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Back to School with Franz Schubert...

Franz Schubert had a problem composing.

No, it wasn't writer's block, exactly. He just wasn't getting the results he wanted.

Many composers before and since have struggled with this problem, which is behind both the exhilaration and the fear of creative ventures. The fact is, there is no answer key in the back of the book, and if you get stuck you have to figure out how to get unstuck yourself. You can't just swallow a magic pill or buy a book like Composing for Dummies (actually, it turns out you can, and if you think it will make you another Schubert you can go spend your $14.95). If you are sufficiently creative and a composer of some ability, you will have realized that composing is not like color-by-numbers. Compositions that sound like somebody just blindly followed a recipe never make it into the hall of fame, to say the least.

So what does one do in such a situation?

Well, you can put your head down and just keep working, trying passages, one after another, until you find one that works. And keep doing that, problem after problem, moment after moment, until you look behind you one day and notice you have 100 opus numbers. But sometimes a more long-term strategy is in order.

And, as it happens, most composers of merit are not as anti-going-to-school as you might think they are. The real question is, where do you get your training?

For Wagner, the work-from-home approach seemed to work best. Midway through the third opera in his epic four opera cycle of monstrously long and sometimes intermission-less operas he wrote that he felt he did not have the necessary technique to approach the rest of the set. Something was lacking. So, he abandoned the project temporarily, while he wrote two more operas. Training operas, apparently. They are both monsters in the genre, and what they seem to have given Wagner leave to do was to hone his technique by composing, which is arguably the only real way to do it, while working on projects that he didn't consider quite as important as his gargantuan Ring cycle. By the end (multi-year breaks and all), he had spent about a quarter of a century writing those four operas.

Wagner had diagnosed the problem, which had mostly to do with the way he wrote for the orchestra, and decided that he was going to have to slug it out himself, by trying different combinations and balances of instruments (imagine what you can do in a six hour opera) and then getting the chance to hear which ones were most successful as his operas were being performed. Armed with such experience, he would have much less guessing to do when he got back to his Ring.

What have we learned? The first thing you must do is to diagnose the problem, as specifically as you can. In Wagner's case, he really needed the experience of hearing what new effects he was trying out on his larger-than-ever-before orchestra which was being stuffed under that stage at Bayreuth.

Schubert had a different problem. Apparently, he did not feel very at home in certain aspects of counterpoint.

Counterpoint (or the art of weaving several 'lines' of music together) has been a considerable challenge for composers, particularly since Bach, who set the bar pretty high. Before him, it was pretty much the only way to write music (until the Baroque period) and after, it became one of those things you had to do to show off your credentials. There are some musicologists who believe that Schubert was drawn to the subject.

This is a fascinating idea in itself. Popularly known as a composer who wrote effortlessly, endlessly, and instinctively, Schubert is known for his charm, his melodic invention, his sudden storms and profound calm, his direct emotional impact, and his striking modulations. He seldom dabbled in instrumental flash and technical difficultly, and his orchestral compositions are relatively free of learned passagework. There are many today who believe a thorough study of counterpoint, or much additional training of any sort, would have actually killed Schubert. There are others who, on the basis of clumsy fugal writing in his Wanderer Fantasy and other great hits, think he might have seen great benefits from such study.

None of this really matters. What matters is that Schubert himself thought he needed to get more training. He felt something was lacking. And he determined to get it.

How long he had felt this inadequacy is hard to say. But one writer I came across many years ago suggested that it went back to a time when Schubert was leaving several unfinished works in his wake. His celebrated 'Unfinished' Symphony is not that only piece of that magnitude that he didn't complete. There are two others. The reason that Schubert didn't finish his most famous symphony is not because he died. He lived long enough to complete another, his massive Ninth. Why get halfway through such a masterful work and stop writing? The first theory I ever heard was simply that Schubert forgot about it. Schubert, an extremely prolific composer, was constantly writing, said his early biographers, rarely revising his works, and probably not even giving them time for the ink to dry before he abandoned them to begin another piece. That, at least, is the picture of Schubert that has been painted by so many of his biographers. And, more than in the case of Mozart, this idea of a spontaneous muse just might be close to the truth, though, just as in Mozart's case, more evidence is coming to light in recent years that Schubert did make sketches and sometimes try several attempts at certain passages--in other words, that he had to struggle to get it right, sometimes, rather than simply write down what he heard in his head without effort. Given the number of works he left behind, and the dates of his works, it does seem that he could work rather quickly, and that several works would often compete for his attention at any one time.  But all the same, doesn't the idea of sending your symphony to a friend for safekeeping and then forgetting all about it seem to stretch credibility just a bit, even for Schubert?

I mean, a Symphony?

A few years ago I read a new theory that proposed that Schubert felt for some reason that he was simply not up to the demands of finishing the work. Now, to me, that seemed interesting. Interesting because it suggested that even Schubert didn't achieve the results he wanted all the time, that he had to struggle for them some of the time, and that he didn't always win. Interesting because, as a composer myself, I can understand how one's vision of a work--what it requires, what technique is needed to bring it about-- and one's ability to execute it are too different things. A less exacting personality would not care about these things, but one who had grand visions and then made sure he did what he needed to do to fulfill them, no matter how much effort it took, that is admirable.

Unfortunately, Schubert chose the last week of his short life to begin counterpoint lessons. He had a grand total of one, concentrated around the notion of writing tonal answers to fugue subjects (also of historical and personal interest to me, but I'll get to that some other time). Then he inconveniently died, and what he would have done with that training he was determined to get remains a mystery.

Whether it would have been a benefit is a large question, and its importance is not limited to Schubert. There are many other pages on this website that deal, in one way or another with the idea of education and the composer. Where does inspiration leave off and technique begin? Who can teach it? Who should take advantage of it? Will all that education simply lead to dry uninspired imitation of music of the past or one particular genius or geographic region? Composers have expressed that fear, and that scorn, countless times. And many of them have stared down the barrel of that loaded weapon and paid the price for education. All of them had to be educated by somebody at some point. The question is by whom and how. And whether that composer is going to be a great innovator or a great synthesist. And whether, in the end, what they think are searching for is really compatible with what they need. Am I making things a bit confusing?

Ah. Now you are beginning to understand!


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