By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Schubert Orchestrated performed on Nov 18, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Posterity has always felt somewhat cheated with respect to the symphonic music of Franz Schubert. There simply is not enough of it. Unlike Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, the greatest of Schubert’s symphonies were not performed in the composer’s lifetime. The B-minor, so-called “Unfinished” Symphony, was first performed by the elegant and dashing choral conductor Johann Herbeck in Vienna more than thirty years after the composer’s death. It quickly became a sort of signature work representing all of the popular myths about Schubert’s life and character as well, offering a fine case for Schubert’s genius with melody and form. The so called “Great” C-Major Symphony was premiered by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig in 1839, more than a decade after Schubert’s death.
Despite his untimely death at 31 in 1828, contrary to the many versions of the romanticized biography of the composer, Franz Schubert was, in his lifetime, neither obscure nor destitute. But his fame and reputation, in published form and within the immediate environs of Vienna was as a composer of songs, piano music, and chamber music. The composer’s own ambitions were concentrated on the theatre.
It is, however, nevertheless true that Schubert’s posthumous reputation far outstripped that which he gained in his lifetime, a fact which distinguishes him from either Mozart or Beethoven who were internationally respected during their lifetimes as truly great historical figures, or Mendelssohn whose posthumous reputation, unfairly, has suffered in comparison to the stature he attained during his career.
Subsequent generations have embraced Schubert and have taken as their starting point the repertoire written for amateur and domestic use. However, as the public concert (particularly the orchestra concert) assumed a larger place in the musical life of the nineteenth century, especially after 1848, and as listening took on more of a role in musical culture than playing, the demand for the “orchestral” Schubert grew. The early symphonies did not entirely suffice. One wanted to hear the mature and really distinctive Schubert.
Therefore, although the works on this program are not ordered chronologically, this concert program does offer, inadvertently, a capsule history of nineteenth-century musical tastes and habits. Chronologically speaking, the first of the orchestrations and arrangements on this program, the Liszt version of the Wanderer Fantasy mirrors the era of virtuosity – of Liszt, Thalberg and Paganini – of the 1830s and 1840s. It stems from the heyday of early Romanticism – the generation of Schumann and Mendelssohn, for whom Schubert was not the last classical master, but the first protagonist of a new era. Liszt clearly saw in Schubert a new and different aesthetic.
The Joachim version of the Grand Duo and the Brahms orchestrations of three songs, (particularly when placed alongside the Mottl transcription of the F minor Fantasy) mirror a mid-nineteenth century struggle over the soul of Schubert. By the mid- 1850s a kind of cultural political war within European music had erupted. On one side stood the so called New German School of Liszt and Richard Wagner, and on the other Joachim, Brahms and others who saw themselves as the legitimate descendants of a classical tradition which included early romanticism, particularly Mendelssohn and Schumann. Beethoven was claimed by both sides. So was Schubert.
Luckily, and perhaps significantly, Wagner was relatively silent on the matter of Schubert, leaving Schubert to the Brahms-Joachim axis. Brahms and Joachim viewed Schubert in the way Schumann had, as the soul of a wholly original and intimate expressive extension of classical traditions. Brahms edited the Schubert Symphonies for the first critical edition. The Joachim Quartet helped establish the chamber music of Schubert as an essential part of the quartet concert repertoire. Joachim, Brahms’ closest friend, believed that the Grand Duo was in fact a version of a “lost’ Schubert symphony. This idea had already been put forward by Schumann. Perhaps the sound of piano music for four hands, particularly when played on more modern instruments than the ones Schubert knew, is inherently orchestral sounding.
By the time Joachim completed his orchestration, however, there was a secondary consideration. The popularity of four hand music was in decline. Unlike the solo piano or the quartet, the genre of two people sharing one bench and playing together seemed resistant to any concert stage adaptation. Both in sound and as a theatrical event, piano for four hands has never become much of a spectator event. As in the case of the Mottl transcription, the orchestration of piano music for four hands by the mid-nineteenth century was tantamount to protecting great music from possible neglect. Joachim’s version was a great success and was frequently performed. Even Toscanini had it in his repertoire.
Brahms’ love of Schubert was matched only by that of his own antipode in Vienna, Anton Bruckner. From the 1860s on, a veritable local Schubert cult developed in Vienna, spurred on by members of the many male choral societies in the city. By the centennial of Schubert’s birth, 1897, the composer had become a political symbol, appropriated by warring factions. On the one side were the liberals, including Brahms and his supporters who saw in Schubert a classical master whose cosmopolitan humanism extended to the most simple and unpretentious citizen; on the other side were the radical Christian Socialists, led by Karl Lueger and their allies, who included right wing German nationalists and anti-Semites, many of whom were avid supporters of Bruckner. To them Schubert – the only native born Viennese composer in the international classical canon – was an example of true, unadulterated Austro-German spirituality; a symbol of echt local anti-modern values, uncorrupted by Jews and foreigners.
In the midst of this controversy, Felix Mottl, the Wagnerian conductor and protégé of Hans Richter, the long time conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic (who also had a brief career in the United States), orchestrated the F-Minor Fantasy. It was, so to speak, a neo-Wagnerian tribute to Schubert for the centennial by Mottl, himself a native born Viennese. It was admired and performed by none other than Richard Strauss.
So much for politics. This concert should, above all, remind the listener how much music adapts to different formats. We have become so puritanical about which instruments to use and which historical evidence to marshal to defend performance practices that we have forgotten that a century ago, in the name of the love of music, our predecessors appropriated the past and rendered it modern. By so doing they extended the reach of Schubert’s music and made it speak in new ways to new audiences. Listening to the works on this program we are not only reminded of Schubert’s greatness, but of the aural imaginations and insights of two great and two distinguished nineteenth century musicians.