Contextualizing Franz Schubert and the Gothic  

Guest post written by Joe Davies, author of The Gothic Imagination in the Music of Franz Schubert.

What drew you to the topic of Schubert and the gothic? Why such dark subject matter? 

I was asked these questions in various guises while working on this book.  

In the early stages, I framed my response as a fascination with “strangeness” – a desire to understand moments of abrupt contrast and extreme dislocation, as in the much-discussed Andantino of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, D 959.  

Over time, though, I realized that strangeness was only part of the picture. I was drawn more and more to pieces about death: from songs featuring graveyards and supernatural presences, to nocturnal meditations and unspoken reflections on life and mortality.  

This notion of death and strangeness as intricately entwined became a guiding thread – something that I connected with in Schubert’s music and sought to contextualize beyond his own personal circumstances:  

My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it never and nevermore, I may well sing every day now, for each night, on retiring to bed, I hope I may not wake again, and each morning but recalls yesterday’s grief. 

Franz Schubert, 31 March 1824, Letter to Leopold Kupelwieser (discussed on p. 2).  

But it wasn’t until the sudden death of my father in the late stages of writing that the realities of the subject matter hit home. Tropes I had been imagining at a point of remove – eeriness, references to a distorted past, evocations of alternate realities, dreamworlds slipping out of reach – suddenly felt real, closer to hand than ever before. Loss, I came to appreciate, had heightened my thinking about the impact of death on creative endeavour, not only Schubert’s but more generally, and encouraged me to listen again to the gaps between presence and absence, sound and silence.  

Much of my book revolves around these “in-between spaces” – not only in terms of locating sonic signifiers of death, but also in mapping out a constellation of gothic tropes across Schubert’s oeuvre. Through a series of case studies, I trace (implicit) dialogues from Schubert’s early horror ballads, where the presence of the gothic is well established, to the instrumental music he composed in his final years. As I do so, I listen closely to the sound of the gothic, its stylistic and expressive features, while suggesting ways in which Schubert’s approach resonates with gothic trends in literature and the visual arts. This approach thus offers fresh interdisciplinary perspectives on Schubert’s creativity and invites further reflection on the role of music in shaping discourses about death and the gothic in the early nineteenth century.  

As I pen this blog post, I find myself returning to those “in-between spaces”, not in search of closure, but in the spirit conjured throughout: of inviting meanings in the gaps, of embracing silence, and initiating conversations about death and strangeness in their myriad forms. Just as the gothic prioritizes open-endedness, a blurring of where things begin and close, so I hope that this book will likewise encourage a blurring of boundaries – new ways of studying, performing, and listening to Schubert’s music and the gothic imagination.   

JOE DAVIES is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow at Maynooth University and the University of California, Irvine. He is editor of Clara Schumann Studies (2021), guest-editor of the special journal issue ‘Clara Schumann: Changing Identities and Legacies’ (2023), and co-editor of Drama in the Music of Franz Schubert (Boydell Press, 2019).

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Find out more about the book from the author as he has a conversation with pianist Nina Scolnik

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