Public Displays - Part 2

In Part 1 of ‘Public Displays’ we were talking about Schubert, the young native Viennese, bohemian musician. Schubert spent most of his time composing and his output was prolific. Although his 'public music' (symphonies and operas) was rarely performed, Schubert became a household name because of his songs (these are called Lieder in German, see explanation in Part 1.) He earned a small fortune, all of which he spent on god knows what, from publishing his songs, which were consumed voraciously by the public. Schubert could scarcely keep up with the demand for his latest song-cycle (the predecessor to an album.) For the first time, the new middle-class could afford the luxury of leisure activities, a favorite of which was making music at home. For this reason, songs were considered a ‘domestic’ genre and were not given much importance or value. But Schubert changes all that. He treats songs with the same seriousness as those big public works and in so doing, he elevates them to true artistic statements. The impact this has lasts for generations. 

Having said all of that, Schubert’s musical style really did mature and develope predominantly within these ‘private’ genres. This is in contrast to say, Mozart and Beethoven, both of whom from the very beginning of their careers composed those big public symphonies and operas (in fact, Mozart’s first symphony was composed as a kid, out of boredom, while his dad was asleep – at age 8!) as well as ‘private’ or ‘chamber’ music (for performance in a smaller chamber as opposed to a hall.)

Very significantly, when Schubert got around to writing symphonies, he infused that public genre with all the intimacy and inwardness of his own ‘private’ style. Whether consciously or otherwise, he was going to import that same quality of confidentiality into the public concert hall. (Hence the ironic use of the No PDA image...)


The 19th Century is known as the Romantic era of art, music, and literature. And what the Romantics wanted from Art was to be spellbound, struck into a hypnotic reverie. 


The Romantics wanted to be captivated, mesmerized, ensorcelled, rapt, and ecstatic. They wanted to be moved and uplifted. In other words, in the 19th Century, Art becomes Religion. 

Music in particular was valued as the highest art-form by the Romantics. This is precisely because it is abstract. Notes have no inherent meaning and so they are free to be truly universal in what they communicate. Each person can achieve a very personal communion while listening to the same piece. 

The great German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, wrote the following in the early-1800s: 

“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain... Music expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, never these themselves.” 

Music can express grief, but it is not grief. Music can convey anxiety but is not itself anxious. Music can express joy but is not itself joyous (though it may induce that feeling in musicians and audience.) In other words, music, like all art, can give us access to emotions, and let us explore them, once-removed. There is a safety in this distance that allows our momentary experience to take on a greater internal truth than reality itself. This is why we find great art so uplifting and cathartic. (And why the great composers are philosophers in sound, not just cobblers of pretty tunes.) 

I also love that quote because Schopenhauer identifies one of the core mysteries of music: the fact that we can all intuitively understand it and we don't know why. This is exactly the reason the Romantics worshipped at the feet of those prophets of sound, the great composers. 

In Part 3 we will take a look at a concrete example! Stay tuned...

Kirsten Hicks