Self-Quotation in Schubert

New this month from the University of Rochester Press is Scott Messing’s book Self-Quotation in Schubert: “Ave Maria,” the Second Piano Trio, and Other Works. The book offers an examination of the history of musical self-quotation and an investigation into the circumstances that led Schubert to compose these works. It is a particularly timely publication for this Beethoven anniversary year. Our thanks to Scott Messing for contributing this piece for our blog.

Self-Quotation in Schubert

In Self-Quotation in Schubert, my fourth book on the composer for URP, I probe the manifold contexts presented by the hitherto unnoticed connection between his beloved “Ave Maria” and the first movement of his majestic E-flat Trio. My exploration leads deeply into the thickets of Schubert’s connections to Beethoven. With the final chapter (prior to the conclusion), I arrive at Robert Schumann, his music, and his relationship to Clara Wieck. This was a happy destination, inasmuch as its subject coincides with “Robert Schumann’s Schubert,” the first chapter of my first book on Schubert: volume one of Schubert in the European Imagination.

In the present study, I observe that Clara Wieck programmed Schubert’s trio to start one of two concerts in Berlin in 1840, beginning the other with Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio. This pairing parallels Schumann’s urging her, when she was concertizing in Vienna two years earlier, to visit the graves of Schubert and Beethoven and place upon them myrtle branches, a traditional emblem of marriage, then speak only her name and his. I write: “She then replicated her cemetery visit by beginning each Berlin soirée with a trio by each composer. The two endeavors memorialized body and spirit, respectively: mortal remains and creative works. The physical proximity of the composers’ graves found its musical parallel in programming their similar works—their greatest in the genre—to begin consecutive concerts.”

Schubert in the European Imagination, Volume 1

As I discuss in my first Schubert book, Schumann’s bidding her speak their names as she performed this symbolic wedding was to echo in his often cited (some might say notorious) essay of June 1838 in which he coined the term Mädchencharakter (maidenly or girlish character) to describe Schubert’s musical relationship to Beethoven. His article appeared almost exactly between her visit to the graves in February and his own in October. They each took mementos, tangible affirmations of their experiences, anticipating what in 1841 Charles Mackay described as “spoils rescued from the devouring grave, which, to the affectionate, are beyond all price.” She fetched a “little sprig of yarrow” from Beethoven’s grave while he came away with a steel pen from the same ground and flowers from both plots but inadvertently swapped them, as he confided in his diary: “one could write a poem: When I had mixed up flowers that I had picked from the graves of Beethoven and Schubert.”

Indulging in an excursion of my own, intellectual rather than physical, I here note that at that time calling upon the resting places of the famous was by no means an uncommon activity, at least for those whose artistic sensibilities drew them to the mortal remains of those whose work they cherished. In 1825 and 1828 (the latter a month before he died), Schubert visited the burial sites of Michael and Joseph Haydn during travels to Salzburg and Eisenstadt, respectively. On the first occasion, he wrote a poignant letter to his brother Ferdinand (his companion on the latter trip) about communing with posterity’s less renowned Haydn, addressing the deceased directly: “surely no one on earth admires you as deeply as I do. (A heavy tear fell from my eyes and we moved on.)”

Both Haydns reposed in churches where apparently there were no keepsakes to procure. (In the Salzburg monastery, Schubert noted that the “little pieces of paper lying around are a bit childish.”) An equivalent journey to a cemetery could take on the even keener aspects of a pilgrimage, especially if it was out of the way and had yet to acquire the trappings of a tourist destination. The graveyard in the Währing district where Beethoven and Schubert were interred (their remains were relocated to the Central Cemetery in 1888) lay a half hour west of Vienna when Clara and Robert went there in 1838. Four years later, the first edition of Karl Baedeker’s Handbook for Travelers in Germany and the Austrian Empire made no mention of cemeteries for sightseeing excursions. Its third edition of 1846 provided details about Beethoven’s memorial while at the same time criticizing Viennese cemeteries for being typically “badly kept, one rarely sees a pretty monument.” Schubert’s grave was ignored, although he lay only three plots away beneath an arresting marker that was unique in displaying his bust. A later edition in 1855 at last accorded him his rightful place.

This chronological arch mirrors the sluggish growth of Schubert’s reputation at mid-century, certainly as it relates to any casual (and not especially musical) tourist bound for Vienna and its attractions. The experiences of Robert and Clara instead had a far more intimate and ultimately creative resonance, which they expressed in both epistolary and artistic forms. If “romanticism” can still carry useful contextual weight, surely their encounters, personal and musical, with Schubert (and Beethoven) warrant its use. In remarking on these episodes in this blog (and extensively investigating them in my books, current and past), I am reminded of the comparable example of Keats who, like Schubert, died at a cruelly young age. His sonnet, “On visiting the tomb of Burns,” was the lyrical result of a sojourn to the grave of the great Scottish poet, hardly a trendy destination in 1818 (as Dorothy Wordsworth observed fifteen years earlier when she went there with her brother William). For Keats, the experience was incised by a flash of inspiration, “written in a strange mood, half asleep,” as he described it to his brother Tom and which he replicated in the poem’s opening lines: “The town, the churchyard & the setting sun / The clouds, the trees, the rounded hills all seem / Though beautiful, Cold—strange—as in a dream…”


This guest post was written by Scott Messing, Charles A. Dana Professor of Music Emeritus at Alma College.

Self-Quotation in Schubert
By Scott Messing
9781580469654, Hardback, £58.50 or $71.50

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