On Monday, September 1, 1828, following the advice of his doctor, Franz Schubert moved into his brother's apartment just outside the inner city of Vienna. His health had become precarious and he needed to regroup. On November 19 he was dead. But within these eighty days he produced music extraordinary even to the Schubertian muse.
A creative opportunity for measuring this autumnal time span against our own lives comes this year, but not again until 2014. It involves a direct correspondence between the years 1828 and 2008.
The years 2008 and 1828 are what I call "calendar octaves," meaning that they share an identical calendar. Both have identical dates on corresponding days of the week: non-transposed. This kind of correspondence allows us to regard the past in real time.
When he joined his brother Ferdinand that Monday, Schubert left stacks of music in a closet where he had been staying with his friend Franz Schober. Schubert had intended to return. There were no indications that this round of treatments would be different from others he had successfully undergone over the past six years. One imagines him arriving at Ferdinand's place in good spirits. We know from his estate that he would have had three cloth dress coats, three frock coats, ten pairs of trousers, nine waistcoats, a hat, five pairs of shoes, two pairs of boots, four shirts, nine neckerchiefs and pocket handkerchiefs, thirteen pairs of socks, a sheet, two blankets, a mattress, a featherbed cover, and a counterpane. Most of this would have been rolled up and tied down into a few cumbersome bundles.
Ferdinand's apartment at 6 Kettenbrückengasse is now the site of a museum containing Schubert artifacts. It is hard to imagine that any artifacts need to be there. Even the empty space seems filled with presence.
The day after moving in, Schubert went to hear a performance of music he had written in August to commemorate the restoration of a massive and historic steeple bell. The short choral work, "Glaube, Hoffnung und Liebe" (Faith, Hope and Charity), D. 954, was premiered in the Dreifaltigkeitskirche where the funeral of Beethoven had taken place the previous year. Schubert had been a torchbearer in the massive procession that bore the remains of Beethoven to this church.
That Saturday, September 6, Schubert and a few friends attended the opening of a comedy by their comrade Edward von Bauernfeld. They expected to see Edward in an inn for some drinks afterward, but an unfavorable audience reaction sent their friend into a street-wandering depression. The play was performed three more times and closed the following Saturday.
Schubert's whereabouts for the next three weeks were not recorded. Perhaps, during these times of maximal production, he was so intensely concentrated that he seemed invisible. But he composed sixteen movements of perfect music—more than two and a half hours of musical time—by September 26.
The music included the C-major string quintet and three piano sonatas: the sonata in C minor (D. 958), the sonata in A major (D. 959), and the sonata in B-flat major (D. 960). Schubert built the piano sonatas from sketches he had made earlier in the year. They came to life as he animated them by adding detail and expanding the intricate network of associations and self-references within.
All four works are sacred. Their sonic worlds have become entangled in many lives.
In the sparse and mournful novel Piano Music for Four Hands, by Roger Grenier, the eccentric fictional pianist Nicholau Arderiu organizes a concert to mark the hundredth anniversary of Schubert's death, which falls on a Monday that year, 1928. "There are musicians—I could cite them, I could name them—who see nothing in Schubert but an amiable composer of lieder [romantic songs]," pleads Arderiu from the concert stage that evening. "Thus they do not understand that his music is intensely dramatic! The depth, the variety, the multiplicity of his means of expression are without limits! His sonatas are the sites of conflict, drama, theatrical surprises, and each time we hear them, our astonishment and admiration take our breath away! Here is his posthumous Sonata in C Minor."
Arderiu makes the audience weep with that performance, and according to Grenier's narrative, "with his own throat knotted, he could barely introduce the musician who came after him."
Schubert resurfaced during the last week of September. A letter he wrote on Thursday, September 25 reads like a nineteenth-century email to a friend, and in it Schubert mentioned the new works in his collection of September music. On Friday, September 26, Schubert finished the B-flat major piano sonata. Some sixty years after the fact, Schubert's faithful friend, Franz Lachner (1803-1890), still remembered this date and spoke of it to the musicologist Sir George Grove.
From 4-5 p.m. the next day, Schubert was at Bogner's coffee house on the Singerstrasse. Later he attended a party at Dr. Menz's house. Schubert played the piano sonata D. 960 for guests assembled there. This music began its path of transmission on a Saturday evening, September 27.
Few written accounts of Schubert have come down to us from October, but the two most significant are both colorful and frame the beginning and ending of the month. In early October Ferdinand, Franz, and two other friends took a three-day walking pilgrimage to Eisenstadt to visit the grave of Haydn. They walked south about fifteen miles to Unterwaltersdorf, and then seven miles further to Eisenstadt. Most distances in Schubert's daily life were measured by his own steps, but the length of this journey was exceptional. It must have been invigorating and therapeutic, and the time spent contemplating Haydn, his music, and all that had passed since his death in 1809 bittersweet.
The music that Schubert wrote during October is not as well known as the music of the previous month, but it formed a highly personalized message in a voice that differs from the one heard in the September music.
"Der Hirt auf dem Felsen" (The Shepherd on the Rock, D. 965) is a song of just over twelve minutes, scored for voice, piano, and clarinet. The interaction between voice and clarinet is enchanting; the clarinet line both sings and echoes in the hands of a great player. This was Schubert's farewell to the clarinet.
After a gray and ominous opening that would seem to forecast music in G minor, the clarinet breaks suddenly into B-flat major and music of unexpected joy. The collision of ominous and joyous music is central to this song. Almost six minutes later the music in G minor, threatened at the opening of the work, appears. The rhythmic flow changes to become mechanical and clock-like, and surprisingly Schubert shifts to another poet (from Wilhelm Müller to Wilhelmina Christiane von Chézy) to include a text that seems to speak directly from Schubert to us: "Hope has on earth eluded me," and the line on which Schubert dwells, repeating it in the most expressive of settings, "Ich hier so einsam bin" (I am so lonesome here). The music soon changes time again, into duple meter, back to poetry by Müller, and back to B-flat major, with a joyous text that looks forward to the onset of springtime, "Springtime my friend." This can only be the springtime of resurrection; it cannot be otherwise.
Equally personal and shockingly autobiographical is his setting of lines from Psalm 5, "Intende voci" (Attend to the voice). The text opens with a request, "Attend to the voice of my prayer: my King, my God." Schubert magnifies and repeats the three lines of text in a setting lasting twelve minutes. He seems to not want to let go of the words, and turns them over in ever new colors of sound. It is also his farewell to the oboe.
Also included in his October music is his setting of a text by St Thomas Aquinas, "Tantum ergo" (So great, therefore), and a Benedictus in A minor (D. 961) written to replace the one he had originally written for the Mass in C major.
The song "Die Taubenpost" (The Pigeon Post) also comes from October. The text extols the virtue of a faithful carrier pigeon who delivers Schubert's message. The pigeon is so sensitive that Schubert no longer needs to write a note but can give the bird his "very tears."
"Die Taubenpost" is the last of the more than seven hundred songs that Schubert wrote. "It is not this which makes it so moving," wrote Graham Johnson, but that the song is able to draw "attention, unintentionally and in enchanting metaphor, to the gap between what Schubert gave, and the little he received back."
On Friday, October 31, Schubert met his brothers for dinner at a restaurant they frequented called Zum Roten Kreutz (At the Red Cross). This fine establishment was located on the Nussdorferstrasse near the steps leading down to the parish church where Schubert had his first public success with his Mass in F major fourteen years earlier. The stairway, still there today, lies between his birth house and the family house at 3 Säulengasse (only about two hundred yards away), which for the last twenty years has been used by a business called the "Schubert Garage."
Schubert had a taste for fish on this Friday. It was a bad choice. He didn't finish his meal and felt sick immediately. His immune system never fully recovered; he claimed in his last letter not to have been able to hold down regular food after this meal.
By Monday, November 3, Schubert was well enough to attend a morning performance of a requiem mass by his brother Ferdinand at the Hernals Parish Church. They took a three-hour walk afterward.
Schubert and Joseph Lanz arranged to receive a private lesson on Tuesday, November 4. The topic was advanced fugue writing, and the instructor was the intellectual powerhouse Simon Sechter, who welcomed the other two men at his residence at 123 Mariahilf. "Sechter," wrote fellow composer John Harbison, "well aware that he was teaching the most extraordinary student who ever came for a lesson, concluded by assigning Schubert a fugue subject on his own name."
Schubert had become accustomed to being part of a group who met to read poetry, literature, and play music. He had an intense curiosity about all intellectual matters. All of the major musical works by which we know Schubert had already been completed, and his openness to new ideas at this moment in his life is inspiring.
The next week Lanz showed up at Sechter's house alone. . . . Schubert was too sick.
Schubert wrote his last letter the following week, on Wednesday, November 12. It was an expressive letter to his friend Schober. His first line: "I am ill." Schubert had read James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans, The Spy, The Pilot, and The Pioneers) in German translations. . . . He asked Schober for more Cooper to read.
In the year that violinist Karl Holz (1799-1858) died, he reported that he had organized a private performance of Beethoven's string quartet in C-sharp minor (Op. 131) on Friday, November 14, in Ferdinand's apartment, five days before Schubert's death. Many doubts have been expressed about the reality of this performance. If it happened, it must have sounded unreal. What a beautiful gesture.
Schubert may have sketched some music during November but none of it was completed during his lifetime. November is therefore best heard as a music of transition, reflected by others. The C-sharp minor string quartet by Beethoven, reportedly heard by Schubert on November 14, is the final link from Schubert's world to this reflected music, written in tribute.
Schubert's friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner wrote a short and touching work called "Nachruf an Schubert in Trauertönen am Pianoforte" (Obituary of Schubert on Pianoforte in Mournful Tones) in F minor. In slow twelve-eight time, a single phrase calls, repeats, and then spins emphatically into a fierce and passionate outburst before ending suddenly.
John Harbison wrote a work called "November 19, 1828; Hallucination in Four Episodes for Piano and String Trio" (1988). The first movement opens with a harsh string fanfare. In the spaces between three proclamations, a strange music floats in from just beyond our world.
The second movement, called "Schubert Finds Himself in a Hall of Mirrors," is a series of echoed inversions, where every line is reversed in contour and played back by a darker instrumentation. The third movement develops Schubert's unfinished "Allegretto," (D. 346), from 1816. The final movement, graceful and lyrical, completes the fugue based on Schubert's name that was assigned by Sechter during the lesson in November. It is a beautifully constructed work that has deep resonances with Schubert's music.
"Rendering" by Luciano Berio is a creative reconstruction of the three movements for Schubert's tenth symphony that were left in fragmentary form by Schubert at his death. Berio uses the celesta to announce the presence of gaps which he fills with "musical cement, commenting on the discontinuities and gaps between one sketch and another." The score oscillates between the Schubert sketches and resonances by Berio. It is an unforgettable music of synthesis.
On Sunday, November 16, a bedside conference of doctors took place and new course of treatment was decided upon. Schubert had a pocket-watch "hung on a chair near the bedside to take medicines."
On Monday he was visited by Lachner, who discussed ideas for the completion of the opera Der Graf von Gleichen (The Count von Gleichen). Schubert became delirious in the evening and thrashed about with great violence. On Tuesday he was restrained in bed and a vigil began.
Schubert died at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, November 19. The cause of death was listed as "Nervenfieber" (nervous fever). Slowly, further evidence emerged: the illness was most likely syphilis contracted late in 1822. Schubert was in a state of constant treatment for the last five years of his life, and lived with the hope that his illness would remain latent and allow him time.
News began to travel like a wave from 6 Kettenbrückengasse. "Yesterday afternoon Schubert died," wrote Edward Bauernfeld in his diary. "On Monday I spoke with him. On Tuesday he was delirious, on Wednesday dead. To the last he talked to me of our opera. It all seems like a dream to me. The most honest soul and the most faithful friend!"
A ceremony was given on Friday, November 21, in the Parish Church of St. Joseph, in Margareten on the Schönbrunnerstrasse, at 2:30 p.m. Arrangements were made to transport the coffin a significant distance, to the cemetery at Währing, where Schubert was buried next to Beethoven, in accordance with Schubert's wishes.
The bodies of both Beethoven and Schubert were relocated to graves of honor in the Central Cemetery in 1888, but the original monuments stayed behind. Währing cemetery was later deconsecrated and named Schubert Park. The sounds of children playing in the park envelop these monuments, which still stand, each surrounded by a stark wrought-iron fence.
Thinking over these events and listening to the music, during a year that allows us to measure them on our own calendars, adds a human dimension to the facts. The glimpses of Schubert's day-to-day life prove a relationship between the ordinary and the miraculous.
Autumn is often symbolized by images of harvest and death. The music Schubert forged in this compressed autumnal span recolors these associations. The calendar octaves have been rung. Almost two hundred years after Bauernfeld wrote his diary entry, this passage of time still "seems like a dream"—more so when one moves through in real time.