Public Displays - Part 3

In Parts 1 & 2 of ‘Public Displays’, we have been talking about public and private genres of music, the Romantic concept of Art as a substitute for religious experience, the music 'trance', and the lynchpin in all of this, Franz Schubert.  

Now let’s look at an example.

Schubert’s Eighth Symphony is called the ‘Unfinished’ because there are only two movements instead of the regular four. (That’s a whole long story that doesn’t concern us here.) People get caught up on this fact, and the history and the reasons, and in all this distraction they fail to look at the actual music. So that's what we're going to do.

Schubert's Symphony No. 8 is often regarded as the first ‘Romantic’ symphony because it has a completely new sensibility. It doesn’t try to compete with Beethoven’s muscularity and brawn, nor his aching pathos. This symphony is new because it is suffused with PRIVACY. It is written for the concert hall but bears all the hallmarks of a domestic piece, intended to encourage private contemplation and personal reflection. It does not disturb or dramatize; instead, it creates room for reverie.

The symphony begins by hovering on the edge of audible sound, murky, soft and indistinct, as if coming from far away - or far below. And, just as we are about to discern its shape, like a shadowy figure approaching through thick fog, the music stops moving and sustains a deep and long-held note. This is the opposite of Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ style. Schubert deliberately halts the action. And by doing so, specifically in this register of those instruments (the bottom range of the cellos and double-basses,) he invites you to be hypnotized by its low, deep voice. 

After this mystifying and vaguely ominous introduction, all of the strings join the hushed atmosphere. But rather than adding clarity, they further shroud the scene in hazy ambiguity. What is that rhythm? Where’s the melody? And then, music from another plane gently begins to waft across the orchestra. The extraordinary poignancy of the piquant oboe is mellowed and rounded by the dulcet velvet of the clarinet. They intone the same melody, and though together, seem so forlorn and isolated; like a lone bird singing into the dark, searching for its mate.   

(Now, bear with me, because this next bit may get a little technical. But even if you only get the general gist of what I’m saying, you will still get something out of it. Be brave!) The first musical period/section comes to a close with what we call an ‘authentic cadence’ (check out this 2-minute video by a guy who seems to be giving this demonstration in his car for some reason...) This is the musical equivalent of a full-stop. But what you have to know about music theory is that this kind of punctuation, at this point in the story, essentially invalidates everything that is to follow. It is kind of like saying ‘The End’ when you’ve only just explained that the princess is locked in a tower; or, like asking for the check when you’ve only just looked at the menu.

How is that? Well, Sonata Form is based on the conflict between two different keys. Part of the conflict is that we migrate (in music this is called ‘modulating’) away from the home key to another key, and then back again (like running the bases in baseball.) But that process of migration is rendered futile if you close out and secure the home key before you really get going (like continuing to run to second when you've already been caught out.) The story is ended before it really begins.

And yet, this is exactly what Schubert does. He closes out that first period with a big cadence and then lands on a long sustained note in the horns (just like that long note from the introduction.) This long note also does nothing to propel the stifled action; it just sits there for a minute. Schubert has broken the cardinal rule of musical story-telling at this point in history (that is, maintain the tension so you can build to a rewarding climax when it is released.) So what on earth is going on here?! 

This is the point.

Rather than heightening the sense of movement, dynamism, and activity, Schubert is deliberately undermining this. He is diffusing tension instead of building it. His procedure is designed to deepen that sense of spellbound hypnotism and reverie we spoke about in Part 2 that the Romantics valued so much, and to avoid disturbing it at all costs. 

And still, we have not even arrived at the most remarkable bit: the second theme. The second theme (suddenly in a new key) is essentially ‘unnecessary’ to the story, because we have already said ‘The End.’ Therefore, the whole thing becomes a kind of out-of-time experience. As if the entire world has been paused momentarily whilst we daydream.

As my favorite musical writer, Richard Taruskin, puts it, “The whole second theme is an island of repose, a fair and fleeting eye’s-blink magnified into what philosopher’s call a ‘specious present’ – a considerable duration that nevertheless represents instantaneousness.” Even though it goes on for a while in real-time, when we come out of this reverie, it’s as if no time has passed at all. It's as if we imagined it. Schubert even reinforces this sense of out-of-time-ness by having the melody lose its train of thought in the middle. Think about that – the music is composed to trail off into silence at one point - as if it forgot what it was saying! (You can see where Mahler learned some of his favorite musical metaphors.)

The climax of the movement, when it comes, is quite overwhelming. Having been careful to lull you deeper and deeper into your hypnotic state, Schubert brings back that murky opening. But now it continues on to somewhere strange and unfamiliar. This is a path we don’t know, and it fills us with unexplained foreboding. The reverie is suddenly gone and we find ourselves lost in some vastly cavernous place with flickering lights casting frightening shadows all about us. That murky introduction has transformed into something vast; immense, it looms over us with strings tearing and whirling about it like living creatures. And yet, as quickly as it rose up, it dissolves again. We are returned to that same hazy first theme, but this time with the knowledge of what might lay unseen through that fog.

A final thought, also from Richard Taruskin (I’m sure you can see why I love his writing so much.) He is comparing the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to the opening of Schubert’s Eighth, which we have been discussing here.

“Whereas a Beethoven pause either comes on a rest or is followed by a rest [think of that fourth note in “Da, Da, Da, DAH!”], thus compounding the forward thrust with suspense, Schubert’s is on a quiet continuous sound that has the opposite effect. It neutralizes the thrust, replacing suspense (which quickens consciousness) with relaxation, deepening the music trance.”

The point of telling the story of the music in such detail is to help the way you listen. But the real take away of this three-part ‘Public Displays’ is the following: Symphony No. 8 represents a first step toward importing intimacy from private music into the public space of the concert hall. The style is much closer to the music that was performed around the piano at home in front of Schubert's closest friends, than it is like a Beethoven symphony. It is a new evolutionary step. (And incidentally, it only premiered in 1865 – almost 40 years after Schubert died! But boy what an impression it made…)

Ok. "THE END!"

(Here is a link to a performance of the symphony. I hope it is made more meaningful from all our discussions above.)


Kirsten Hicks