a moment!
O inexpressibly sweet happiness!
Righteous, O God, is Thy judgement!
Thou dost try, but not forsake us.


“Wait, you need to suffer some more”

Alfred Brendel

This recent New York Times article by Vivien Schweitzer talks about the sacredness of certain composers and certain works–particularly the late, twilight-year compositions of Germanic composers such as Beethoven and Schubert–and the reverence with which most musicians approach them. Schweitzer compiles opinions from many famous musicians, both young and old, on how they deal with the question of being “ready”–emotionally, philosophically, mentally–to play any of these pieces that demand maturity and struggle. Some notable excerpts from the article:

“If I play a piece of Chopin or Schumann, it’s a one-to-one confession all the time, but with Beethoven, the slow movements are not so much a confession but more a kind of preaching. He has a bigger message about humanity. Earlier, I didn’t really understand and appreciate that expression.” – Leif Ove Andsnes

“In a case like Schubert, who died at 31, he had enough sorrow for a lifetime. There is something about the subtext of his music — people say you have to suffer a little more.” – Jeremy Denk

“I don’t take life for granted, and I don’t know if I will be alive in five years. As far as I know, no composer wrote on their score, ‘Forbidden to those under age 18.’” – HJ Lim

“On the one hand, Beethoven is unspeakably profound….On the other hand, there is not much gained about being too precious about it. The fact I decided to record the Beethoven sonatas doesn’t mean I won’t feel differently about them in 20 years. I knew I would go deeper if I was forced to record them.” – Jonathan Biss

I can definitely say for myself that I used to approach late works with a happy-go-lucky naivety, concerned more with surface musicality than profundity. Studying one of the last three Schubert sonatas in the past semester, though, has really opened my eyes. Many of the notes, harmonies, and melodies look straightforward and simple at first glance, but a surprising amount of struggle and depth of thought is required to express this highly nuanced, poetic music intelligently–yet organically. “The notes are easy, but the music is hard.”

What kind of music do you find difficult to approach because of its depth?

Related post: the bard of vienna

andras schiff master class

YouTube is an amazing resource, and not just for hearing international recordings of musical performances–through YouTube, we have access to full-length master classes and lectures worldwide, led by great artists. Here is one taught by Andras Schiff at the Royal College of Music in March 2013.

Some favorite points I wrote down for my own reference are:

  • Slowing down before drastic harmony changes is a cliche to be avoided, particularly in well-known pieces such as the “Moonlight” sonata.
  • Beethoven’s sonatas are wonderfully balanced. Many composers, even Schubert and Brahms, fall a little flat in their last movements. Not Beethoven (consider the driving force and unbridled violence of the third movement of the “Moonlight,” or the divine voyage that is the last movement of Op. 109).
  • What is humor? Short notes. Adding pedal to short notes (to make them prettier or more elegant) ruins the humor.

It’s super long, but this would be a great video to watch over the course of a few days or even a week. Keep the tab open on your browser and just press play when you have half an hour to spare! You can even listen to it while doing housework. And please let me know if you have any favorite tidbits! 🙂

musical excerpt: fuga from Bach’s sonata no. 2 in a minor

Bach can be one of the most difficult musical giants to grapple with. His works go beyond those of many other composers’ in their demands on mental acuity and musical finesse, and it’s no secret that many students struggle to find an appreciation for Bach, particularly when Baroque aesthetics and conventions seem so far removed from the modern world. For some, a love for Bach has to develop slowly over a longer time, with accumulated exposure to the expressiveness of his musical lines and the grand purity of his harmonies–and the growing realization of how deeply his music is steeped in the vibrant colors of his society, of dance or church or court.

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