Last weekend, while digging through some old boxes of books, I came across Edmund Morris’s brisk and insightful Beethoven: The Universal Composer. The book was given to me as a Christmas present nearly a decade ago and was published via HarperCollins’ Eminent Lives series of biographies. Rereading the book over the last two evenings I was taken back by how Morris—an immensely talented historian and skilled writer—often intersperse the tale of the composer from Bonn with antidotes of Franz Schubert, a contemporary of Beethoven who worshipped the Master while never achieving a modicum of the accolades afforded to Beethoven during his life.
Schubert, by all accounts now considered one of the greatest composers of all time, lived a life of relative obscurity during the age of Beethoven only to die a year after his idol. Morris, quite brilliantly, closes The Universal Composer thusly:
On March 29, an endless procession followed Beethoven’s body out of the courtyard of the Schwarzpanierhaus and up the Währinger Gürtel to the cemetery. Estimates of the size of the crowd ranged from ten to thirty thousand. “All Vienna seemed to be on the move,” Gerhard von Breuning reported. A brass band and chorus preceded the coffin. Eight Kapellmeisters carried the pall. Among the twenty top-hatted torchbearers was Schubert. Before the next year was out, he would be buried in the same plot as his hero just one monument away—dominated, in death as well as life, by the huge name
Reading this I couldn’t help but be taken back to Nietzsche and his thoughts on posthumous men. This is someone who is often misunderstood by his contemporaries as an extremist or mere kook or, even worse, ignored completely, but one whom history will recognize as a man before his time. Being assured of future vindication by generations to come apparently helped the mad philosopher sleep at night.
In an ever-godless epoch, the idea that our thoughts and works will live on is an alien concept. Had Franz Schubert thoughts been of this frame of mind, we wouldn’t have his music today.
Franz Schubert is a perfect example of how this plays out.
Today, Schubert is widely considered one of the greatest composers of all time. Phil Goulding, in his extremely popular (and Brandon Ragle endorsed) Classical Music, rates Schubert as the 7th greatest behind Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Haydn, and Brahms. His works are widely conducted by modern orchestras and enjoyed by countless classical buffs worldwide.
The son of a peasant schoolmaster, Schubert lived most of his life just a step above poverty and had to rely on friends and admirers of his music, during adulthood, to survive financially. To make matters worse, he lived most of his adult life in poor health; suffering from both physical illness (typhoid fever) and mental anguish (cyclothymia, a bipolar spectrum mood disorder).
Yet, despite all this, in his brief life—dying before the age of 32—Schubert composed nearly 600 lieder, nine symphonies, two full song cycles, and a number of chamber and solo piano works. He also composed opera, incidental music, and religious works. It wasn’t until decades after his death, when musical giants such as Liszt and Brahms began to champion his works, that the world began to take notice. That this happened, we are all the better for it.
I cannot think of Schubert and not hear his 8th Symphony in my mind. Unofficially titled The Unfinished, many view it as the first Romantic Age symphony. It is unique in that it only contains two movements, as opposed to the standard four. To this day, musicologists debate why the symphony was left “unfinished” in the first place. Some conclude it was abandoned to focus on other works and other still believe it was due to his declining health. I like to think that he stopped, because it was perfect as it was.
In my admiration for Schubert, I often think of him as a posthumous man. Despite all the obstacles and the lack of acknowledgement by his contemporaries, he pressed on in heroic fashion and left the world with the genius of his music. This sort of persistence is antithetical our present view of success. To do something great without the celebrity and the fame that should accompany it seems unthinkable in the modern age.
That something is great and wonderful and noble in and of itself is not something we often consider. In an age where celebrity is the be all end all of modern life, people are made famous for their homemade pornography or just the fact that they are famous or both, it is a hard pill for a creative person to swallow; the idea that no matter what your talents or virtues might be, you most likely will live on in obscurity. Artists, sages, thinkers, and writers used to understand this as just part of the equation. Many of them labored on in obscurity nonetheless as their work was their highest calling.
As we now confuse celebrity with success and financial reward with genius, there can be no doubt why the state art in the modern world is in decline. If your life’s endeavor is only about immediate reward, then you will endeavor to create the sorts of things that result in those types of rewards or what you think will result in those types rewards.
In an ever-godless epoch, the idea that our thoughts and works will live on is an alien concept. Had Franz Schubert thoughts been of this frame of mind, we wouldn’t have his music today. But the sick and suffering, often ignored, manic-depressive, sad sack trudged onward. Nearly 200 years later, his works, his genius tiptoe across my iTunes and dance in my ears. His 8th and 9th symphonies, his Wanderer Fantasy, his “Trout” piano quintet in A; these are works of genius that I may enjoy here and now and for the rest of my days.
Posthumous man indeed.