Keeping the faith Franz Schubert: music and belief Leo Black The Boydell Press (Woodbridge, 2003 / paperback 2005); xvi, 209pp; £45, $75 / £16.99, $29.95 PBK. ISBN 1 84383 023 x / 1 84383 135 x.
I VIVIDLY RECALL THE SENSE OF PAIN, Outrage, contempt, during that silly game on Radio Three some years ago wherein well-known musical personalities eliminate their unfavourite composers, upon hearing how rapidly Schubert went to the dogs. These things are supposed amusing: but the unseemly glee with which he was dumped, not funny in itself, caused a kind of spiritual contusion that can still be felt now and then.
For Schubert surely is at the very heart of music. More; definition of what he is, account of what he did, in music, is tantamount to a description of music itself in its most normative and widely-shared sense - what it is, how it works, what it is for. No composer is less dispensable, more essential and intrinsic. 'Essential' meaning closest to the art's grammar, syntax, language, which he employs with extraordinary purity and exactness even while they undergo in his hands the most radical extensions ever made by one individual. Their purpose, of course, to expand, deepen, intensify expression: to which the same superlative applies - no other single composer has added so largely to what music, in its innate nature, not foisted upon it, can say. This is just as essential and intrinsic as the linguistic usage. They can't be separated: the wider key-relationships, the major/minor ambiguity, the enharmonies, the enhanced dissonances, equally with the exploration of the most basic facts of diatonicism, and every motive, melodic, rhythmic, textural element, are in such perfect fusion with the affective ends that he has to be called Apollonian, whatsoever is being expressed - amiable/convivial, frenzied, doomladen, angstvoll, erotic, pantheistic, radiant, desolate, Godforsaken, weary-unto-death, furious, frustrated, fragmented, nihilistic, nostalgic, or just cold\ Many more words could be thus adduced, for Schubert covers a wider range of emotion than any other composer and most other artists in any medium; but they are mere signs and ciphers apart from the way their every nuance within the comprehensive coverage, is imprinted into the notes.
It's a great merit of Leo Black's book that he is prepared to take in such subjective subject-matter despite all the dangers - not least, of laying himself open to charges of sentimental weakness. And he's chosen to do so with a theme - 'belief - that takes him frequently into an area of Schubert's vast output which doesn't command the widest affection, nor contain for the most part his deepest emotion, his loftiest thought, his best ideas. Opera apart, the religious music is closest to routine, convention, rote. With opera, he's fortune-seeking, with masses he's job-searching: both are equally far from the heart. Schubertians will single out the ineffable moments, sometimes meltingly tender, sometimes awesome, indeed verging upon the apocalyptic, in the two great masses, and find a soft spot for many lovely things in the humbler liturgical and other sacred music. The very phrases suggest indulgence, and don't cover the slack, the insipid, the trudge - those interminable fugues! No indulgence is needed for the G major Quartet, the B[musical flat] trio, the F minor Fantazia, pretty little for many other piano and chamber works and the two supreme symphonies: and literally hundreds of songs are simply beyond criticism.
Black ties the corpus together with subtle feeling for the surprisingly pervasive motive unity. (The only corpses he can't raise is Lazarus, an aborted inachevé more promising to read about than hear.) The endeavour is admirable, the approach scrupulous and musical: but the bristly prose and plentiful lapses of tone in the end detract from the undoubted content. There's a dogged 'cussed' flavour, recalling a mixture of Robert Simpson sparring with Hans Keller, uttering home-made aesthetics, philosophy and psychology, religion and politics. …