November 17, 2003
The songs of Schubert

Today I wrote a piece for Ubersportingpundit about rugger, and have little time for anything much here. Sorry and all that.

So a brief reflection on the songs of Schubert and on the idea of artistic progress.

Today I listened to a recent CD acquisition, which was of Markus Eicher, baritone, accompanied by Jens Fuhr, piano, doing a selection of Schubert songs for Naxos, including one of my very favourite tunes of all time, An die Musik. These are two unknown names to me, but the bloke in the market wanted only £1.50, so what was really to lose?

And the thing about Schubert is that I think he makes everyone who sings his songs sound a better singer. I don't know why this is exactly, but I do have a theory, and half an hour in which to offer it here. It shouldn't take that long.

Basically, I believe that the liede, the German indoor, non-electronic, singer and piano, song reached its first and highest peak of perfection with the songs of Franz Schubert.

Artists, especially not very good ones, but including some very good ones indeed, are fond of talking about progress, and the implication of such talk is that art is like science. Each discovery only opens up new artistic vistas. Artists, like scientists, stand on the shoulders of their predecessors.

But this isn't really accurate. To me, it makes no sense to talk of later song writers "improving" on, say, An die Musik. The thing is already perfect. Progress in art is only in such mandane things as how many people can get to read it or listen to it, or how loud you can play it, or how colourful the colours are, or how much money you can amass by creating it. The closer it gets to talking about what really matters in matters artistic, the less the idea of progress really means anything.

What really happens is that artistic circumstances change, often radically. This isn't especially bad or especially good. It's just a fact. One day, you make music with pianos. Later it's done with microphones, and then with microphones and electric guitars. Now it's computers, the internet, and so on. This isn't progress, in any deep way. Nor, which some people also say by a sort of equal and opposite illogic, is it degeneration. It's just that times change.

Within each little genre, however, it does make sense to talk about progress, although even then such talk can be confusing and pseudo-scientific. What happens is that with each little new clutch of the means of artistic expression, there is a quite short period of struggle, and then really very quickly, a plateau of perfection is reached, and from then on it's the devil of a job to do any better than the first best pieces. The very first rock and roll tracks from the late fifties are still among the very best. I recall doing a posting here about a similar moment of early perfection that the first oil painters reached.

And that's what Schubert's songs are like. There's no sense of strain about Schubert's songs, in the sense that Beethoven's symphonies were a strain, or the more elaborate songs by the Beatles. They often express the extremities of human experience, but they do it with absolute artistic confidence, serenity even. You get no feeling that Schubert thought for one second about being artistically advanced or about making artistic progress, or even gave any thought to the fact that, as far as writing songs for voice and piano, he was standing at the summit of what was to become a vast mountain range, but one that would never get any higher, just different. He simply wasn't thinking about anything except making each song as exactly right as he could make it.

And because he wasn't straining after anything in the way of self-conscious effects, he never asked the singer to do anything that isn't totally right for a singer to be singing. Thus, singing a Schubert song leaves the singer free to sing it absolutely perfectly, undistracted by any stresses or strains, or by any imposed agenda without which it makes less than perfect sense. And that is why singers sound better singers when they sing Schubert than when they sing anyone else. It happens again and again.

Or maybe I just love Schubert. And maybe all I'm saying is that his songs sound perfect to me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Classical music