Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Schubert, Leverkühn & Me

Today was a blogging day: though I'd recently completed the last of the songs – “To Music” – for the cycle of seven songs about inspiration called “The Other Side of Air” and should be copying it instead, I ended up writing three posts today about Schubert's “Great C Major” Symphony over at the Harrisburg Symphony Blog:

Part 1 includes video footage of Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1973 of the entire symphony in eight installments (clocking in at 51 minutes) – not my ideal performance, if I have one, but what I could find complete, courtesy of YouTube.

Part 2 covers some of the historical background of the symphony, how it fits in with the history of the form and with Schubert's development as a writer of symphonies.

Part 3 explores more personal issues around the composition of the Great C Major and Schubert's quest for a new, expanded musical language and sense of structure.

This is actually a continuation of a post written last week about Schubert's D Minor String Quartet, “The Death and the Maiden,” which became more tied in with the “Great C Major” posts than I was originally anticipating. In a sense, all four of them constitute something of a cycle.

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Recently, I picked up my copy of Thomas Mann's “Doctor Faustus” again, a novel about a fictional composer supposedly modeled on Arnold Schoenberg, not at all to Schoenberg's liking, especially as the composer in question, Adrian Leverkühn, invented a system of composing very similar to Schoenberg's Method with 12 Tones but whose genius is also considered to be the result of syphilis and, if that weren't enough, a pact with the Devil.

The book is one of the greatest works in literature about compositional creativity and one of the few books by a non-musician that is not so totally cringe-worthy whenever it discusses the details of music, not that that didn't stop Schoenberg from pursuing a lawsuit against the author.

I'd first read it when I lived in New York City back in the late-70s, not a very good time for an insecure composer unsure of his future direction both aesthetically and professionally to be contemplating such a tale. It was difficult reading on any number of levels, not the least because much of my best reading time was on the subway: I had read much of Mann's “Magic Mountain” on the subway, too, and speaking of not good times to be reading something, found myself turning the page to start the climactic scene of Tolstoy's “Anna Karenina” while standing at the 101st Street Subway Station of the Broadway downtown train...

Once again, sometime in the early-90s, I thought I'd try reading it again but this time got bogged down in the turgid translation's style, the famous debate between the composer and the Devil (part of this is Mann's fault: he imagines it being written down by the composer as a parody of Martin Luther's didactic theological style). So I put it aside.

Then, in 1997, I bought the well-reviewed new translation by John E. Woods. It was becoming quite the thing to bring out new translations to replace the traditional (and often only) ones available to English readers of both Mann and the Russian writers like Tolstoy and Dostoievsky. In fact, over the past 12 years or so, I found myself collecting the new Pevear and Volokonsky translations of most of the Russian novels I'd already read, mostly in Constance Garnett's standard translations. Suddenly it dawned on me that the reason I could never tell the difference between Tolstoy's style and Dostoievsky's style was that Constance Garnett couldn't either: in fact, what I was reading was her style, not theirs.

Typical of my habits, I've purchased them as they came out but not necessarily read them, yet: “War and Peace,” yes (see my earlier post here about that experience), and Dostoievsky's “The Idiot” but not, so far, the others.

Also sitting on that “to-read (someday) pile” was Wood's translation of “Doctor Faustus.” I had gotten about 80 pages into it a few years ago and, for some reason, probably coinciding with a time I was trying to do some writing of my own, I put it aside.

So the other week, I saw it sitting there, again, its buttery gold cover making it look like an old parchment manuscript, inviting me into its parallel universe once again. I picked up where I left off and covered episodes I recalled as clearly as if I'd read them only months ago, not years – or, actually, decades ago, come to think of it.

One of my favorite passages is the long concert-lecture the young composer and his friend the narrator attend in their small, largely unmusical hometown, Kretzschmar's talk about Beethoven's Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op.111. Not too many summers ago, when I was doing a Gretna Music pre-concert talk for Jeremy Denk's performance of this work – paired wonderfully with Charles Ives' equally monumental “Emerson” Sonata – I didn't bother preparing my usual behind-the-scenes in-depth remarks: I simply read most of Thomas Mann's account of the work. It was one of the few times I can recall having everybody's attention...

Well, at any rate, the other night, I resumed reading after a few days' hiatus and found this passage near the beginning of Chapter XXI, following a letter from the composer, Adrian Leverkühn, about his enthusiasm for Chopin (I am reminded that next week is the 200th Anniversary of Chopin's birth) and about...

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“...the conservatism of his mode of life, which often looked like rigidity and could appear somewhat oppressive to me. It was not for nothing that in his letter he had expressed sympathy for Chopin's not-wanting-to-know, his unadventuresomeness. He, too, wanted to know nothing, see nothing, indeed experience nothing, at least not in the manifest, external sense of the word; he was not interested in variety, new sense impressions, amusement, relaxation – and particularly when it came to relaxation, he like to make fun of people who are constantly relaxing, getting tanned and strong, though no one knows for what. 'Relaxation,' he said, 'is for people for whom it does no good.' He had little use for traveling in order to see something, absorb a new experience, 'educate' himself. He disdained pleasures of the eye and as sensitive as his hearing was, he had always had almost no desire to school his eye to forms in the visual arts. He approved of the differentiation made between eye-people and ear-people, claimed it to be incontrovertible, and counted himself definitely among the latter... True, Goethe also says that music is totally inborn, something within that needs no great nourishment from without, no experience drawn from life. But there is also an interior sight, a sense of vision that is different from and includes more than mere seeing.”
(... Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus – translation by James E. Woods, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997 – p.188.)
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It surprised me to read this: it was like reading an encapsulated description of myself.

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For me, at the moment, I am immersing myself in Schubert, not Chopin. Last week, as I wrote earlier, I was writing one of my up-close and personal posts (see also, here) posts, this one setting up Brooklyn Rider's impending performance of Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. This week, it's been Schubert's final symphony, the “Great C Major” Symphony for this weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony. Rather than experiencing adventures and travels, I have been quite content to burrow into scores and biographies, cross-referencing dates and chronologies, placing compositions in context and in general ignoring the weather (among other realities) to consider imponderable issues like “where did Schubert's 'late-style' come from?”

How did a composer who could write such original and innovative songs like “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “The Erl-King” when he was a teen-ager write such pleasant but derivative symphonies like his 5th and 6th Symphonies by the time he was 21, only to write four years later the B Minor Symphony we know as the “Unfinished”? And how could he not recognize the magnitude of what he'd accomplished and just put the work aside when the 3rd movement he'd started wasn't going in the right direction? How did all this lead to 'The Great C Major' only three years later? Never mind what else he might have written if hadn't died a two months short of his 32nd birthday after completing the String Quintet in C and the last three piano sonatas in a little over two months?

In between these two great symphonies – the only two of all he had started that have entered the repertoire as avowed masterpieces – he wrote the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, part of a project, that spring of 1824, to evolve a more expansive style and write a 'grand symphony,' something on a larger scale than anyone (except Beethoven) had ever done before. Beethoven, a composer who Schubert thought, writing in his diary when he was 18, was so full of eccentricities as to be unnatural. What made him change his mind?

Here was a composer going through a “style change,” putting his youthful endeavors behind him and taking on the fearsome work of reinventing himself – and Schubert, one of the most insecure composers among the pantheon of great composers, dealing with the Unknown by plodding along, unaware he had created some of the greatest music ever composed (at least in my opinion) but never being deterred by the fact so few others even knew he existed. Wouldn't someone who'd be considered more... what, normal? - just have chucked it all or decided to write what people wanted in order to gain some acceptance, some recognition? Some form of income or at least acknowledgment to validate what he was doing?

In that sense – insecurity, yearning for validation and perhaps a thousand other fears – I identify with Schubert as well, though I am nearly twice his age, now, and have accomplished the tiniest fraction of what he composed in his short life, if one weighs it by mere quantity, never mind the quality.

No, I don't yearn to “write like Schubert” or even adopt his creative aesthetic, though his concept of reinventing himself, somehow, intrigues me, translated to my own style and times.

That is also what lies behind a lot of what I am reading, now, in Mann's “Faustus,” how this late-blooming composer is working to invent himself to make the transition from a young to a mature composer. At my age, of course, that's a little late, but then I had two decades where I did almost no composing and, worse, little thinking about composing. So I have a lot to get caught up with, which is why I normally describe myself as a “recovering composer.” It takes a lot of work and I'm still not sure I have it in me, much less the talent, to work my way through to the other side.

(I should also point out, unlike both Schubert and Leverkühn, I am not, to my knowledge, suffering from syphilis... Just thought I'd mention that.)

Yesterday, I read a bit of advice for would-be writers posted at the Guardian, the English newspaper's website, where Colm Tóibín suggests “if you have to read [something], cheer yourself up read[ing] biographies of writers who went insane.”

Right before that, he writes “Work in the morning, a short break for lunch, work in the afternoon and then watch the six o'clock news and then go back to work until bed-time. Before bed, listen to Schubert, preferably some songs.”

I just finished listening to one of Schubert's deliciously expansive piano sonatas, the one written before the last three. It's the Piano Sonata in G Major, D.874 – my recording, on the Sony label with Arkady Volodos. The little music-box of a trio in the 3rd Movement is enough to transport me beyond any world that includes Afghanistan, Sarah Palin or Health Care Reform in it. The last movement, if not the whole sonata, is one continuous smile. It is, however it was called into being, a small bit of magic that can be shared between a man who wrote it in 1826 and a man who is listening to it 184 years later.

But yes, tonight I think I will listen to some Schubert songs – probably not the end of “Die schöne Müllerin” (where the young lover commits suicide by drowning himself in the brook) or any of “Winterreise” (when I first heard “Der Leiermann,” the song cycle's desolate conclusion, I was so depressed I could barely function for days), but there are so many to choose from.

And then I will go back to reading about Adrian Leverkühn, Thomas Mann's would-be composer who invents his own original style, who will, eventually, die insane.

After all, what is a metaphor for?

- Dr. Dick

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