Schubert's Reputation from His Time to Ours.
Geoffrey Block's Schubert's Reputation from His Time to Ours is the newest book on Franz Schubert in Pendragon Press's series Monographs in Musicology, which includes David Montgomery's Franz Schubert's Music in Performance: Compositional Ideals, Notational Intent, Historical Realities, Pedagogical Foundations (2003), Mark Devoto's Schubert's Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony (2011), and Martin Chusid's Schubert's Dances: For Family, Friends and Posterity (2013). Also recently published are two collections of essays about Schubert, both edited by Lorraine Byrne Bodley and Julian Horton: Rethinking Schubert (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) and Schubert's Late Music: History, Theory, Style (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). Among these titles, Block's book focuses on reception history across time and through the lens of genre, biography, popular culture, and sexuality. Furthermore, Block proposes a new paradigm to counter the old attitude that has Schubert unfavorably compared to Beethoven: "Although some of Schubert's music gained critical and popular traction early on ... it was not until the end of the twentieth century that most of Schubert's symphonies, chamber music, and piano sonatas fully emerged from Beethoven's shadow. For this to happen it was crucial to reinterpret perceived non-Beethovenian formal and stylistic characteristics not as flaws but as strengths and hallmarks of a new paradigm" (p. 4). Block's promise to pursue this new paradigm is, however, only partially achieved. While he illustrates the ways in which Schubert differed from Beethoven (such as his use of long melodies in sonata forms) and reinterprets these as Schubert's strengths, the strong presence of Beethoven still dims the view--though perhaps differently from how the previous critics had perceived it--of Schubert's individuality.
Using as a starting point a 2011 article in the New York Times, in which Anthony Tommasini ranked Schubert fourth in his list of the top ten classical composers ("The Greatest," New York Times, 11 January 2011), Block sets out to show Schubert's path from supposed obscurity to popularity. He argues that Schubert's popularity has reached "the point of achieving a rough parity with those of his famous contemporary" and states that "[t]his book tells the story of how and why this happened" (p. 4). The opening chapter, "'Heavenly Length and 'Fairer Hopes,' " addresses how Schubert has been misunderstood. For example, early critics viewed his style as overly feminine, an adjective they also prescribed to the genre for which he was best known--the lied. Schubert's lyricism was seen as incompatible with larger instrumental genres and a critical weakness that impeded his wider acceptance. This chapter begins to clear away misunderstandings and dispel the unwarranted criticisms of Schubert's work.
The next two chapters turn to two instrumental genres. "Schubert's 'Ode to Joy': The 'Great' C Major Symphony" traces the performance history of the Symphony in C Major, D. 944, and how it entered the repertoire, showing that some remarks by early critics--particularly Robert Schumann and George Grove--strongly influenced, both negatively and positively, the reception of the work. Block strives to elevate the status of Schubert's "Great" Symphony by showing its similarities to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and compares the reception history of both works. To demonstrate Schubert's rising reputation, "The Piano Sonatas: An Acquired Taste" shows the increasing frequency of performance and number of recordings of Schubert's piano sonatas. Block's music analyses aim to disprove two criticisms of Schubert's music: (1) that his lyricism disqualified him from being a composer on Beethoven's level, partly because his lyrical themes were often reiterated instead of "developed" like Beethoven's, and (2) that his recapitulations were often identical to his expositions. Block concludes that Schubert successfully "[created] a formal masterpiece out of a songlike theme" (p. 109). Despite Block's convincing music analysis, the dominating presence of Beethoven in these chapters suggests that the book is following the old critical mode rather than the "new Schubert paradigm" that Block proposed.
The following two chapters address reception of Schubert by four nineteenth-century composers. "Liszt, Brahms, and the 'True Successor to Beethoven' " illustrates the roles of Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms in performing, transcribing, conducting, arranging, and editing Schubert's works. Block argues that neither composer improved Schubert's status: actually, Liszt's efforts to champion Schubert primarily benefited himself, and Brahms's editing did not help Schubert's Drei Klavierstiicke, D. 946, "enter the repertoire" (p. 159). Furthermore, both Liszt and Brahms learned important techniques from Schubert, such as thematic transformation (Liszt) and three-key expositions (Brahms). "What Wagner and Mahler Thought about Schubert" underscores Richard Wagner's lack of interest in Schubert and that Gustav Mahler, while admiring Schubert's music, often revised the scores when conducting them. Mahler's championing of Schubert's Symphony no. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (the "Unfinished") and "Great" C Major Symphony, however, "significantly advanced the reputation, popularity, and stature of these works and their composer" (p. 198). Although these chapters describe the composers' various roles in the reception of Schubert, Block does not discuss the exact effect of their participation. Moreover, by arguing that Schubert could be on equal footing with Beethoven (chap. 4) or that their music shared lyrical qualities (chap. 5), Block unwittingly keeps Schubert under Beethoven's shadow.
In the following two chapters, "Schubert Stars on the Popular Musical Stage: Das Dreimaderlhaus and Blossom Time" and "Imagining Schubert on Screen: Blossom Time, Melody Master, and Notturno," Block turns to popular culture to examine the public's interest in the composer's life story. Block describes the evolution of the "idealized and romanticized" image of Schubert, as depicted in Blossom Time and The Melody Master, to a "gritty and unromantic" portrayal in Notturno (p. 236). The use of Schubert's music in these stage works also progresses from "short and familiar songs" in Blossom Time to "generous excerpts from larger works" in Melody Master to "music that chronologically matches Schubert's life events" (p. 273). The biographical adaptations fittingly lead to the next chapter, "The Princess and the Peacock," which traces the debate on whether Schubert was homosexual, detailing Maynard Solomon's 1989 article in 19th-Century Music (Maynard Solomon, "Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini," 19th-century Music 12, no. 3 [Spring 1989]: 193-206), Rita Steblin's counterargument in the same journal four years later (Rita Steblin, "The Peacock's Tale: Schubert's Sexuality Reconsidered," 19th-century Musk 17, no. 1 [Summer 1993]: 5-33), and other scholars' viewpoints. Through the debates, Block describes the changing and increasingly accepting attitudes towards homosexuality and the power and pitfalls of gender perception: "listeners who perceive Schubert as gay (or feminine) and Beethoven as straight (and masculine), may be more inclined to disregard moments of musical forcefulness in the former's work or overlook moments of sustained lyricism in the music of the latter" (p. 320).
In the penultimate chapter, "The Mushroom and the Mogul," Block reiterates the reasons Schubert has been misunderstood and demonstrates further similarities between the music of Schubert and Beethoven. In his concluding summary, he announces the arrival of a new paradigm:
Schubert's ability to shape dynamic, lyric, and imaginative formal solutions to classical sonata form builds upon, rather than contradicts, his predecessor. Still, this reality did little to change the contrasting perception and reception history of Beethoven and Schubert. Consequently, for most of the next century and a half, Schubert was viewed as one who fell short of mastering large instrumental forms--a diffuse, repetitive, and harmonically capricious composer who worked in a trance, too lazy to do much more in his recapitulations than repeat everything from the exposition. In the final chapter, I suggest that a new Schubert paradigm has finally arrived to challenge, repudiate, and replace some of these long-held assumptions, (p. 336)
The new paradigm, which should view Schubert as "a satisfactory alternative to Beethoven ... rather than as a second-rate Beethoven" (p. 351), does not arrive as triumphantly as Block suggests. "Schubert's Reception Revisited and Revised" reviews a wide range of criticism about Schubert by writers such as Donald Francis Tovey, Charles Rosen, Richard Taruskin, Lewis Lockwood, Susan Wollenberg, Suzannah Clark, and Paul Robinson. Clearly, the reception of Schubert has undergone a transformation, as more recent writing began proposing a new critical model that avoids comparisons with Beethoven. Nonetheless, much of this criticism is repetitive, with too much emphasis placed on the proposal rather than on its implementation. On page 362, with six pages left in the last chapter, Block finally arrives at "The New Schubert Paradigm: Lockwood, Wollenberg, and Clark." Yet even in this section, Suzannah Clark's work (pp. 363-67) stands alone in its assessment of Schubert's music in its own right.
In short, while Block argues for a fresh standard to rescue Schubert from Beethoven's shadow, he too often compares Schubert to Beethoven (chaps. 2, 3, and 4), demonstrates the similarities in their music (chaps. 2 and 9), or claims that Schubert deserved the credit given to Beethoven (chap. 4), which ironically follows the path the book sets out to change. While it might be difficult to exclude Beethoven from the reception history of Schubert, it would be more effective to model how to separate Schubert from Beethoven and highlight Schubert's musical individuality.
Despite the issue described above, Schubert's Reputation from His Time to Ours is a strong and well-researched book that makes clear the issues impeding Schubert's popularity and the context in which the composer's status has risen. Block demonstrates that the narrative about Schubert's femininity was constructed by a variety of factors, including his excellence in creating beautiful melodies, his large output of lieder, his mysterious sexual orientation, and, perhaps most importantly, his reception by others. The appendices in chapters 1,3,6, and 7 offer valuable research resources. Although the book is generally serious in tone, the author sometimes interjects personal anecdotes that give it a tinge of informality. The combination of archival research, music analysis, personal narrative, interpretation, and historiography contributes to a rich presentation of Schubert's reception history over the past two centuries.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2019|
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