A Virtual Schubertiad

Publishing literary essays is not a viable way to get rich or famous, but it’s a surprisingly effective way to meet interesting strangers. No essay of mine has provoked correspondence with more interesting strangers than “Franz Schubert Dreamt of Indians,” which first appeared in The Georgia Review in 2010. The messages still trickle in, five years later. While some of these readers have reciprocated by sharing their own feelings and ideas about Franz Schubert or James Fenimore Cooper, others have just sent me examples of art (literary, musical, and visual) that they themselves have appreciated or created.

“Love and Death” by George Frederic Watts

One reader took it upon himself to mail me a print of “Love and Death” by George Frederic Watts, expressing the hope that it would cure me of the “emotional blindness” to paintings to which I admitted in the essay. While I appreciate the reader’s consideration, I regret to say that this picture–of Thanatos with his toga all in a bunch, advancing on naked little Eros–gives me the creeps. I get that there’s supposed to be symbolism here, but I can’t get past the fact that Thanatos just looks like some kind of skeevy pederast. (Apparently that was kind of a thing in ancient Greece?) I guess if a shudder was the intended emotional reaction–and maybe it was–then I am indeed cured?

Other reader offerings in response to the essay have included:

  • an illustrated calligraphy print of a W.D. Snodgrass poem,
  • a stack of newsletters about a shop class program at a high school in Oregon, and
  • an 800-page manuscript of a psychological biography of Schubert.

All these delight me. The fact that somebody wanted to share them with me delights me still more, even when the offerings are, on occasion… curious. I suspect my Schubert essay appeals to eccentrics and obsessives because it so plainly reveals that I am one of their tribe. Even when I don’t share their particular obsessions, I know what it is to be so enraptured by an arcane subject that you just want to share it with other people–anyone–who might understand.

Schubert himself enjoyed an eclectic circle of artistic friends, including painters and poets as well as other musicians. When they gathered in someone’s living room to listen to performances of his music, they called these evenings “Schubertiads.” I relish the thought that my essay has engendered such a gathering, if only in a virtual setting. Perhaps it would be cooler if we were all sitting around together, listening synchronously to the same music, instead of connected by tendrils of electrons across the ether, each of us jamming to our own private soundtrack. But a connection is a connection. And in many ways it’s better that I don’t actually have to host. We can each enjoy the sense of affinity while being eccentric and obsessive in our own living rooms, wearing pajamas.

Schubert, hanging with his friends, as depicted by Moritz von Schwind in
Schubert, hanging with his friends, as depicted by Moritz von Schwind in “Schubert-Abend bei Josef von Spaun “

This week I received the most delightful offering yet: a YouTube link to a performance by Lili Kraus of Schubert’s Grazer Fantasie, emailed to me by a pianist in Poland who had stumbled across my essay. I am so grateful that this reader was moved by his love of Schubert and appreciation of Kraus to share it with me. I was not familiar with Kraus before this, and she plays Schubert as beautifully as anyone I have ever heard. After listening to the Fantasie, I followed a link in the sidebar to a recording of her playing the B-flat sonata (D960)–the piece that inspired my essay–and I was even more delighted. Kraus’ interpretation of the sonata satisfies me more than other recording of it that I’ve heard. My disappointment with other recordings and my own inability to play the sonata as I wanted to provided the impetus for writing the essay. Would I have written it at all if I had found Lili Kraus to listen to, seven years ago? Probably. Obsession is not so easily cured. But it would have been an entirely different essay.

Today, when I look at what I wrote all those years back, it seem not half as marvelous as what Lili Kraus did, decades earlier, at the piano keyboard. So let me stop talking about the essay. Just listen to her play, and join the virtual Schubertiad. Then feel free to share your own strange artistic affinities in any way you like.

P.S. [added on October 30, 2015] : In this week’s New Yorker, there is a wonderful article, “The Trill of Doom” by Alex Ross,  on András Schiff’s interpretation of D. 960 and how his experiments with historic instruments influenced his performance of it. A great read for Schubert Obsessives.

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