Recognizing Genius

February 25, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston celebrates composer Franz Schubert’s 200th birthday and his epic song cycle.

PAUL SOLMAN: Franz Schubert’s famous quintet, “The Trout.” Students and teachers from Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Longy School of Music were rehearsing it recently for a celebration of the composer’s 200th birthday. Schubert lived a mere 31 years, yet composed well over a thousand works, a prodigy who wrote music faster than most people can transcribe it. Today his themes are top 40 famous, at least to classical buffs. The “Impromptu” in B flat major. The ubiquitous “Ave Maria;” the “Unfinished Symphony.” But in Schubert’s day almost nothing was published or even publicly performed. He was the most striking case of genius unrecognized, according to one scholar, and one unlucky guy says the president of the American Schubert Institute, Henny Bordwin.

HENNY BORDWIN, President, American Schubert Institute: He gave in his whole life that I know of one formal concert, and with his kind of luck this was in April of ’27 and with his luck the next day or two days later Paginini came to town and gave a concert, so little Schubert was directly under the rug, and nobody talked about it again, except for his friends. He lived with Beethoven at the same time; they never met.

PAUL SOLMAN: Schubert lived in Beethoven’s shadow, reportedly in awe, too nervous to even introduce himself when they passed on the streets of Vienna. This is his own 9th Symphony, echoing the master’s with its range of feeling, its emotional outbursts. (music in background) Schubert was a devout early 19th century romantic, hanging out with Bohemian poets and other Viennese intellectuals, so devoted they supported him from the age of 19 to his death. In their houses he both slept and composed, never having a home or even room of his own, but among his various feats creating an entirely new art form, the epic song cycle. (singing in background)

VICTOR ROSENBAUM, Longy School of Music: It’s almost like it was a collection of songs but with either a narrative, a story that binds them altogether, or at least a mood or a central theme which connects them all.

PAUL SOLMAN: Victor Rosenbaum and Vincent Stringer were rehearsing Schubert’s last and best known song cycle, “The Winter Journey,” based on poems by the romantic poet, Wilhelm Mueller. We asked them to help us plum Schubert’s depths by taking us through this one work, both literary enough and simple enough for even non-musicians like me to understand.

VICTOR ROSENBAUM: We learn at the beginning of the cycle that the central figure has lost his love and the cycle and the poems and the songs are about the search for love and the desolation of losing love.

VINCENT DION STRINGER: And he’s wandering, and he’s in despair, and it’s a moment of resignation. He is really at a low point when this song cycle begins.

VINCENT DION STRINGER: (singing – translation shown on screen) As a stranger, I entered; As a stranger, I go out again.

VICTOR ROSENBAUM: (Stringer singing in background) There are a lot of sort of trudging and walking motifs in this, and the very first song establishes that idea. And also within the first two measures, very dissonant harmony gives the sense of the tragedy that is about to unfold.


PAUL SOLMAN: Where’s the dissonance?

VICTOR ROSENBAUM: Well, here we have a very pure harmony, sad, but when–(playing)–when those notes are added to the harmony, there’s a sudden clash, and it’s also stronger, dynamically stronger, indicated by the composer. So you have –(playing)–a rather plaintiff beginning, as if beginning to tell the story,–(playing)–and that’s–that chord is like a stab to the heart.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is that how you experience it?

VINCENT DION STRINGER: Yes, exactly. There are certain colors of sound that are made in the piano that really express the emotion. And when you connect with that, it just–it cuts right to the core of your soul.

PAUL SOLMAN: Midway through this Winter Journey comes the song “Dream of Spring.”

VINCENT DION STRINGER: (singing – translation shown on screen) I dreamt of many colored flowers, As they bloom in May.

VICTOR ROSENBAUM: This is not happy music. Schubert is depicting the fact that it’s nostalgic remembrance for a time that was happy.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, I hate to admit it, but the opening of the song sounded pretty happy to me. So how about a really chipper version to get Schubert’s point by hearing how he apparently didn’t want it performed?

VICTOR ROSENBAUM: If it were very happy you mean? (playing)


PAUL SOLMAN: It hurts to do it that way?

VICTOR ROSENBAUM: That way it hurts. Yes.


VICTOR ROSENBAUM: Because that’s not the way we understand this part of the cycle.

VINCENT DION STRINGER: There it seemed to be absent of the heavy, weightedness, and despair that this poet is in. And this is just a glimpse perhaps through the fog of his sadness of something beautiful, you know.

VICTOR ROSENBAUM: And one of the reasons that we find out that it’s just a glimpse is that what happened the next moment in the music is he snapped back to a sort of reality.

VINCENT DION STRINGER: He awakens. He awakens.

VICTOR ROSENBAUM: So following that brief moment of dreaming, this is what happens.

VINCENT DION STRINGER: (singing – translation on screen) And when the cocks crowed, My eyes opened. It was cold and dark; Ravens croaked on the roof.

VICTOR ROSENBAUM: Schubert’s music is very abstract in some ways but it’s also very immediate, and sometimes he actually tries to portray the text in a very literal sense. And here we have this–(playing)–the cock crowing–(playing)–(crowing like rooster)–you can just hear the rooster in the morning. The music is very vivid. (playing)

PAUL SOLMAN: This is the 24th and last song of the Winter Journey Cycle.

VINCENT DION STRINGER: By the end of the cycle he is at the lowest point of his existence, and he is watching–(Rosenbaum playing in background)–the organ grinder play his Herty Gerty through the streets, and this is a pathetic sight. This man is just wandering. He’s in poverty, and he’s playing his music. And the poet at that point feels as though he wants to travel with that Herty Gerty because he’s at that same low point.

VINCENT DION STRINGER: (singing – translation shown on screen) With numbed fingers he grinds all he can; Barefoot on the ice, he totters to and fro.

PAUL SOLMAN: The outsider–impoverished–ailing–never married–twice arrested for suspected political activity. On his deathbed Schubert was correcting proofs of the “Winter Journey.” Its final image: a cold, lonely music maker as persistent as he is ignored.

VICTOR ROSENBAUM: It’s a unique song, not only for Schubert but in the history of the song literature, a song that is built on one continuous harmony from beginning to end, and every measure –(playing)–beginning with the same drone, and then the right–(playing)–one can just feel the slow turning of the organ grinder–(playing).

PAUL SOLMAN: But Franz Schubert didn’t just write dirges or just songs, for that matter. (music in background) His “Death Mask” suggests what his music does: a range of emotional experience way beyond his years. It’s also a depth of experience rarely heard in the two centuries since Franz Schubert first graced the world.