Appearing in Ideas, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1999

The Heavenly Length of Schubert's Music
A Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1998–99, Scott Burnham is an associate professor of music at Princeton University. While in residence at the Center, Professor Burnham has been at work on a manuscript entitled Mozart, Schubert, and the Music of Romantic Subjectivity. This essay was adapted from a lecture with music given at the Center in November 1998.

Franz Schubert

eavenly length." The phrase first arose in connection with Schubert's music in the midst of Robert Schumann's justly famous 1840 review of Schubert's Symphony in C Major, subsequently known as "the Great." In the annals of writing about music, Schumann's essay is one of the celebrated documents of the nineteenth century: among other connections, it memorably relates Schubert to the city of Vienna, the figure of Beethoven, and Romanticism. The phrase "heavenly length" is a favorite tourist stop in Schumann's essay, the place for which it is best known, the place one wants to see first off upon visiting the essay, unless one would rather be pleasantly taken aback by happening upon it in the course of rambling through the entire review. I will not so ramble here, despite the numerous fascination on offer throughout the review. Instead, I propose to reflect on what happened to that singular remark, how it has colored the mainstream reception of almost all of Schubert's instrumental music, and what we might ourselves discover upon reconsidering the issue of length in this music, particularly as it occurs in the pieces he wrote during the last three or four years of his life.

On the other hand, I cannot simply walk away from Schumann. The following excerpt should give some flavor of his famed review:

Here we find, besides the most masterly compositional technique, life in every fiber; coloring down to the finest gradation; meaning everywhere; sharp expression in detail; and in the whole a suffusing Romanticism such as other works of Franz Schubert have already made known to us.

And the heavenly length of the symphony, like that of a thick novel in four volumes by, say, Jean Paul, another who can never come to an end, and indeed for the best reason, to give the reader something to chew on afterwards. How this refreshes, this feeling of rich and ubiquitous abundance, so contrary to one's experience with others, when one always dreads being let down at the end and is often sadly disappointed.

Notice in these passages Schumann's emphasis on how we are left after listening to Schubert. The experience of listening to his music stays with one—it is not a thin, or a wavering, experience. Plenitude is clearly valued here.

In contrast to Schumann’s ebullient praise, however, the more commonly voiced perception has always been that Schubert's instrumental works are simply too long, too repetitive. The acknowledged lengthiness of many pieces by Beethoven is said to be justified by an often monumentalized process of development and transformation—Beethoven needs his great expanses in order to establish and then complete a momentous global agenda. Schubert's lengthiness enjoys no such global justification. In fact, it is often considered to be his telling flaw. Some fifty years after Schumann's review, in 1892, Eduard Hanslick put the case sharply when he said, "If truth be told, everything about this symphony except its length may be deemed heavenly." About fifty years after Hanslick, the influential English critic Donald Francis Tovey helped perpetuate the popular idea that Schubert could not in fact handle large forms—that he substituted odd digressions and even mere repetition for the type of consequential and evolving substance one finds in the compositions of Beethoven and Brahms. For example, Tovey comments on Schubert's finales: "The enormous sprawling forms of the typical Schubert finales are the outcome of a sheer irresponsibility that has involved him in little or no strain, though he often shows invention of the highest order in their main themes."

Tovey's juxtaposition of thematic invention of the highest order with formal irresponsibility brings us back to Schumann's famous phrase and, more particularly, to its afterlife. For in referring to the great length of Schubert's symphony as heavenly, Schumann begins a long tradition of apologizing for this perceived flaw: yes, the music is too long, but it is heavenly. The notion of heavenly length became a way to express the idea of beauty prolonged solely for its own sake, to acknowledge the goodness of such beauty without fully condoning the fact that it goes on for so long in Schubert's music. As Stravinsky once quipped, in a perhaps unconscious trope of Schumann's remark: "So what if I doze off occasionally when listening to Schubert, as long as I always find myself in Paradise when I wake up?" (This is an interestingly ambivalent comment: in effect he say that the puts him to sleep, but it's nice to wake up to.) Or take Alfred Einstein's fervent declaration that "Schubert lives in the paradise of pure music making from which Beethoven was driven." This, too, is ambivalent: though Schubert may be said to live in Paradise, it is Beethoven who shares and expresses our human burden here below.

German musicologist Robert Werba considers the trope of heavenly length as part of the quaint bric-a-brac of a now outmoded image of Schubert and his world, an image that Werba captures in his phrase "die wienerische Musizierseligkeit" (the blessed state of making and hearing music in Vienna). Schubert is viewed as an innocent, blessedly plying his oar in the golden flow of Viennese melody. Who could blame him for not knowing when to stop?

Outmoded it may be, but this image of Schubert dies hard: what has been cast off in his biography is often sustained in treatments of his music. It is admittedly hard to ignore those gemütlich elements in his music that so charm us, and it is fun to think of them as distinctly Viennese. Even exceedingly sophisticated and up-to-date analyses of Schubert's music still cling to the idea of Schubert's lyricism as heavenly. Amid an ingeniously detailed analysis of Schubert's late instrumental music, for example, Peter Gülke points to the chaotic and disruptive outbursts that often occur in the middle of movements such as the Adagio of the String Quintet, and he observes that Schubert thus pays dearly for his "lyrical paradise." Beauty is here figured as a kind of heavenly state that cannot be sustained without a price. Or is it that beauty should not be sustained? For Gülke goes on to maintain that the presence of these same "disruptive forces" actually protects Schubert from the suspicion of overindulging in sensuous beauty: in other words, by including this often harrowing music, Schubert gets away with something we basically disapprove of, something indulgent, dissipated, weak. This attitude in turn motivates a ready response from the other side of the same playing field, namely, why should we disapprove of Schubert luxuriating in beauty? What puts both these views on the same field is that they both represent Schubert's lyric beauty as luxuriating, paradisiacal; both sides allow the polarity of beauty versus control, indulgence versus progress, leisure versus work, to define their experience of the music.

In spite of the longstanding attraction of such views, I would submit that Schubert's music is not about relaxed beauty, spun out at great length simply because there is less teleological impulse, less closural gravity than in music like Beethoven's. Schubert is not Beethoven on sabbatical, with a license to linger; this is not some languishing diffusion or even a sublimely indifferent, Olympian stasis. Instead, Schubert explores effects and worlds unknown to a Beethoven—his music puts into play a different physics. Thus, Schubert's pieces are not just longer, they work differently. They constitute a different order of musical being.

If the lengthiness of Schubert's instrumental music cannot be justified in the way that it can in Beethoven's music—where length seems necessary for the completion of an imposing process—how can it be? One could argue that, in Schubert, the great length is just there. In fact, it is more than just there—Schubert seems to want to make an issue of length; he seems to be telling us something by the way he makes us always aware of the sheer length of his music. Before we can speculate on what his message for us may be, we need to ask just how he in fact marks his music as being long.

he most obvious way Schubert does so is by repeating big chunks of material quite literally, or repeating them with only one parameter changed, as, for example, with a change of key. This gives his large-scale forms a relaxed and spacious quality; they are not in a hurry, not always charging around getting things done. Especially striking is when he does this in so-called development sections; this strikes not a few critics as creating a kind of decompression at precisely the wrong moment in the life process of the sonata-form movement.

It is not just his treatment of form, though, that is marked as long—Schubert’s themes taken by themselves are notable for their sheer length of utterance. What could be more exquisitely and fluidly romantic than the opening of the Violin Fantasy? It draws its first breath over eighteen slow measures, its theme arising and coalescing from the texture, like a subject taking shape.

But even when Schubert puts together a more obviously sectionalized theme, he manages to underline the quality of lengthiness, of sheer extent. Most themes in and around the Classical style rely on the notion of paired phrases as a means of comprehensible articulation. This can be a wonderfully simple mechanism, by which an initial phrase calls forth an answering phrase, as in the opening of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. A more complex examplemay be found in the slow movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, where a movingly expressive theme unfolds over the same underlying structure. In the theme from the slow movement of his String Quintet, Schubert is clearly working with phrases, but he sets them up one after the other in great parallel stretches. This type of parallel construction of phrases is more paratactic than hypotactic—more additive than hierarchical—and thus, at the level of its construction alone, such a theme will sound longer. And although there are interim arrivals, intermediary cadences, he does not close the circuit by returning to the opening tonic harmony until after fourteen long bars.

(These interim arrivals are in fact on the wrong keys [F-sharp and A]; the real arrival [on E] sounds locally like an added extension! Once again, length is placed at the foreground, for Schubert makes what would be the normative syntactic arrival sound like an addition to the length of the passage.)

Another significant factor here is the 12/8 meter (twelve notes per bar, heard as four beats containing three eighth notes apiece), a compound meter which at this slow tempo makes each beat into a space that can be filled. This is an emblematic meter for Schubert; it gives him something like a canvas. (He fills the spaces of the canvas quite floridly when the theme returns at the end.)

And even the notes themselves of Schubert's themes, their motivic content and shape, project a sense of lengthiness. Charles Rosen has discussed how the motivic content of Schubert's themes often explores a space around a center. This is a way of breaking down motivic energy—his motives grope out into the surrounding space; they do not build up potential energy and replicate themselves implacably throughout the piece (as happens, for example, in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) The result is a slower sense of temporal unfolding.

In short, whereas a Beethoven can make us forget how long some of his music is, Schubert seems to want to remind us at every turn. He gives us time to take in his themes, as if they were works of visual art we could inspect at our leisure, or landscapes through which we could wander.

(More, to Part 2 of 2)

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Revised: December 1999