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Book Review

Analyzing Schubert

Analyzing Schubert by Clark
Suzannah Clark
Cambridge University Press, 2011 pp x + 290
ISBN-10: 0521848679
ISBN-13: 978-05218486713
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We should perhaps know better than to be surprised at the reception that any composer receives at the hands (or ears) of their contemporaries. At the distance of two centuries it seems inconceivable that the music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) should have attracted puzzlement – even criticism during and immediately after his life.

But it did.

The modulations which we today find so beguiling and beautiful were described with emotions ranging from dismay to hostility as "excessive", "odd", and "unplanned". As much as – if not, maybe, more than – the music of any other of the composers of the Classical period (except in some way some Beethoven) Schubert's music can be plausibly argued to have remained misunderstood; even until the present. Successive writers have added levels of paint which color Schubert's music – at best with a mystically roseate or distorting scarlet varnish; or at worst an accretion of apparent weakness, flaw and incompletion. An example of such work is Frank Ruppert's Franz Schubert and the Mysterium Magnum (ISBN-10: 1434993248; ISBN-13: 978-1434993243). While David Damschroder's Harmony in Schubert (ISBN-10: 0521764637; ISBN-13: 978-0521764636) emphasizes pure analysis over a specific thesis. And that, too, is what Suzannah Clark concerns herself in this excellent book, Analyzing Schubert, from Cambridge University Press.

Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of Music at Harvard, Clark argues that we still hamper our understanding of Schubert if we allow ourselves to pay as much (or more) attention to those qualities of the composer which we can label alienation, "wanderer", trance-fantastical, above all mystical; rather than logical. It's that logic, she argues, which places Schubert squarely in the Classical era. He adopted its forms fully. That has to be acknowledged unequivocally.

At its worst, a misunderstanding like this of how Schubert's music works bars us from understanding its place in the broad musical progressions of the nineteenth century: from the advances made by his contemporaries to later Romantic music. For Schubert's harmonies were not so much digressions as "extensions". Though musicologists and commentators can be forgiven for finding certain aspects of Schubert's life striking. For instance, his attitude to composition and performance was anomalous. He was extremely painstaking in sourcing song texts; and meticulous in the technicalities of writing. Yet the composer seems to have set next to no store by following through generally; specifically, on following up to push for publication. Stories abound where his many friends (and family) had to "take him in hand", find finance, arrange for publication, set up performances, guard against plagiarism – and even at time retrieve debts owed to him. He seems to have been singularly unconcerned to assure a future for his works. This may in part have contributed (subsequently) to his image as a wayward romantic who dared more than was wise; an eccentric not caring that he would attract bewilderment – as was to some extent the case with Beethoven. Clark's perceptive new book seeks to correct such misperceptions and inaccuracies by her close attention to Schubert's scores and intelligent analysis of their harmonic world.

The substantive portion of "Analyzing Schubert" is divided into just four chapters of between 50 and 90 pages each. There is also a short introduction and epilog. This structure makes for a real sense of purpose in the book; it communicates readily that Clark has a sound thesis and advances it well and with neither fuss nor ellipsis. The introduction takes an apt and persuasively relevant physical starting place as token for the author's proposition: Richard Cohn's theory of hexatonic cycles dating from 1999 – particularly in contrast with the conventional Circle of Fifths schematic. That proposition is that different (including unfortunately skewed) musical theories have at best filtered (and, worse, distorted) our perception of Schubert's harmonies in ways that – if nothing else – result in our losing out on the richness and breadth of the composer's harmonic invention.

The first chapter examines the ways in which the contemporary singer Michael Vogl (1768-1840) projected the Lied in Schubert's work. In a diary entry he describes the songs are having as "truly divine inspirations … products of musical clairvoyance". Other "claims" which originated with and/or were perpetuated by Vogl and his contemporaries include somnambulism, and that Schubert's music was "in a trance-like state". These were further colored by an inference that some sort of "magic" must have been responsible for Schubert's genius because he was so poorly educated (even because he was so poor!)

The rest of the nineteenth century, the Victorian sensibility in particular, warmed to such a misperception. Clark does us all – not least Schubert – a service by deflating this myth. And she has the quite different assessments of such friends as Josef von Spaun and Josef Hüttenbrenner, who were just as well informed as Vogl, on her side. They failed to suggest that Schubert drew on anything "untoward" for his harmonic aesthetic. We do know that Vogl had a fairly high opinion of himself, and was initially reluctant to look at Schubert's Lieder – Goethe famously never did. Vogl perhaps found it easier to ascribe to Schubert those motives and qualities which Clark puts in a much firmer and more reliable context: ones of a self-taught but methodical and technically very astute composer.

The remaining three chapters deal with specific areas of Schubert's music: Chapter 2 chiefly songs, especially ones with marked tonal variation. Chapter 3 redresses the balance that has described some of the more lyrical passages in the composer's instrumental music as "digressions". Chapter 4 concentrates on Schubert's creation of balance (specifically, symmetry) in expositions and recapitulations in sonata form. Clark sets this in the context of Schenker's "sacred triangle". In particular, it's hardly "wayward" or even eccentric for "a range of keys [to] substitute for the so-called natural or conventional keys of the dominant and relative major in secondary themes in the exposition or of the tonic in the first and second themes in the recapitulation" [213].

Clark's is an expert and scholarly analysis. It's expertly conceived and presented. The musical deconstruction is clear, easy to follow and internally very consistent. She brings in other scholars' and specialists' own ideas and analyses. This only adds weight to her basic theory. It might seem unnecessary or perverse to (have to) address and correct an apparently somewhat questionable assessment in the first place. But Vogl's is an assessment by a contemporary of Schubert's. In one form or another – by inference and obliquely – it has been rather influential since. Precisely because Clark draws on the work of so many others, potential criticisms – a selective or judicious use (depending on your point of view) of Schenker, for instance – are anticipated and dealt with. Much undergrowth is cleared. Furthermore, her emphasis on such a specific topic as this might seem as though it will reduce the appeal of a book with such a broad and non-specific title. In fact, Clark's arguments are so well made and widely applicable to our best understanding of Schubert's music. The narrative is so approachable that as a model of musical analysis on an important composer (yet in some ways still underrated: the choral music deserves more attention, for example), its appeal ought indeed to be as wide as that neutral title of the book suggests.

Clark is – almost needless to say – very well supported by the usual high standards of Cambridge University Press… there is plenty of white space helping to make the book visually appealing and pleasant to read; the many musical illustrations are particularly clear and easy to use; footnoting is in-page; the bibliography is almost twice as long as the index; although there are next to no other illustrations. Significantly, Clark draws judiciously on myriad (recent) published sources. At well under 300 substantive pages, "Analyzing Schubert" is neither a taxing nor a drawn-out read; yet its import is substantial. Its author makes her points clearly and without fuss, supports them admirably and leaves us with a fresh, convincing and sustainable view of Schubert. Recommended for all lovers of Schubert for sure; but also to anyone with more than a passing interest in the development of harmony in particular in the nineteenth century, and indeed musical history more generally.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Sealey.