Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was an Austrian composer who wrote 1500 works before he died at age 31: chamber pieces, including notable piano sonatas, hundreds of songs, operas and nine symphonies, the last two of which are surely landmarks for everyone who loves classical music.
He accomplished so much in so few years that it’s tempting to imagine what his days were like. He taught school for a time. He had a circle of friends who admired his talent and created social life for him. Some arranged concerts so that he became widely known in Vienna. Eventually he won the the support of a few aristocratic music lovers. He must have had spells along the way when he wrote music constantly. One year he composed 20,000 bars of music.
I find that his originality and expressive power grew the more he worked. The ninth symphony, which he never heard in his lifetime, illustrates my point. It’s long, full of tunes, and incredibly uplifting. I don’t listen to it every day or every week or every month, for even the best works lose their flavor if they become overfamiliar, but whenever I return to it, I rediscover its unique effect.
Listening to it again, I find that it’s made of simple elements — an array of upbeat melodies, vigorous tempos, and strong contrasts between loud and soft — all coming together to create an impression of openness and unrestrained joy in life that it succeeds in passing on to listeners. There’s no other work like it.
I’ve also been listening to Schubert’s “Notturno”, a work for piano, violin, and cello that he composed in 1828. He may have conceived it as part of a longer work, but it comes to us as a stand-alone movement — possibly an orphan.
Many listeners are drawn to it for its haunting main theme and other features, including its proximity to the composer’s early death. It’s tempting to invent a literary program to elucidate — or obscure — the piece, which expresses a range of feelings: melancholy, nostalgia, weariness with life, renewal of energy, anger, and the regret that accompanies a diminished ending, together with Schubertian solace.
Schubert didn’t add words to the piece or a helpful explanation or a descriptive title, except for “Notturno”, so I choose to consider it as the work of a man who used what he knew best, music, to confront and express a mystery that eludes the power of everyday language. As I watched and listened to a version on the internet, I recalled other short pieces: “The Unanswered Question” of Charles Ives and Sibelius’s “Tapiola”.
I came upon this ten-minute masterpiece on the radio one mid-day as I was dressing to go out. “What’s this?” I said and waited to the end to find out. I listened to it several times afterwards and finally figured out how I wanted to think about it.
We aren’t strangers to the bad side of life — concern about health, the loss of loved ones, economic uncertainty, the insolence of the world as well as our own failures, which can have consequences.
For all its tenderness, Schubert’s orphaned piece has a sturdiness and strength that says in musical language, yes, bad things happen, including untimely death, but we aren’t strangers to courage or hope. What’s more, moments of breathtaking beauty are available every day.