Schubert: Octet in F major

Youth is a turbulent time; and Franz Schubert, who died at the age of 31, spent most of his short time on Earth in its grasp. His relationship with Ludwig van Beethoven, or rather the idea of Beethoven, is a prime example. At seventeen, he sold his schoolbooks (and presumably suffered the consequences of their absence) to attend a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and wrote in his diary that he enjoyed playing Beethoven’s variations for his own enjoyment in his downtime. Only a few years later, however, he raged against Beethoven for “eccentricity which joins and confuses the tragic and the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, heroism with howlings, and the holiest with harlequinades, without distinction.” Not only that, but his blame took on a moral angle: Beethoven’s music, Schubert said, served to “goad people to madness instead of dissolving them in love, to incite them to laughter instead of lifting them up to God.” When his teacher gave him the autograph manuscript of one of Beethoven’s songs, he studied and copied it out, but also doodled in the margins and then dismembered it and gave only half of it away.

Six years later, however, he had done another about-face: Schubert published a piano work with the dedication,“To Ludwig van Beethoven by his Worshipper and Admirer Franz Schubert.” The shift in mood may have had more to do with confidence than musical taste: instead of viewing Beethoven as an untouchable behemoth whose pedestal could never be climbed up but only cut down to size, he was beginning to appear as a forebear. Beethoven and Schubert had some important friends in common, including the brothers Anselm and Josef Hüttenbrenner; Anselm is known for having visited Beethoven on his deathbed, to which the dying man responded with “I am not worthy of your visiting me,” and for preserving the lock of his hair at the moment of Beethoven’s death that is still on display in Graz. His brother Josef wrote to his publisher about Schubert around this time that “in short, and without exaggeration, we may speak of a ‘second Beethoven.’ Indeed that immortal man says of him: ‘This one will surpass me.’” No wonder Schubert could afford to reveal his veneration.

He soon had an opportunity to display it publicly. Count Ferdinand Troyer, an accomplished clarinetist who worked as steward to Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolf of Austria, asked Schubert for a companion to Beethoven’s Septet, which had been an immediate and enduring hit twenty years earlier. What Schubert produced was the kind of work that is commonplace in literature, but rare in music, especially so long before the advent of postmodernism and its ethos of transformation and borrowing: a work that is intentionally derivative of a previous work, but made stronger, not weaker, by its associations to an original. Schubert added one violin to Beethoven’s ensemble, but kept the same six movements, structure, and even tonal relationships of the septet. More than that, he kept the very thing that he had raged against in his teenage diary: the joining of the tragic and the comic into a work of nearly symphonic scope. Perhaps for the younger composer, that would have been a failure; but for the Schubert of the Octet, it was an inevitability. “When I attempted to sing of love, it turned to pain,” Schubert wrote. “And when I tried to sing of sorrow, it turned to love.”