Health, morality, truth and beauty in Beethoven's and Schubert's music
By Troelstroels. Monday, February 13, 2006 10:10:07 PM
Considering the fact that they have so much in common it is rather surprising that so many people love Beethoven's music but distinctly dislike Schubert's. I have wondered about this and I believe that I may have found a useful explanation. The short version is:
- Schubert was one of the greatest "blues" composers in classical music. Of course not in the strict sense of the musical term, blues, but more in a psycological sense.
- Beethoven was not at all a blues composer.
But let's get back to what they have in common:
Franz Schubert was born when Beethoven was a successfull young composer and died only a few months after Beethoven.
Schubert was born and lived his entire life in Vienna. Beethoven had moved to Vienna before the birth of Schubert and stayed there for the rest of his life.
Both were influenced by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and what you might call standard Viennese classical style in the early phases of their careers as composers. Later on they both went their own ways.
Some of the elements in Beethoven's music in his second period are significant influences in Schubert's late music. Perhaps this is most obvious in their string quartets. Beethoven never really continued in the "symphonic" style of quartet writing that he used in the Razumovsky quartets op. 59, but Schubert followed that line in his last quartets and his string quintet.
Love of nature
Beethoven's deep love of nature is well-known and well documented and shows in his music too. This may not be true of Schubert to quite the same degree, but still he chose lots of texts for his songs that show love of nature.
Austria at their time was a police state. Schubert on one occasion very nearly got himself arrested by the political police. His song, Die Forelle, is a political allegory. And there are many indications that Beethoven in spite of his close relation to Viennese nobility was a strong proponent of political freedom.
Religion and spirituality
There can be absolutely no doubt that Schubert was a deeply religious man. Beethoven's attitude may have been more independent of conventional Catholic ecclesiastical views, but there are countless evidences of his spirituality.
Illness played a defining role for their lives and for their works as composers. But now we have reached a point where their conditions of life did not only show similarity but also a defining difference:
- Beethoven was hit by deafness at an early age, a disaster for a composer that has ruined the lives of other composers who were not personalities of Beethoven's formidable calibre. But Beethoven rose to the challenge and used it to become an even greater composer than he already was.
- Schubert was infected with syphilis.
The fundamental difference
What are the special qualities of Beethoven's music? There are many, but there are a few that are especially interesting in this context. I believe that the most central and important ones are these:
- Purity. There is never one single moment of something demonic or otherwise unhealthy in his music.
- Dignity. Absolute dignity. Not all of Beethoven's music may be of the very highest quality (he wrote lots of dances of little significance), but he is always completely honest in his music. And there is never the slightest trace of something that might be interpreted as self pity. Pain and sorrow, yes, but nothing to suggest that he ever felt sorry for himself. This last point is what caused me to write in the beginning that Beethoven was not a blues composer.
And what about Schubert? I won't go into details, but I do believe that I find significant contrasts to Beethoven here.
- In many places in Schubert's late music I seem to hear something morbid and demonic. Evidences of a world in breakdown.
- There are also traces of something that I tend to interpret as self pity though this may not be fair on Schubert. This is why I called Schubert a blues composer.
In short: Beethoven's music is always completely healthy. Schubert's is not. This difference mirrors the difference between their illnesses.
- It is a very good guess that Beethoven's deafness may partly have been a result of his attempts to press his excellent hearing sense to the extreme in order to gain the ultimate understanding of music.
- Schubert's syphilis was a result of not being able to control his desire for sexual pleasure.
I love Schubert's music dearly, but I do understand that some people feel uneasy with it. And their reaction may have something to do with what I have written here.