Thursday, March 26, 2015

Schubert's Beethoven Project

Schubert's Beethoven Project by John Gingerich examines the composer's musical ambitions in the last years of his very short life.  This book demonstrates how the shadow of Beethoven's musical accomplishments loomed very large for Schubert (and really for every classical composer of similar lofty aspirations).

In the last years of Schubert's life Beethoven's music was standard by which the new category of "classical music" came to be measured. By describing the historical context of 1820s Vienna and through a very close analysis of Schubert's music, Gingerich demonstrates Schubert's process of assimilating the structure and harmonic language of Beethoven's music. He also notes that in the eyes of his contemporaries, this project was doomed to fail owing to Schubert's intimate association with genres of music like Lieder and partsong which were not felt to be serious. This hindered the possibility of his music being performed during his short life and for decades after his death.

But Gingerich shows how this "failure" in fact led to an original approach to the process of composing large scale ambition chamber and symphonic music. The author demonstrates this with a great deal of painstaking musical detail -- some passages of this book take great effort to follow and should be skipped by readers who cannot comfortably read a score.

This book provides fascinating insight into the musical world just prior to classical music world that we are familiar with today. The Napoleonic wars disrupted court support of ambitious music and composers had to find support in other ways -- through publication of compositions and through musical organizations devoted to the advancement of serious music. Genres like art song and solo piano music were denigrated.  It's hard to believe that not a single piano work of Schubert's was given a public performance in his lifetime.

Schubert's Beethoven Project is a difficult but rewarding read.

Schubert's Beethoven Project by John M. Gingerich (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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