A portrait of Goethe by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832)–(and tell me that isn’t the most German name you’ve ever encountered)–played an astoundingly large role in the world of German Romantic music, especially considering that he was not a musician himself. His poems were set to music by multitudes of composers, and many of these settings have become revered classics in the vocal repertoire.

But while we probably best remember settings such as Schubert’s–much has been made, for example, of the genius in his setting of Gretchen am Spinnrade when he was just 17 years old–it’s quite likely that Goethe would not have approved of Schubert’s blatant text painting. He wrote to his composer friend Zelter on May 2, 1820:

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more caricatures

Some adorable drawings of musicians through the eyes of their contemporaries (see the first part here):

Singer Johann Michael Vogl (left) and Schubert (right), depicted by Schubert’s friend Franz von Schober. The German caption reads: “Michael Vogl and Franz Schubert go out for battle and victory.”

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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).

“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?

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