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Schubert's Reputation from His Time to Ours

Geoffrey Block
January 20, 2017

425 pp.

16 illustrations

ISBN: 978-1-57647-276-7

$65.00


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The composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was not bereft of early advocates, from Schumann, Liszt, and Mahler to Sir George Grove. Brahms famously heralded Schubert as "the true successor to Beethoven." Nevertheless, it was not until the end of the twentieth century that Schubert's major instrumental works finally and fully emerged from Beethoven's shadow. Critics and scholars began to reinterpret Schubert's departures from Beethoven's formal and stylistic characteristics, and to see these departures not as flaws but as strengths and hallmarks of a new paradigm. Schubert's alternate constructions of "masculine subjectivities," first described by Schumann in 1838, parallel a developing appreciation for lyricism, melody, and song-traits historically regarded as feminine. Consequently, Schubert's approach is increasingly viewed as innovative and divergent rather than defective and deviant. Schubert's Reputation from His Time to Ours tells the story of how and why this has happened.

Authors

Geoffrey Block :

Reviews

March 15, 2019

Schubert’s Reputation from His Time to Ours. By Geoffrey Block. (Monographs in Musicology, no. 17.) Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2017. [xi, 413 p. ISBN 9781576472767 (paperback), $65.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, appendix, index. Geoffrey Block’s Schubert’s Reputation from His Time to Ours is the newest book on Franz Schubert in Pendragon Press’s series Monographs in Musi - cology, which includes David Mont - gomery’s Franz Schubert’s Music in Perfor - mance: Compositional Ideals, Notational Intent, Historical Realities, Pedagogical Foundations (2003), Mark Devoto’s Schu bert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony (2011), and Martin Chusid’s Schubert’s Dances: For Family, Friends and Posterity (2013). Also recently published are two collections of essays about Schu bert, both edited by Lorraine Byrne Bodley and Julian Horton: Rethinking Schubert (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) and Schubert’s Late Music: History, Theory, Style (Cam - bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). Among these titles, Block’s book focuses on reception history across time and through the lens of genre, biography, popular culture, and sexuality. Furthermore, Block proposes a new paradigm to counter the old attitude that has Schubert unfavorably compared to Beethoven: “Although some of Schubert’s music gained critical and popular traction early on . . . it was not until the end of the twentieth century that most of Schubert’s symphonies, chamber music, and piano sonatas fully emerged from Beethoven’s shadow. For this to happen it was crucial to reinterpret perceived non-Beethovenian formal and stylistic characteristics not as flaws but as strengths and hallmarks of a new paradigm” (p. 4). Block’s promise to pursue this new paradigm is, however, only partially achieved. While he illustrates the ways in which Schubert differed from Beethoven (such as his use of long melodies in sonata forms) and reinterprets these as Schubert’s strengths, the strong presence of Beethoven still dims the view— though perhaps differently from how the previous critics had perceived it—of Schubert’s individuality. Using as a starting point a 2011 article in the New York Times, in which Anthony Tommasini ranked Schubert fourth in his list of the top ten classical composers (“The Greatest,” New York Times, 11 January 2011), Block sets out to show Schubert’s path from supposed obscurity to popularity. He argues that Schubert’s popularity has reached “the point of achieving a rough parity with those of his famous contemporary” and states that “[t]his book tells the story of how and why this happened” (p. 4). The opening chapter, “ ‘Heavenly Length and ‘Fairer Hopes,’ ” addresses how Schubert has been misunderstood. For example, early critics viewed his style as overly feminine, an adjective they also prescribed to the genre for which he was best known—the lied. Schubert’s lyricism was seen as incompatible with larger instrumental genres 484 Notes, March 2019 and a critical weakness that impeded his wider acceptance. This chapter begins to clear away misunderstandings and dispel the unwarranted criticisms of Schubert’s work. The next two chapters turn to two instrumental genres. “Schubert’s ‘Ode to Joy’: The ‘Great’ C Major Sym - phony” traces the performance history of the Symphony in C Major, D. 944, and how it entered the repertoire, showing that some remarks by early critics—particularly Robert Schumann and George Grove—strongly influenced, both negatively and positively, the reception of the work. Block strives to elevate the status of Schubert’s “Great” Symphony by showing its similarities to Beethoven’s Ninth Sym phony and compares the reception history of both works. To demonstrate Schubert’s rising reputation, “The Piano Sonatas: An Acquired Taste” shows the increasing frequency of performance and number of recordings of Schubert’s piano sonatas. Block’s music analyses aim to disprove two criticisms of Schubert’s music: (1) that his lyricism disqualified him from being a composer on Beetho - ven’s level, partly because his lyrical themes were often reiterated instead of “developed” like Beethoven’s, and (2) that his recapitulations were often identical to his expositions. Block concludes that Schubert successfully “[created] a formal masterpiece out of a songlike theme” (p. 109). Despite Block’s convincing music analysis, the dominating presence of Beetho ven in these chapters suggests that the book is following the old critical mode rather than the “new Schubert paradigm” that Block proposed. The following two chapters address reception of Schubert by four nineteenth-century composers. “Liszt, Brahms, and the ‘True Successor to Beethoven’ ” illustrates the roles of Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms in performing, transcribing, conducting, arranging, and editing Schubert’s works. Block argues that neither composer improved Schubert’s status: actually, Liszt’s efforts to champion Schu - bert primarily benefited himself, and Brahms’s editing did not help Schu - bert’s Drei Klavierstücke, D. 946, “enter the repertoire” (p. 159). Furthermore, both Liszt and Brahms learned important techniques from Schubert, such as thematic transformation (Liszt) and three-key expositions (Brahms). “What Wagner and Mahler Thought about Schubert” underscores Richard Wagner’s lack of interest in Schubert and that Gustav Mahler, while admiring Schubert’s music, often revised the scores when conducting them. Mahler’s championing of Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (the “Un - finished”) and “Great” C Major Sym - phony, however, “significantly advanced the reputation, popularity, and stature of these works and their composer” (p. 198). Although these chapters describe the composers’ various roles in the reception of Schu bert, Block does not discuss the exact effect of their participation. Moreover, by arguing that Schubert could be on equal footing with Beethoven (chap. 4) or that their music shared lyrical qualities (chap. 5), Block unwittingly keeps Schubert under Beethoven’s shadow. In the following two chapters, “Schu - bert Stars on the Popular Musical Stage: Das Dreimäderlhaus and Blossom Time” and “Imagining Schubert on Screen: Blossom Time, Melody Master, and Notturno,” Block turns to popular culture to examine the public’s interest in the composer’s life story. Block describes the evolution of the “idealized and romanticized” image of Schubert, as depicted in Blossom Time and The Melody Master, to a “gritty and unromantic” portrayal in Notturno (p. 236). The use of Schubert’s music in these stage works also progresses from “short and familiar songs” in Blossom Time to “generous excerpts from larger works” in Melody Master to “music that chronologBook Reviews 485 ically matches Schubert’s life events” (p. 273). The biographical adaptations fittingly lead to the next chapter, “The Princess and the Peacock,” which traces the debate on whether Schubert was homosexual, detailing Maynard Solomon’s 1989 article in 19th-Century Music (Maynard Solomon, “Franz Schu - bert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini,” 19th-Century Music 12, no. 3 [Spring 1989]: 193–206), Rita Steblin’s counterargument in the same journal four years later (Rita Steblin, “The Peacock’s Tale: Schubert’s Sexuality Reconsidered,” 19th-Century Music 17, no. 1 [Summer 1993]: 5–33), and other scholars’ viewpoints. Through the debates, Block describes the changing and increasingly accepting attitudes towards homosexuality and the power and pitfalls of gender perception: “listeners who perceive Schubert as gay (or feminine) and Beethoven as straight (and masculine), may be more inclined to disregard moments of musical forcefulness in the former’s work or overlook moments of sustained lyricism in the music of the latter” (p. 320). In the penultimate chapter, “The Mushroom and the Mogul,” Block reiterates the reasons Schubert has been misunderstood and demonstrates further similarities between the music of Schubert and Beethoven. In his concluding summary, he announces the arrival of a new paradigm: Schubert’s ability to shape dynamic, lyric, and imaginative formal solutions to classical sonata form builds upon, rather than contradicts, his predecessor. Still, this reality did little to change the contrasting perception and reception history of Beethoven and Schubert. Conse - quently, for most of the next century and a half, Schubert was viewed as one who fell short of mastering large instrumental forms—a diffuse, repetitive, and harmonically capricious composer who worked in a trance, too lazy to do much more in his recapitulations than repeat everything from the exposition. In the final chapter, I suggest that a new Schubert paradigm has finally arrived to challenge, repudiate, and replace some of these long-held assumptions. (p. 336) The new paradigm, which should view Schubert as “a satisfactory alternative to Beethoven . . . rather than as a secondrate Beethoven” (p. 351), does not arrive as triumphantly as Block suggests. “Schubert’s Reception Revisited and Revised” reviews a wide range of criticism about Schubert by writers such as Donald Francis Tovey, Charles Rosen, Richard Taruskin, Lewis Lock wood, Susan Wollenberg, Suzannah Clark, and Paul Robinson. Clearly, the reception of Schubert has undergone a transformation, as more recent writing began proposing a new critical model that avoids comparisons with Beethoven. Nonetheless, much of this criticism is repetitive, with too much emphasis placed on the proposal rather than on its implementation. On page 362, with six pages left in the last chapter, Block finally arrives at “The New Schubert Paradigm: Lockwood, Wollenberg, and Clark.” Yet even in this section, Suzannah Clark’s work (pp. 363–67) stands alone in its assessment of Schu - bert’s music in its own right. In short, while Block argues for a fresh standard to rescue Schubert from Beethoven’s shadow, he too often compares Schubert to Beethoven (chaps. 2, 3, and 4), demonstrates the similarities in their music (chaps. 2 and 9), or claims that Schubert deserved the credit given to Beethoven (chap. 4), which ironically follows the path the book sets out to change. While it might be difficult to exclude Beethoven from the reception history of Schubert, it would be more effective to model how to separate Schubert from Beethoven and highlight Schubert’s musical individuality. Despite the issue described above, Schubert’s Reputation from His Time to Ours is a strong and well-researched book that makes clear the issues impeding Schubert’s popularity and the context in which the composer’s status has 486 Notes, March 2019 risen. Block demonstrates that the narrative about Schubert’s femininity was constructed by a variety of factors, including his excellence in creating beautiful melodies, his large output of lieder, his mysterious sexual orientation, and, perhaps most importantly, his reception by others. The appendices in chapters 1, 3, 6, and 7 offer valuable research resources. Although the book is generally serious in tone, the author sometimes interjects personal anecdotes that give it a tinge of informality. The combination of archival research, music analysis, personal narrative, interpretation, and historiography contributes to a rich presentation of Schubert’s reception history over the past two centuries. Shih-Ni Prim Winston-Salem, North Carolina Notes, March, 2019

Notes, March, 2019



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The composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was not bereft of early advocates, from Schumann, Liszt, and Mahler to Sir George Grove. Brahms famously heralded Schubert as "the true successor to Beethoven." Nevertheless, it was not until the end of the twentieth century that Schubert's major instrumental works finally and fully emerged from Beethoven's shadow. Critics and scholars began to reinterpret Schubert's departures from Beethoven's formal and stylistic characteristics, and to see these departures not as flaws but as strengths and hallmarks of a new paradigm. Schubert's alternate constructions of "masculine subjectivities," first described by Schumann in 1838, parallel a developing appreciation for lyricism, melody, and song-traits historically regarded as feminine. Consequently, Schubert's approach is increasingly viewed as innovative and divergent rather than defective and deviant. Schubert's Reputation from His Time to Ours tells the story of how and why this has happened.

“James Sellman”
Harvard’s Colloquy



0, 0000

Top customer reviews

5.0 out of 5 stars

An Entertaining, Informative, and Thoughtful Study

By Joel Flegleron June 4, 2017

Fanfare Magazine, James V. Maiello

In 2017, putting Franz Schubert on a list of “great” composers seems a foregone conclusion. Geoffrey Block’s reception history of Schubert’s music suggests, however, that this was not always the case. To understand Block’s study or any that invokes words like “great” or “quality,” readers must accept as true the basic premises of aesthetic formalism and be aware that musicology, until the 1980s, focused heavily on issues of musical form, style, and genre, the so-called “great” composer paradigm, and so on. This underpinning affects not only the reception of Schubert’s music but also the author’s approach to some extent.

Block’s main argument is that only around 1997 did Schubert’s symphonies, chamber works, and other larger forms emerge from Beethoven’s shadow for scholars and critics. He suggests that this happened only after a critical reinterpretation of Schubert’s music that cast deviations from Beethovenian models as “strengths and hallmarks of a new paradigm.” Among the liabilities to Schubert’s reputation that Block identifies, the composer’s early death is the most convincing; he also argues that Schubert’s lyricism was at odds with the prevailing views about more serious genres, and that comments by Robert Schumann and others clouded criticism in Schubert’s own time and scholarship after his death.

In advancing this thesis, the main text of the book begins by addressing two contrasting works and their reception history, the “Great” C-Major Symphony and B♭-Major Piano Sonata. Then, he turns to Schubert’s advocates among lionized composers such as Brahms and Mahler. One of the most fascinating parts of the book examines popular perception in the early 20th century, including Schubert’s portrayal in various films. Polemics about Schubert’s sexuality were a primary thread of Schubert studies in the 1980s and 1990s, and Block provides a summary and analysis of this phenomenon. Ultimately, he concludes that the relationship between the composer’s sexuality and the reception of his music is tied to the changing public perception of homosexuality and gender. Although the criteria for inclusion in the historiographical overview that closes the book are not clear, it illustrates very well broad changes in scholarship over the long 20th century. The appendix, “The Sociology and Musicology of the Gay Question” might be more effective woven into main text’s discussion of Schubert’s sexuality; the title also seems slightly awkward. Taken as a whole, the book is effective in showing how Schubert came to be recognized as what critics and scholars might call a “first-rate” composer, though I will admit to having philosophical reservations about this kind of evaluation in general.

Overall, the basic premise of the book is convincing, the research is solid, and there is a wealth of information between its covers. The writing is engaging and clear, and Block is at his best when discussing musical style, genre, and aesthetics. Musical analyses are appropriate and well chosen. If the author sometimes risks being an overenthusiastic apologist for Schubert’s greatness, it seems that he has done so successfully: I am inspired to revisit Schubert’s earlier symphonies as soon as I finish this review. In any case, Schubert’s Reputation is entertaining reading and an informative, thoughtful study, grounded in a well-established scholarly approach.

5.0 out of 5 stars

Excellent By Amazon Custome ron April 9, 2017

This hard-to-put-down read offers fresh perspectives on the composer's often mythologized love life, thoughtful discussions of old and new arguments over whether Schubert's pieces are too long, too short, or just right, and a rich repast of memorable, carefully vetted facts about this magnetic, vastly accomplished musician who died so tragically young. Another highlight is the extended, entertaining discussion of the many stage and film dramatizations of Schubert's life and work. Block separates the wheat from the chaff in this magisterial survey of the many voices shaping Schubert's reputation. He also picks out a series of gems from the composer's vast output, including not just the justly famous songs and the now indispensable sacred music, piano works, chamber music, and symphonies, but also Schubert's still-neglected operas.

5.0 out of 5 stars

I love this book

ByH Gon April 16, 2017

I love this book. It is a fascinating portrayal of Schubert, and of Western music over almost two hundred years. So many themes and connections intersect in this book, that it serves as a fascinating nexus for a lover of classical music. If the reader pursues all the interesting leads discussed in this book, he or she cannot help but learn a tremendous amount about many of the world's greatest composers, and their music, Every page is a pleasant and interesting surprise because of the author's wide ranging knowledge, which he brings to this labor of love. Study this book, and you cannot help but become an expert on classical music, while increasing your appreciation of many great works. This is truly a wonderful book, with many rewards for the reader who immerses himself or herself in it. It reads easily and beautifully (like a novel), and is engaging. I can't recommend it highly enough.