Schubert And Sadness
One cannot stop marvelling at the Ability of the Mind to retain what is essential and discard what is not. Of course, it is a fundamental and well-documented Phenomenon, but one cannot stop marvelling.
One Remark I read somewhere, sometime, attributed to Goethe — that the Fifth Symphony was “subversive to Civilisation” — made no sense to me whatsoever when I first read it. I was not even sure of the Meaning of “subversive.” And it was not a remark someone had made in a memorable Context; it was just one Sentence out of hundreds, in whatever it was that I was reading — a Book, or Essay, or whatever it was.
But it stuck. And although I have thought a lot about it in Connection with the Fifth Symphony and come to certain Conclusions, it still sticks, and I often think about the Subversiveness of a lot of the “great Music” that is our Heritage.
Schubert is the God of Sadness. I doubt whether any Composition (except for the Trout) by Schubert in any major Key has had any Impact on me. (And even in the Trout, the most lyrical Parts are in the minor.) And, as I have written elsewhere, the “Sadness” Schubert evokes is not anything earthly; it is beyond; it is on a plane where the sadness almost transcends human Nature and Feeling itself. As I have said, a lot of Schubert is infinitely sad. And Schubert offers no Hope. Whereas Brahms is human, whereas Mozart is affirmative of the Love that will ultimately redeem, whereas the Master seeks the Answer from within, and not only affirms that the Answer lies within, but also, in his Egotism, provides it for us — Schubert provides no Answer, no Redemption, no Hope.
We weep with Schubert. To put it in the simplest of Words, the Beauty of Schubert’s music is greater than the Beauty of most Things that this World can provide; and captivated by that Beauty, we lose ourselves in it, are held by it, and cannot escape — for the simple Reason that we do not want to. And in that State, we worsen our Suffering: we tend to forget our original saddening Emotion and take in the more perfect, ethereal Vision of Schubert’s; and in so doing, we do two things. We go away from ourselves, and, we raise our Sadness to the level that we normally reserve for Monads like Perfection and Infinity.
And, doing this on a repetitive Basis, — since we have electronic Devices that make it so easy and convenient, — we fall into “Schubert’s Trap”, although he did not intend it that Way; and that is hell. For, instead of overcoming our Grief, we have found a Reason – namely, Schubert – to perpetuate it. And we return to it in a manner similar to the way we return to TV Reruns in order to deaden our Senses: we return to something while knowing the Outcome of the Experience, and that is Hell.
My original intent here was to talk about Herbst, in Schwanengesang. The Lyrics, if one may call them that (!) were written by someone called Ludwig Rellstab. Here are the Lyrics, with my own rhyming Translation:
Es rauschen die Winde so herbstlich und kalt;
Verödet die Fluren, entblättert der Wald.
Ihr blumigen Auen! Du sonniges Grün!
So welken die Blüten des Lebens dahin.
Es ziehen die Wolken so finster und grau;
Verschwunden die Sterne am himmlischen Blau!
Ach wie die Gestirne am Himmel entflieh’n,
So sinket die Hoffnung des Lebens dahin!
Ihr Tage des Lenzes mit Rosen geschmückt,
Wo ich die Geliebte ans Herze gedrückt!
Kalt über den Hügel, rauscht, Winde, dahin!
So sterben die Rosen der Liebe dahin!
[ The winds gust so autumnal and cold;
The Fields get barren, the leafless Woods behold.
But O you flowery Meadows! O Verdure sun-filled!
Thus the Blossoms of Life do wilt.
The Clouds above drift so gloomy and grey;
From the blue of the Heavens the Stars go away.
Ah, just as the Stars in the Sky get overcast,
So does the Hope of Life sink fast.
O days of Spring with Roses adorned,
When I pressed my Love to my Breast so fond!
Cold Winds, now, over the Hill, rush, fly!
Thus, then, do Love’s Roses die. ]
Hardly evocative of any profound poetic Imagery. One could have written such Verse when one was ten Years old, except that one might not have been negative enough to do so.
But Schubert’s Herbst is, simply speaking, one of his most beautiful Lieder; and one of the most beautiful Pieces of Music, for its Length, that I have listened to.
One cannot even say in rebuttal that I, the writer, probably identifies with these Lyrics more than other people do; these Lyrics are so very simple that anyone except the most unfeeling among us can identify, in a Sense, with these. These Words convey a simple Truth: that in this Life, Hopes sink, Loves die, and Love dies.
Such childishly simple Lyrics. “Just as the Stars disappear, so does Hope sink.”
Possibly the only poetic Device beyond plain rhyme that we can see is the Change from “Life” to “Love” in the third and last Stanza.
Why did Schubert choose these Lyrics to set to such exquisitely beautiful and painful Music?
Is it that, perhaps, the profoundest Pain is to be found in the plainest Facts?
Was it that the Negative in these Lyrics is found in the rawest of Words, “wilt,” “sink,” “die” — which are also a favourite of Schubert’s in so many of his Lieder, including Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise?
We have almost gotten used to these Words by now: “Bächlien,” “welken,” “Lenz,” “Winter,” and so on. Schubert repeatedly and unashamedly infuses these simplest of Words with the profoundest of musical Feeling.
Or is it a quality of the German Language? Or perhaps of the German Mind that shuns verbal Complexity? German certainly is a more “homely” Language than ours, but why is it that the greatest and saddest of Schubert’s Lieder use such a limited Vocabulary, and Verse so utterly limited in terms of poetic Imagery?
The Simplicity of the Lyrics apart, one must speak of the Effect of the Music itself. Admittedly, it is a saddened Mind that gravitates to such morose Music, but the Effect is inexplicable, except that one can say that in this musical experience — these simple Lyrics set to such profoundly moving Melodies — one’s Consciousness is raised to a Level higher than the Sadness that draws us to it, but not transcending the realm of Sadness as a whole; one is raised, but profoundly sad. As I have said, one weeps with Schubert.
Why then does one return to the Experience?
“Laugh and the World laughs with you, cry and you cry alone”; and crying while not alone is an Experience some of us crave at various times. Schubert fulfils this Need of ours.
“A shoulder to cry on”; this is something Schubert provides; but what of the Fact that he makes the Experience so beautiful that we do not seek to go away from it, to overcome the initial Sadness?
Is it because of the Aspect of pure Beauty, which Schubert incidentally happens to be able to express only in these, his saddest Songs? I do not think so; there is a definite craving involved here. When the world and its Sadness overwhelms us, we “return” to Schubert again and again, and in Schubert we find a towering, transcendental Companion: and suddenly, all is well, because here is one who is so vital, and yet has understood that which makes us cry.
Is this not like Tobacco, or anything addictive: that which heals for now is the same as that which destroys from within? Does not this Obsession with Schubert destroy, or at least eat away at our vital Feelings, making us believe that all the World is as painful as Schubert makes it seem?
Is not the role of a Creator to show us how beautiful the World is, so that we may rejoice that we are here? But then what is Schubert doing? And what is any Creator doing, who paints suffering on a Canvas of Beauty?
One may read Schopenhauer, for example, — who offers no hope, — without such Confusion, since it is our rational Mind in control. We do not love Schopenhauer; we merely read him and either agree or disagree. But as for Schubert, we allow him into our hearts. Does Schubert remain a festering Wound, a Wound we do not care to heal because it is so beautiful?
Is the sado-masochistic complex involved here? But how do we reconcile Masochism with transcendental Beauty?
We have now come upon a much more difficult, disturbing Question: why do we listen to Music at all?
For simple Sounds, like most of modern “Music”, the answer is simple: our sense of Melody enables us to reach, through a listening of the Sounds, a simple Emotion that we wish to feel: cheerfulness, or defiant detachment, or some such.
For great music, there is no simple answer. Often, it is, as I have said in another essay — “Beethoven and the God-Conception” — a desire to listen to our own, inner Wills reflected in the outer World, and the Fact that the listening provides the illusion that we have willed something. Often it is a Desire to transport ourselves into a more perfect World where Beauty rules. But the Answers are not simple. Even harder is the Question, “Which music should we listen to, and which not?”
Alan Watts comes to mind: in his book “The Book,” where he explores Infinity, Suffering, Spirituality, and so on and so forth — all things that matter, — and that book is a remarkable Effort since he discusses so much in the Space of less than a hundred and fifty Pages, acting as a Bridge between East and West, — in “The Book,” Watts makes reference to eastern versus western Music. Music, he says, “should not” emphasise so much “the End”, and “the Conclusion”; that it should flow with the Tao, that it should respect the Movement of life as it really is. He makes special Mention of Beethoven’s late Sonatas, where, as is well known, the entire Sonata exists for the Purpose of the Finale. In the sonata in A major, for example, the first two movements are three and five Minutes long, while the “Finale” is thirteen Minutes long. It pounds on the final theme, in variations that seem, in the first few Listenings, to be almost the same statement over and over.
The late sonatas, and especially that one, are extreme examples. But one Thought that may be valuable is this: that perhaps those two or three Creators — Beethoven, Schubert, and — perhaps Mozart in a couple of Places — reached a new Level of Expression in Music, one that was not meant to be. That might sound bizarre, but does make Sense. Perhaps Music as a Vehicle of self-expression was not meant to carry so much of the “Image of the Will” (my term). And perhaps Beethoven and Schubert have made us experience Things that we as natural human Beings were not meant to experience.
This is something along the lines of the apparent fact that humans were not “meant” to experience the Visions brought on by synthetic Substances such as LSD. I would therefore call some key Compositions — most by Beethoven and Schubert — “extreme” Music: and I will call my Question this – “Why do we listen to extreme Music?”
My questions remain, and although I will look for Answers, I continue to listen to Lieder like Herbst when the Sadness of the World pushes me to seek a Companion.
The Questions are complex, but sometimes they seem simple.
In the third Stanza, the Baritone’s voice drops, and we are reminded of “die Tage des Lenzes” (the days of spring):
“Ihr Tage des Lenzes mit Rosen geschmückt,
Wo ich die Geliebte ans Herze gedrückt!”
And there come back to us vivid images of the Beloved, and of Spring, “when we clasped her to our Breast.” Images, from our own Past, or from Schubert?
And then the bitter, rasping lines:
“Kalt über den Hügel, rauscht, Winde, dahin!”
[“Blow, Winds, over the Hill, rush, there!]
The cold Winds do not seem bitter any more; we have transcended them. They are enveloped by Schubert’s Love; God-like, he protects us from the cold Winds that freeze and deaden our Love. And then:
“So sterben die Rosen der Liebe dahin!”
[“Thus die away the Roses of Love!”]
In that stretching “ste – e- e – rben”, we are in touch with our inmost selves; beyond Events, beyond the World; in Sadness, we are at one with Schubert and with our Creator.
The line repeats –
“So sterben die Rosen der Liebe dahin!”
And we are left feeling — feeling nothing; we are beyond everything, even beyond Sadness now; we are in Awe. We look straight at the Source of all Feeling, and we are calm.
For that Feeling, for that Experience, is why we do it; this repetitive “going back.” And is that Intent true, genuine and beautiful?
If we go by Goethe’s pragmatic Dictum: “Only that which is fruitful is true”, then, no.
But when we look at the sublime Elevations we attain, even if only temporarily, then, yes.
Perhaps at these heights, “the Coin” flips, and Sadness and Joy become one.
Perhaps Schubert knew that.
Perhaps it is as simple as that.
I do not know.