Last Saturday, in ‘CD Review’ on BBC Radio 3, they discussed and played extracts from various new recordings of Schubert song cycles, of which the least satisfactory (in my view) was a Winterreise by a counter-tenor. Not the strangeness of a high voice (there are after all versions by Brigitte Fassbaender and Nathalie Stutzmann – though it’s a safe bet that this is not quite what Schubert had in mind (and, in passing, has a bass done Frauenliebe und -Leben yet?)), but a somewhat shrieky, Italianate delivery at odds with the introverted, reflective, gloomy (dare one say northern?) feeling which Schubert’s masterpiece conveys.
I’m really looking forward to reading Ian Bostridge’s new book on the cycle, but at the moment I’m zipping through a much older take on Schubert: a two-volume biography by Heinrich Kreissle von Hellborn (1812–69), a Viennese lawyer and member of the city’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, published in German in 1865, and – in the two-volume English version we have reissued, translated by Arthur Duke Coleridge – in 1869.
Extraordinary as it may seem, Kreissle’s earlier (1861) short sketch of Schubert’s life seems to have been the first ever published, 33 years after Schubert’s death, and Coleridge remarks in his preface to the translation that his music was under-appreciated in Britain: ‘Schubert’s reputation in England, until recently, rested upon little more than half-a-dozen songs.’ He attributes an increasing interest in the orchestral and chamber works to ‘the joint exertions of my friend Mr George Grove, and that admirable musician Mr Manns … Mr Charles Halle’s efforts have also powerfully aided the cause of Schubert’s popularity’.
Kreissle uses many anecdotes collected by Ferdinand Luib (1811–77) a music critic, for his own planned life of Schubert, but I can’t trace whether this was ever published? He also spoke to many of Schubert’s contemporaries and relatives, including his brother Ferdinand, but the book does not (in spite of all the stories) bring out Schubert’s character in any convincing way. Of course many would argue that biographies of artists never do, and that is in fact what the artworks are for, but Kreissle seems happy to be self-contradictory: the words ‘genial’, ‘merry’ and ‘happy’ are used constantly of the young Schubert (BTW, who remembers Franz Schubert and his Merry Friends, by Opal Wheeler and Sybil Deucher, one of a series of lives of the great composers in the library of my 1950s primary school?), but he also describes Schubert’s three years as assistant teacher in his brother’s school as being a period of misery in which he was ‘choleric’ and bitter, and spent a lot of time clipping recalcitrant children round the ear.
The strength of this work is its detailed account the context of Schubert’s life, and of his compositions, many now lost to those well known enemies of books, the servant using paper for kindling and the collector/dealer who tears up a piece of autograph (in this case one of Schubert’s journals) and sells it page by page to fans. Paragraphs and long footnotes are devoted to composers known to Schubert but ‘whose works are now forgotten’, and there are extensive summaries of his early operas, the plots of which are without exception excruciating.
Schubert was taught by his schoolmaster father, and showed an early talent for music – not as spectacular as that of Mozart, Kreissle agrees, but then Schubert’s father was not a Leopold Mozart (or a Friedrich Wieck). Antonio Salieri noticed his musical gifts, and from eleven to seventeen (when his voice broke: interesting how the time of puberty has lowered over the last two centuries, and that by this time castration no longer loomed (at Vienna at any rate) as an option to preserve the best boys’ voices) he was educated at the Imperial Boarding School (or Stadtkonvikt, disconcertingly translated here as ‘the Convict’) and sang in the imperial chapel choir.
Salieri continued to teach him composition (those swayed by the Pushkin/Shaffer take on Salieri should remember that not only Schubert but Beethoven and Liszt were among the pupils who greatly respected him), and was apparently amazed (as are we all) at the teenager’s prodigious output in so many different genres. Opera seems to have been an early obsession, but not of a sung-through type: is ‘Singspiel’ the right word in this context? Kreissle (or Coleridge) uses ‘extravaganza’, and notes, in his summaries of the bizarre plots, usually after three dense and melodramatic paragraphs, ‘here the music begins’.
Schubert’s development as a composer of orchestral as well as vocal music is well described, from the cantata ‘Prometheus’, the first work for which he was ever paid, to the ‘overnight’ fame resulting from the 1821 performance of ‘Erlkönig’ by Johann Michael Vogl (whom Schubert had first heard in opera, along with the great Anna Milder, as a teenager), to triumph, travel, illness (delicately unspecified) and death, at the age of thirty-two.
The second half of the second volume is taken up with an assessment of Schubert’s career, a discussion of his works by genre, and the reception of his work across Europe and America. A useful list of his published works, is also provided, along with an appendix by George Grove, analysing the symphonies.
Coleridge remarks, rather touchingly, in his preface: ’It would be impertinent in me, a humble worshipper of an art I imperfectly understand, to attempt to ascertain Schubert’s exact position in the rank of great composers. Rhapsody is a poor substitute for criticism, and silence is more becoming when Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Liszt have recorded their opinions of the quality of Schubert’s works.’
Anecdotally, Schubert’s circle of musical friends was appalled by the bleakness of Winterreise, of which Kreissle says: ‘A breath of deep despair and disconsolateness pervades these melancholy songs, the star of life seems to grow pale, and a cold cheerless winter is before us.’ And, commenting on the completion of the cycle after an apparently jolly holiday in Styria, he remarks that this contrast of mood is ‘but one of those significant facts which serve to characterise in a striking manner Schubert’s creative powers as entirely dissociated from contact with the outer world’.