Schubert by John Reed*

Schubert  by John Reed; Dent (The Master Musicians)


Born in Vienna, 1797; died there, 1828, after six years of suffering from virulent syphilis (Life). The rest is music, for the world to delight in, marvel at, and be enriched by (Works). But this series is devoted to mastery, not mystery; so its avowed aim of relating the composer to his oeuvre, notoriously among the knottiest of all aesthetic enigmas, can never be satisfactorily achieved. That limitation is most manifest in such special cases as Schubert, whose life and person were so short as to seem insignificant, and whose achievement is now seen as Shakespearean in stature. His works await their philosophical exegetes and analysts, their Bradleys and Spurgeons.

      Meanwhile, from the straightforward factual standpoint, John Reed's monograph provides a model of critical biography as well as a long‑overdue replacement of its 1945 predecessor. His own mastery of the voluminous source‑material is impressive. The authentic flavour of a whole epoch is conveyed by lively extracts judiciously selected from tedious documents, and illuminating excerpts from unfamiliar works. Within the wider socio-historical field of vision, Reed focuses on the narrow yet con­centric circle of friends and lovers who danced, sang and played Schubert. As usual, the middle classes were rising in the world, bringing their latest freedom of outlook into sex, politics and religion as well as art. Schubert was among the earliest apostles of European openness. The man and his music embraced all life and all feeling, heedless of the sequelae.

      Aptly, he was a pubertal rather than an in­fant prodigy, and in every sense Bohemian nature (both his parents came from what is now Czechoslovakia). This well-equipped and closely packed guide follows his progress, in loving detail, from his boyhood mastery of the classic instrumental tradition to his individual emergence from that mainstream. an idea well exemplified by the "Trout" Quintet. Then he became stranded in a backwater of attempts at opera. But that frustrating experience must have played its part in the final phase of masterworks such as Winterreise, complete with plot, characters, recitative, arioso and scene-painting in voice and piano. On his own short, bleak journey, Schubert invented a new expressive language and two new art-forms (Lied, song-cycle), and developed all this into an unsurpassed perfection.

      En route, and almost by the way, he also imparted new meaning and impetus to orchestral, piano and chamber music. John Reed perceptively identifies what he calls the “philosophical dimension” discernible in Schubert's later contributions to each genre; the unity of man and Nature in the Great C major symphony, the tone of reconciliation and valediction in the B flat major piano sonata, the universality and profoundity of the String Quintet. In such works the stoic design of the Enlightenment finds its definitive musical fulfillment, which will speak to the like-minded listeners for centuries to come.

      Of course verbal commentary will sound inadequate in comparison. John Reed’s language and tone derive from a British tradition which has always acknowledged that music has an import related to his structure, so that modulations and arpeggios may indeed “symbolize a search for God in Nature”, however implausible that may appear. But these recurrent strains sometimes suggest a performance aimed at two very different audiences, one hearing the abstract patterns of sonorous forms in motion and the other sharing Schubert’s moods of “veiled melancholy” and so forth. I feel that music-students will find themselves discarding much material designed for music-lovers, and conversely; the two never quite come to terms.

      Again, more space should surely have been found for the literary background, both in Schubert’s astoundingly fertile musico-verbal mind and in the copious published sources that he exploited so intensively. Here, available to analysis, are the essential components of his own distinctive feeling-tones, in instrumental no less than vocal works. Yet we learn too little about his musical motive-power, and hardly a word about any of the Lieder poets as such, not even Goethe and Müller, who not only sired many of the major masterpieces but left their own features audibly imprinted on them. In general, the critical commentary is less assured in linguistic than in musical matters.

      Finally, a more serious complaint. John Reed needs better medical advice. If we are genuinely seeking a link between man and music, the brain is a good place to begin. The effect of Schubert's syphilis on his life and art is surely a vital question. Dieter Kerner's 1963 diagnosis of it as the direct cause of death cannot be simply dismissed. Reed's claim that "the time-scale is wrong" is itself wrong; even in the evolved and attenuated modern disease a possibly fatal tertiary stage may supervene within three years, and Schubert suffered for twice as long. On page 210 we learn that a  consultant syphiologist "regarded the case as hopeless" three days before Schubert died, and indeed "may have foreseen the possibility of a lapse into coma"; on the next page. however, the cause of death "must remain a mystery".

     There will be time for any second thoughts and adjustments, such as the correction of a few misprints and index lacunae: this book, as an essential vade-mecum for all Schubertians, is sure of a second edition. It supplements rather than supersedes the fine Critical Biography (1958, not out of print) by the late Maurice Brown, whose work remains readily available in the New Grove Schubert volume (1982). This briefer treatment is now John Reed's only serious competitor in any language. For his higher yet still modest price he offers the findings of the latest scholarship and research, including his own: many an enlightening insight and comparison: eight pages of photographs; forty-four music examples: and the customary series appendices giving a detailed conspectus of events, work-list, personalia and select bibliography.


Times Literary Supplement, July 1987 (p. 772) © the estate of eric sams