Schubert as a Byronic hero

Every time I start listening to Schubert’s Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden” (1824), its opening fortissimo octaves stop me on my tracks: Did I really just hear that?

And that is only the start! The tremendous, relentless contrasts of the entire first movement never let the listener feel assured or safe as they shift constantly, driven by those triplets haunting every turn of phrase.

This grand movement is a supreme epitome of the classical style that can have many uses: in musicology, as an introduction to this particular style; in composition, as a compendium of basic techniques; in music appreciation, as an illustration of key features; in performance history, as a survey of quartet playing; and in reception studies, as a key moment in the transition from home to concert music. There are few movements that can capture so well nearly all aspects of classical music as a code, institution, and discipline.

Here I want to propose an intermedial approach that focuses on the Byronic hero. Since I have compared the concerto to the Bildungsroman, and the quartet to the “collaborative work of friends“, and I have also been inspired by Eric Ball’s powerful political reading of Schubert’s Impromptu, op. 90, No. 2, I am intrigued by the idea of comparing the 1st movement of Schubert’s No. 14 (introduced by the “fate motif” I mentioned above) to the melancholic peregrinations of a Byronic hero (or heroine). This “Allegro” offers no heroic journey of a Beethoven musical theme. Its triplet motif wanders, until it dies homeless and remorseful, like one of those solitary, lovelorn, brooding, suffering literary figures, from Byron’s own Childe Harolde, Conrad, and Manfred from the 1810s to the Russians Onegin (1820s) and Pechorin (1839) to Heathcliff and Rochester (both 1847) to Leverkühn (1947).

I would take this further. Byron’s impact on music, from Berlioz to Strauss, is well known. “The most prominent composers in Germany during the 1850s – Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, and Schumann – all liked to be compared to Byron” (Tunbridge: “Schumann as Manfred,” The Musical Quarterly 87, no. 3, 2004, p. 546). However, before these composers came the Byronically self-fashioned Schubert, an anti-hero to Scott Burnham’s Beethoven Hero.  During the time of the 14th quartet’s composition, he realized that, after eighteen unsuccessful attempts at an opera, he would never be the next Rossini and it was too late to be the next Classical hero. The bitter realization of his twin failures (possibly after he attended the premiere of Beethoven’s 9th in 1824?) turned him into a Romantic anti-hero, a Byronic hero. It was this new trajectory that eventually led Schubert to his Winterreise (1827), the ultimate Byronic journey, based on the verses of the lyric poet Wilhelm Müller, a Byronic Philhellene who died a year before the composer. Cora Palfy has argued convincingly that, in works inspired by the English poet, composers like Berlioz, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky deform and subvert dominant musical genres, like the sonata, in order to question Beethoven’s heroic supremacy. I suggest that in Schubert’s late works we can see the same defiant gesture, a deliberate “sonata failure” (“Anti-Hero Worship,” Indiana Theory Review 32: 1-2, 2016, 182), that enabled the composer to structure both musically and thematically the last phase of his work on the basis of a very popular literary model of his time, the doomed Byronic hero. In this sense, just as Schopenhauer followed Hegel, Schubert followed Beethoven.

As performers of music and literature respectively, Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” and I always talk about such dialogues between the two arts, especially unconventional cases where they do not attempt to “illustrate” one another.

March 12, 2018


This entry was posted in Classical Music, Literature, Melancholy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.