Litanei for Schubert
by Kayleen Asbo
It is in the quiet moments
that Schubert most echoes in my mind-
the evenings spent in front of the firelight
or when suddenly arises the memory of
a tiny sliver of a moon
hovering over a silent, dusky sky.
swells the lump in my throat
as he marries in sweet caress of melody
the loving ache of joy
tempered with bitter sureness
I see him at seventeen,
short, stubby and bespectacled,
but already knowing
how to spin in song
Gretchen's swooning desire
I see him a frustrated schoolteacher
yearning for love and marriage
pouring his unconsummated passions
ceaselessly into song,
led astray one beer-filled night
Down an alleyway whose destination was
I think of him pale and shaking
lying on his deathbed at thirty-five,
begging for just a little more time
to pen in feverish white heat
one more ode to swans and maidens.
Oh Schubert, you teach me
To bear the beauty of life in its savage brevity
To number my fleeting days
To make of each moment
worthy of a Litanei
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was one of the most extraordinarily prolific composers of all time. In his brief 32 years, he wrote nine symphonies, operas, numerous masterpieces of chamber music works and over 600 songs. In Vienna during the time of his engagement , a man had to demonstrate a minimum income in order to receive permission from the government to marry. As a young schoolteacher and musician struggling with money, he was unable to do so, and eventually his beloved, Therese Groeb, was given in marriage to a more eligible gentleman. His inability to procure a steady income in his youth and realize his hopes for marriage may well have been one of the factors that led him to seek out pleasure in a brothel- where he contracted the syphillis that mercilessly tortured him for the remainder of his short life.
While Schubert's Symphonies and chamber music works are also cherished by contemporary audiences, it is in the genre of the Lied, or song cycles that he made the largest impact during his lifetime. Gathering in small middle-class salon, he would sit at the piano while his friends sang. His ability to deftly paint the scene in the accompaniment and to create a vivid world in the space of just a few minutes is breathtaking, and has never been surpassed. One of his first masterpieces, Gretchen im Spinrade, at the tender age of seventeen,depicts a scene from Faust where the fair Gretchen, remembering her passionate kiss with Goethe's hero, faints at her spinning wheel. It is a marvel of beauty, power and economy. Schubert continued to write throughout his tortuous illness, penning his last works, Schwanengesang D. 957 or "Swansong" the month before he died.
Schubert felt a lifelong adulation for Beethoven, whose funeral he attended as a torchbearer. Schubert's two final wishes were to hear the Op. 135 String Quartet performed as he lay on his death bed and to be buried at Beethoven's feet.
Schubert is rightly considered the first real Romantic composer. The Romantic themes of longing, suffering, and the importance of poetry as inspiration find their first blossom and sweetest fruit in his work. A quote from his letters sums up his poignant journey:
When I wished to sing of love, it turned to sorrow.
And when I wished to sing of sorrow,
it was transformed for me into love.