Vanishing Sensibilities: Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann

Vanishing Sensibilities: Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann

Vanishing Sensibilities: Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann

Vanishing Sensibilities: Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann


Vanishing Sensibilitiesexamines once passionate cultural concerns that shaped music of Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann, and works of their contemporaries in drama or poetry. Music, especially music with text, was a powerful force in lively ongoing conversations about the nature of liberty, which included such topics as the role of consent in marriage, same-sex relationships, freedom of the press, and the freedom to worship (or not). Among the most common vehicles for stimulating debate about pressing social concerns were the genres of historical drama, and legend or myth, whose stories became inflected in fascinating ways during the Age of Metternich. Interior and imagined worlds, memories and fantasies, were called up in purely instrumental music, and music was privately celebrated for its ability to circumvent the restrictions that were choking the verbal arts.

Author Kristina Muxfeldt invites us to listen in on these cultural conversations, dating from a time when the climate of censorship made the tone of what was said every bit as important as its literal content. At this critical moment in European history such things as a performer's delivery, spontaneous improvisation, or the demeanor of the music could carry forbidden messages of hope and political resistance--flying under the censor's radar like a carrier pigeon. Rather than trying to decode or fix meanings, Muxfeldt concerns herself with the very mechanisms of their communication, and she confronts distortions to meaning that form over time as the cultural or political pressures shaping the original expression fade and are eventually forgotten. In these pages are accounts of works successful in their own time alongside others that failed to achieve more than a liminal presence, among them Schubert's Alfonso und Estrellaand his last opera project Der Graf von Gleichen, whose libretto was banned even before Schubert set to work composing it. Enlivening the narrative are generous music examples, reproductions of artwork, and facsimiles of autograph material.


Words do not constitute an overt act; they remain only in idea. When considered by themselves,
they generally have no determinate signification, for this depends on the tone in which they are
uttered. It often happens that in repeating the same words they have not the same meaning; this
depends on their connection with other things, and sometimes more is signified by silence than by
any expression whatever. Since there can be nothing so equivocal and ambiguous as all this, how is
it possible to convert it into a crime of high treason? Wherever this law is established, there is an
end not only of liberty, but even of its very shadow.
—Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws


O ewige Nacht! Wann wirst du schwinden? Wann wird das Licht mein Auge finden? (Eternal Night! When will you finally pass away? When will my eyes meet the light?) Tamino’s language conspicuously is veiled, and a cryptic choral voice replies, “Bald Jüngling, oder nie” (soon, young man, or never). Hearing that Pamina still lives, Tamino picks up his flute. The beasts in the forest may be enchanted, but alas, Pamina does not hear. Höre! Höre mich! he cries, listens intently, then turns away in dejection: “umsonst” (no use). The singer has only to look out into the audience in search of Pamina for these words to take on a resonance beyond the onstage plot, cutting through the theater’s imaginary fourth wall. “Umsonst:” it is we who have not heard Tamino’s cry. The oblique language and puzzling turns of Schikaneder’s plot long have provoked political interpretation: heard as a direct appeal to the audience, “hear me!” is an invitation to read against the grain of the officially approved libretto.

Other such moments in The Magic Flute spring to mind. Recall, for another, Pamina’s blazing words “Die Wahrheit, sei sie auch verbrechen” (the truth, and were that a crime), her reply to Papageno’s “what shall we say?” when they are caught fleeing Sarastro’s realm. And consider Sarastro’s response to Pamina’s plea for mercy after she confesses her “criminal” effort to escape Monostatos’s wicked lechery and Sarastro’s power: “zur Liebe will ich dich nicht zwingen, doch [his voice drops down a tenth] doch geb’ ich dir die Freiheit nicht” (I shall not force your love, but I will not grant you freedom). Mozart evidently expected these words to offend the ears of . . .

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