In a post about Schubert’s first draft of piano sonata D 959 in A Major, I mentioned that Tim Page wrote that Schubert “engendered music as easily and naturally as some trees bear fruit.” (The quote is from the liner notes to the Bernstein NY Phil CD of the Unfinished & Great C Major Symphonies.) I like the quote because it is so ridiculous, silly, and more than anything, it’s not true.
First of all, there is quite a bit of awkwardness in early versions of Schubert’s compositions (see my earlier post). Just because almost no drafts survive doesn’t mean he didn’t write them! Especially when we do have some drafts at all sorts of stages of composition, and especially for a composer whose manuscripts were scattered all around central Europe for 20 years after his death until people started to realize that guy was worth something.
And just because he wrote fast does not mean he didn’t toil through that work and have imperfect products before the final gem. Yes, he wrote fast, unbelievably fast, but not “easily.” Schubert’s friends’ diaries (of which Charles Osborne supplies many a telling snippet in Schubert and his Vienna) frequently report on his obsessions with certain pieces, which pained him greatly and soured his mood.
But the real reason that I love that quote, after its absurdity, is because it completely hits the nail on the head: to not ultimately believe it to some degree, as annoying as it, is, I think, to not really get Schubert. At least some Schubert: I don’t know how anyone could possibly say that Winterreise was “engendered as easily and naturally as some trees bear fruit,” a piece from 1828 that at times contends with the more discomforting products of Modernism. But I don’t think that’s the Schubert Tim Page was talking about. He’s talking about Schubert the Romantic, the Schubert that stretched the forms of the solo sonata, the chamber piece, and the symphony to enormous proportions, and filled those huge spaces with minuscule amounts of material. In these pieces, a few tiny bits of musical material are spun out in a million combinations, each taking its sweet time to reveal itself or get on to the next one. It seems impossible that a piece could be an hour long, have a total of three melodies in it, and just a few more textures, and not get boring for a second.
I think that is the feeling in Schubert’s music behind Tim Page’s silly words. Suspending disbelief and imagining that it took Schubert no effort at all is in fact at the core of the pleasure that his music offers. It is what his music wants us to feel. Because to us mortals, his feats don’t make sense any other way. If Schubert did not “engender music as easily and naturally as some trees bear fruit,” then we had all better just quit right now. The proof is as follows:
1) If it wasn’t easy for Schubert, then we’re all doomed.
2) We can’t all be doomed.
3) ∴, it was easy for Schubert.
The magic behind Schubert’s music is making that logic believable. The music offers a sense of wonder in the seeming ease of his mastery.