Little Schubert! He was not quite five feet tall, he was portly, he was plain, and lived only 31 years. The few letters he left behind reveal a gentle, ardent soul, incapable of resentment, and incapable of artifice. He was music’s messenger of infinite beauty and goodwill, producing within 18 years a multitude of symphonies, sonatas, chamber works, and songs in unrivaled abundance. His friends called him “Schwammerl” (“Little Mushroom”) and said that he slept with his glasses on so that he could begin to compose the moment he awoke.
Schubert (1797–1828) was not as celebrated in his time as Beethoven, who lived only blocks away, but he had a distinguished circle of friends that included the notable musicians, poets, and painters of Vienna.
This coterie went about its own affairs seemingly oblivious to the tumultuous historical events taking place around them. The city’s occupation by Napoleon’s troops, the subsequent Congress of Vienna, and the repressive government of Metternich seemed of little interest or consequence to them, as they were otherwise occupied with their pictures and poetry and music. It makes one question the importance of important events. Few people know much about the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna, or Klemens von Metternich, but most everybody knows Schubert’s “Ave Maria”!
We have only a few facts about the composer’s life, but his 700 and some songs to texts by the great and the humble tell us more clearly than any biography what was housed in his heart. The pure, the bright, the beautiful certainly took up residence there, as well as kindness, and a longing for higher things. “O, Mozart! How many hints of a finer, better world have you left in our souls!” he wrote in his diary.
Four subjects are prominent in Schubert’s “lieder,” subjects that seem to have constantly occupied his thoughts: the fate of man, the ways of the human heart, the power of beauty, and finally, the soul’s relation to God. One sees, however, God’s presence in them all.
From the age of 19 to 24, Schubert was preoccupied by man’s fate, as evidenced by his working and reworking the setting of Goethe’s great poem “Song of the Spirits Over the Waters.” Schubert believed that his soul came from heaven and would return there, that his fate on earth was as unknowable, as changeable as the wind. “Soul of man, how like the waters, from heaven it comes, to heaven it returns,” Goethe writes. “Destiny of man, how like the wind!”
While still a teenager, Schubert wrote about love, its attendant passions, and how easily it brings us to the heights and the depths. In “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” from Goethe’s “Faust,” Gretchen, who has been deserted by the gallant young Faust, sings: “I have lost my peace and will never find it again. How my heart longs for him! If only I could hold him, and kiss him as I desire!” One wonders at Schubert’s understanding of the poet’s words, and wonders as well who this passionate adolescent was thinking of.
The majority of Schubert’s songs, often set to the words of minor poets, honor that mysterious, undefinable phenomenon we call beauty. Beautiful in themselves, they praise the beauty of nature as well as the productions of man’s own hand that we call art. “Beloved art, in so many dark times you have warmed my heart and drawn me up to a better world!” sings the poet in his verse “To Music.”
The contemplation of nature leads to the contemplation of its Creator. “The Almighty,” perhaps Schubert’s greatest song, is a marvelous portrait of Schubert’s soul, its breadth and depth. It is a song of wonder, spontaneous faith, and boundless love for his Maker: “Great is Jehovah the Lord! The heavens and the earth proclaim his might! You hear it in the thunder, see it in the starry heavens, feel it in the beating of your heart!”
The song “The Infinite One” addresses God directly. “How uplifted is my heart when it thinks of you, o Infinite one! Winds rushing through the forest, the thunder resounding in the heavens—it is God that you praise!”
Great Interpreters of Schubert
Schubert’s remarkable sincerity—that is, his truthfulness—demands just that very virtue from the singer. If truthfulness is not there, the singing is counterfeit: beautiful perhaps, true in every detail to the written page perhaps, but as lifeless as one of Madame Tussauds’ wax effigies. The great American novelist Willa Cather wrote that “art is the refining of truthfulness. Only the stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the great artist knows how difficult it is.”
You cannot sing about nature unless you have a personal relationship with it. You cannot sing about the human heart unless you have suffered deeply, and have, as well, been overcome with joy. You cannot sing about God unless you have searched for Him and love Him.
Today, the finest exponent of Schubert’s songs is the Dutch tenor Peter Gijsbertsen, whom I know from his recent recording “Nacht und Träume” (“Night and Dreams”), which is a recital of Schubert songs. Gijsbertsen shares with music’s elect a visceral understanding of the text and a unity with its sentiment.
There is a sense of spontaneity and directness in Gijsbertsen’s work, of joy in singing, and a feeling that the song has been encountered, embraced, and become his own. His voice is remarkably beautiful, and there is nobility and candor in its timbre. It seems that whatever he sings is his best-loved song, and he is experiencing its power and beauty for the first time.
Gijsbertsen joins ranks with the great artists listed below, each of them sincere truth tellers, who make us alter the words in the composer’s diary quoted above, so that it reads “Oh Schubert! How many hints of a finer, better world have you left in our soul.”
Lotte Lehmann (1888–1976) “Im Abendroth” (“In the Glow of the Evening”)
Elisabeth Rethberg (1894–1976) “Wiegenlied” (“Cradle Song”)
Heinrich Rehkemper (1894–1949) “Der Lindenbaum” (“The Linden Tree”)
Hans Hotter (1909–2003) “An die Musik” (“To Music”)
Birgit Nilsson (1918–2005) “Dem Unendlichen” (“To the Infinite One”)
Christa Ludwig (b. 1928) “Die Allmacht” (“The Almighty”)
Peter Gijsbertsen (b. 1983) “Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren” (“Song of the Sailor to the Dioskuren,” “Frühlingsglaube” (Faith in Spring”)
Munich Radio Choir “Gesang der Geister über den Wassern” (“Song of the Spirits Over the Waters”)
Raymond Beegle has performed as a collaborative pianist in the major concert halls of the United States, Europe, and South America; has written for The Opera Quarterly, Classical Voice, Fanfare Magazine, Classic Record Collector (UK), and the New York Observer. Beegle has served on the faculty of The State University of New York–Stony Brook, The Music Academy of the West, and The American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. He has taught in the chamber music division of The Manhattan School of Music for the past 28 years.