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Franz Schubert - Maybe the first expressionist? Part 1.

Aktualisiert: 24. März 2022

In 1928 one of the most renowned Enzyclopedias of that time and of today, the famous BROCKHAUS, wrote: „Expressionism started in about 1912 and it means those art of today which struggles to express the inner experiences and not illustrations of the impressions by the world around us. This struggle is conditioned as well by fiery temper as it is by mystical religiosity and by a tendency towards abstracticism.“

Aren’t these exactly the parameters we can find in the instrumental oeuvre of Franz Schubert?

Manfred Wagner-Artzt



In 1997 (the year in which we have been celebrating the 200th birthday of Schubert) I was asked for the first time to refer about stylistic aspects in Schubert’s piano music and during the last years I got the more and more fascinated and passionated by this original Viennese composer (there are not as many as we sometimes pretend!) and talked about this theme not only in Vienna, but also e.g. at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow or at the music university in Dresden / Germany.

Therefore let’s turn immediately to our todays main theme which is:

Franz Schubert : maybe „The first Expressionist“ ?

Some reflections about the composer's unique stylistic devices on the basis of his piano music

My lecture is divided into three parts: The first is touching several aspects in the reception of Schubert and his instrumental music, and as well turns out some criteria of his personality. The second part is dedicated to some of Schubert’s Lieder and the third part will concentrate on a selection of his piano sonatas.

I suggest that it will be very difficult to find a renowned person who is not suffering under getting attached a lot of clichés to. But I also suggest that there are not many renowned persons in the world whose „clichés“ are as far from reality as they are in the case of Franz Schubert. Let me mention just a few of these often to be heard adverbs: he was naiv (innocent), dreamy, living in an ivory-tower, he loved society ( „Schubertiade“), and as well e.g., that he was composing fastly, making a lot of mistakes because of that etc. None of these attributes are fitting with the real Schubert.

How could it happen that there have been spread so many distorting pictures about Schubert ?

Of course there are several causes but I would like to point out especially two of them:

Obviously one of the main ones is to contribute to the era in which Schubert has lived. Far on to the 20th century he was titeled to be THE musician of the parlors , the „Salon“, mainly representative for the period of „Biedermeier“.

And to a certain extent this is even right if you consider that the period of Biedermeier has nothing to do with the „ideal and harmonious world“, what the name Biedermeier is as often as wrongly used today for. This time was exactly the opposite of living in peace and harmony, as it was the time of the Prince of Metternich, the foreign minister of Emperor Francis 1st and, later on, the chancellor of the Austrian Empire until to the revolution in 1848.

The name „Metternich“ stands for the most radical restrictions of freedom and human rights, for spying, and for censorship. Imagine that this censorship did not only touch the written words but as well instrumental music. Schubert had to send every instrumental composition to the so called „Bücherrevisionsamt“ to get the allowance for performing or printing e.g. a symphony or a sonata!

As a reaction on this omnipresent reprisals the Bourgeoisie withdrew from the official life to private homes. There began to develope fascinating art-circles in which met young poets and writers as well as musicians and painters and of course a lot of contemporary music was performed there as well. This circles took place especially in the house of the family Sonnleithner and developed in 1821 to the so called „Schubertiaden“. But in these meetings not only readings of important literature took place but as well of the most recent philosophical publications and, last but not least, political manifestos were explicated and discussed.

These artistic, philosophic and political circles had a great influence on the personality of Schubert as well as on his oeuvre, especially as far as it concerns the Lied-composer as he got to know so much poetry, which became the source of his awesome Lied-writing. The way he dealed with this literature stamped the style of his music and not only the one of his VOCAL compositions.

The second important cause for so many misunderstandings in the reception of the instrumental music of Schubert, at my opinion, is, that people did not really understand his way of musical expression. Just as a composer of „Lieder“ he has been acclaimed. Maybe because people concentrated more on the text, on the words, than on the music. I cannot find any other explanation on why his instrumental music has been ignored for such a long time, although we can find the same musical „speech“, the same emotional expressions, the same mental background in these compositions.

Even far into the 20th century only a few people realized what an extraordinary composer Schubert has been. Let us read what the famous conductor Nikolaus HARNONCOURT has said about Schubert in an interview in 1986 (citation „Es geht mir nur ums Musikmachen“ Schubertiade-Journal Nr.5 – Mai 1986):

„I do not know any other composer who represents such a total unique world like Schubert. This is one of the most curious facts in music history. ... He is an absolute monolith, I do not see any other phenomenon like him in any other musical period.“

And if we listen just to a few bars of the middle-part of the Impromptu in E flat major, which is often described as an example for the so called „Salonmusik“ we already can realize, that there are many stunning details in this part. First our Impromptu is written in E flat major, the middlepart is in B minor! But listen at these dynamics:

Exactly on the geatest dissonance he wrote a sforzato, followed by a very short crescendo and diminuendo. There must be much more in the music of Schubert, that does not at all fit with the smooth atmosphere of a salon.

So, what makes him so different from other composers at this time ? Other composers dedicated their oeuvre to God or „worked“ for their principals as there were the Archbishop, Electors, Emperor, donators, generally members of the nobility. Later, especially Beethoven and Mozart additionally integrated the ideals of classicism and the ideas of the French Revolution as there are freedom, equality and brotherliness. But Schubert, he was in some way different. Of course he also wrote many pieces ordered by different people but Schubert was at my opinion the first composer whose central aim was to exhibit himself, himself as a human being with all kinds of feelings, emotions and, above all, his inner conflicts. This was not a kind of egocentricity ! For this Schubert was much to decent and humble. No, Schubert’s works demonstrated in a never before existing quality how a human being is reacting on the world around him, on his destiny and especially also how his inner contradictious world looks like. He did this in the most subtle explicity and in shaping all different levels of human emotions that one could even say that Schubert has expressed in music what only 90 years later has been formulated in a scientific way by Sigmund Freud.

Maybe it was Robert SCHUMANN who has realized this fact for the first time when he wrote to Clara in 1829:

„There is no other music which is psychologically as remarkable as Schubert’s … (and later) only a few composers have such a unique individuality and even the least have written so much for themselves and for their heart“

One of the most renowned interpreters of Schubert’s piano music, Alfred BRENDEL, has written in one of his books („Musik beim Wort genommen“):

„Schubert ... is a great rambler who is attracted by abysses : He walks along on their border with the security of a somnambulist. The wandering is the romantic condition in which you can be impelled („Getriebener sein“) and get aware of the panic of hopelessness as e.g. in the c minor sonata. Underneath of happiness lives desperation, and consciousness abruptly darkens.“

The human being Schubert stands before us in an incredible complexity and we are able to trace his subtlest emotions. I can imagine, that people at this time might have been shocked as they recognized their own emotional conflicts in this musical network. Therefore the one who just „consumes“ his music, will never be able to understand Schubert. The one who passes through it, will understand Schubert’s world, which even can become a mirror of our own. Terms like „Drive“ (in the sense of „life urging us onward“) , „delusion“, the steadily recuring „longing for death“, „mental conflicts“, „the desperation under the power of reality“, the „escaping in a dreamworld“, „desperation“ even combined with „aggression“, these are many of the parameters in between which Schubert’s music is fluctuating. But Schubert does not show them as clearly delimited elements, but in a permanent interplay of these innerst psychological conflicts.

Let us take a short look on what a personality Schubert was?

His friend Bauernfeld characterized him as a „double-nature“ who unified sensuality with melancholia. Some other friends underlined that he was an extremely honest person whose frankness even could be offending. But he himself said once:

„I never will calculate with my emotions or use them in a tactical way. As it exists in me I express it, „punktum“ (what means something like: That’s it !)

Even for his closest friends Schubert remained a mystery. Very rarely he opened himself and declared himself as an incredible reflective person who mulled a lot over the political, the philosophical world and over the arts. But he did not write that down, because what he had to say he used to say it in music!

Here are two more anecdotes which may lighten up his personality a little bit: A friend asked Schubert in a letter: „How are you ?“ And he answered: „I feel very bad because ... I feel cheerful!“ Schubert suffered so much in his life that he could not understand how it could happen that he sometimes felt happy too.

Similar to that: A Singer, Mister Dessauer, argued that he thinks that Schubert’s Lieder are sometimes to melancholic. Schubert answered: „Do you know any cheerful music?“

Maybe the Lied „Ich unglücksel’ger Atlas“ , N°8 from his last Lieder, put joined together under the title „Schwanengesang“, expresses the best, how he felt in this world. The text (by Heinrich Heine) says:

„I, unhappy Atlas, must bear a world,

the whole world of sorrows.

I bear the unbearable … „

The idea cderives from the ancient world (you can see a sculpture which is dating from the 2nd century after Christ and which is a roman copy of a greek sculpture, showing Atlas bearing the world on his back).

Musically Schubert expresses this „unbearable“ destiny with two heavy quarter notes. And he used this motiv at the same time as well in his last sonatas as in the c minor and in the A major sonata.

Beginning of the Lied “Ich unglück’selger Atlas” (left hand):


Beginning of the c minor sonata:


Beginning of the A major sonata:

So we can see already that these characteristics exist in ALL kinds of his music. He was the same individual character whether he wrote Lieder or symphonies or piano sonatas. In this context it is necessary to underline that he was far away from being a hasty or even sloppy composer: We know today a lot of testimonies, that Schubert worked very hard and intensively, that he planned exactly what he was doing and he filed out even smallest details. Just an example: From his famous Lied „The Trout“ , composed in 1816, Schubert wrote in total 5 versions.

At the end of my first part I would like to come back oncemore to the titel, I have chosen for my lecture:

In 1928 one of the most renowned Enzyclopedias of that time and of today, the famous BROCKHAUS, wrote: „Expressionism started in about 1912 and it means those art of today which struggles to express the inner experiences and not illustrations of the impressions by the world around us. This struggle is conditioned as well by fiery temper as it is by mystical religiosity and by a tendency towards abstracticism.“

Aren’t these exactly the parameters we can find in the instrumental oeuvre of Franz Schubert?


© Manfred Wagner-Artzt - 2022

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