Analyzing Franz Schubert

Image credits: Pero Mrvica via Creative Commons

Image credits: Pero Mrvica via Creative Commons

“Take people as they are, not as they should be,” Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote in his diary on 8 September 1816, at the age of nineteen. Putting aside the potentially invidious “should,” Schubert’s injunction is as commendable as it is difficult to follow. How can we possibly hope to recover Schubert’s essential being from the distance of two centuries? The task would be challenging enough if Schubert were lying on the analyst’s couch.

Nonetheless, some have tried to bridge the gap of the centuries. Most notably, musicologist Maynard Solomon has proposed that Schubert may have been queer in his “Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini” (1989). Solomon takes a similar approach to Gary C. Thomas in his essay on Handel, reconstructing the queer subculture of early nineteenth-century Vienna, scrutinizing Schubert’s circle of close male intimates, and liberally citing their amusing, euphemistic letters. The evidence is compelling but—as with Handel—will never be conclusive.

As I suggested in my previous essay by facetiously enquiring “Which are the queer notes?”, analysis of Schubert’s music cannot fill the biographical breeches. Some musicologists have even contended that Schubert’s sexuality has no role in the analysis of his compositions, primarily in the forum of a Schubert-themed issue of 19th-Century Music (1993). Published in the tempestuous wake of Solomon’s article, this skirmish captures in miniature the contentious debates within musicology in the 1980s and 1990s.

Within the Schubert issue of 19th-Century Music, Kofi Agawu presents the case against the analytic relevance of Schubert’s sexuality, writing that on the “neutral level of analysis, the level marked by an explicit parsing of the score, Schubert’s sexuality can play no part in the strict sense.” Yet within the context of an analytic tradition that until recently categorized cadences as “masculine” and “feminine” based on perceived strength, and long characterized Schubert’s music as the “feminine” to Beethoven’s “masculine,” this position appears both ironic and disingenuous. So much for neutrality.

Even without this opposition, drawing a connection between music and sexuality remains perilous. Schubert often eschewed the well-defined formal structures and harmonic expectations prevalent in Vienna during his lifetime, so the analytic evidence necessary to propose that his sexuality manifests itself in deviations from accepted practices is mustered with relative ease. Among other problems with this reading, however, defining queerness through opposition to expected norms both equates queerness with abnormality and denies queers a positive or self-defined identity.

An alternative prospect, that of seeking “a definitive homosexual approach to composing string quartets and symphonies” (as Agawu writes), is unpalatable and unrealistic because it denies queers agency and forecloses on the possible existence of a multiplicity of queer experiences (among other reasons, some discussed in my previous essay). How, then, can analysts understand the impact of sexuality on music in a manner that allows for self-definition, divergent experiences, and analytic rigor?

Particularly intriguing answers have been articulated by Susan McClary in her essay on Schubert in Queering the Pitch (1994) and by Lawrence Kramer in Franz Schubert: Sexuality, Subjectivity, Song (1998). McClary and Kramer contend that Schubert’s music enacts, dramatizes, and constructs ideas of sexuality, and they work to recover these alternative subjectivities through analysis.

I will offer highly simplified sketches of these technical, lengthy, and not uncontroversial analyses, running the risk of making the conclusions appear superficial or arbitrary so as to make them more widely understandable. I encourage interested readers—especially those with analytic training—to read the originals.

McClary focuses on Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony (D. 759), so named because Schubert completed only the first two movements out a projected four. This four-movement custom was merely one of the many norms governing symphonic composition in the early nineteenth century. Most significantly, these norms included particular well-defined formal structures. In the symphonies of the then-still-composing Beethoven such structures were often heard as expressing narratives or journeys (of varying degrees of abstraction) due to their teleological natures.

McClary contrasts these expected structures with Schubert’s structures, interpreting the latter as abstract narratives. In the first movement, instead of the expected triumph of the lyrical theme, she finds its destruction, interpreting this as the dramatization of a “victim narrative.” In the second movement Schubert eschews harmonic expectations and a secure melodic self-definition in music. Instead he uses a melody as a means of “deflection and exploration,” and “invites us to forgo the security of a centered, stable tonality and, instead, to experience—and even enjoy—a flexible sense of self,” McClary writes. As the movement continues this theme is harmonically constricted but eventually splits into two themes and regains harmonic flexibility. In short, McClary contends that after dramatizing the destruction of the self, Schubert embraces a flexibility of identity and enacts a process of self-discovery.

Kramer examines an entirely different part of Schubert’s compositional corpus: his lieder, or songs. Schubert helped to raise the lied from relative simplicity to the sophistication and prestige of one of the premiere musical genres of the nineteenth century, and he remains best known for his lieder. Because lieder involve poetry set to music, and thus constitute one of the most referential of musical genres, they lend themselves to interpretation.

In his analyses, Kramer focuses on lieder with textual themes of sexuality, love, and intimacy. Perhaps most intriguing is his reading of the lied “Die Forelle” (D. 550, “The Trout”), and the associated piano quintet (D. 667) in which Schubert re-uses and varies the theme from the lied. Kramer connects the lied—which involves a female fish, a male fisherman, a narrator of indeterminate gender, and a predicable phallic metaphor—to the nineteenth-century transsexual “mermaid fantasy.” In the piano quintet, Schubert played the piano part and assigned himself the trout’s melodic material. Kramer thus posits that Schubert constructs his own transsexual fantasy by assuming the identity of the female trout.

Similarly intriguing is Kramer’s reading of the lied “Ganymed” (D. 544). In “Ganymed” Schubert sets to music Goethe’s account of Zeus’ abduction of the handsome youth Ganymede, a Greek myth that has long represented homoerotic desire. Like McClary, he interprets continuous and unusually flexible harmonic motion as dramatizing a process of exploration, culminating in the discovery of a stable harmonic region—which parallels the abduction of Ganymede in the text—and what Kramer interprets as a representation of bodily erotic ecstasy.

McClary and Kramer thus interpret Schubert’s music as dramatizing processes of self-discovery, embracing flexible identities, and constructing alternative subjectivities. Need these alternative subjectivities be attributed—or even related—to Schubert’s indeterminate sexuality? No. They represent thoughtful, historically-informed interpretations based on notable musical features, but they are neither oracular nor definite. Interpretation, Kramer writes, is “the art of the possible”; a means of seeking what the music suggests, not what the composer intended. Nonetheless, these interpretations offer us the chance to see how sexuality may have shaped music, and to potentially understand Schubert as not merely straying from the expected, but constructing his own models of musical existence and thus actively affirming his own identity.

Zachary L. Stewart (Get Real contributor) 


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