Schubert Songs by Maurice J. E. Brown*

Schubert Songs by Maurice J. E. Brown. BBC


Nobody thinks Schubert the greatest of composers, a leading critic recently assured us. Still, he remains unsurpassed as a writer of songs, and so does Maurice Brown as a writer on Schubert. So it was a good idea to bring them together in a BBC Music Guide. This series sets out to explore one aspect of a composer's work, just as the Musical Pilgrims used to; and if this vade-mecum is any guide, that's progress.

    There are eight brief chapters; one on the back­ground and seven on the songs, grouped by poets. In the first place Mr Brown finds the sources of Schubert in what Richard Capell says is about the last place to find them, namely in the minor song­writers who were his models. Well, no doubt an artist's models may figure prominently in the life. But that life (and any inheritance) comes from the ancestors; one would have thought Mozart worth a mention on that score alone. Besides, the booklet is (according to the back cover) expressly designed for the laymen; whereas most laymen, though always delighted to hear about Mozart, would rather be caught out hatless in a hailstorm than hear about Zumsteeg. From any point of view, however, the guide is well in its stride by Chapter 2, and from then on doesn't put a foot wrong. The back cover again mistakes the coverage; not “each of” the songs, but about a quarter of that incredible 708, is considered, though even that is exceptionally good going. The necessary selection is personal but purposeful; each song named either marks or points to a particular aspect of Schubert's art: its technical mastery, its development, its essence.

    I doubt whether that essence has ever yet been so well understood and expounded as in this monograph, which is, I hope, the precursor of a complete study. As it says, “it is with the poem in Schubert's hands that we must begin” (p.12). We can then discover how each song flowers out of its words; how the music, grounded and rooted in poetry, absorbs its ideas and is fed and coloured by them. Examples can be culled from any page. Here are a few picked and arranged in illustration. Unhappy love has a diminishing effect (p.60); stars suggest suspensions (cf “hung aloft the night”; p.49); leaves sway by turns, cluster in gruppetti (p.15); harmonies sound most alien when least related (p.58); melodies feel at their loneliest when least accompanied (p.54). In these and countless other ways the whole world of life and feeling is made manifest in Schubert song. “Greatest of composers” or not, his imagery in its range and depth is comparable with Shakespeare's. Each is a land of its own; each needs a guide, and a lifetime of exploration. Here, for a modest five shillings, is a sketch-map with the chief treasures marked in. A capital investment indeed; no sum is more likely to appreciate, or to help others to do so.


The Musical Times, Nov. 1967 (p. 1008) © the estate of eric sams