Weeping maidens, ghoulish nuns
Sunday 24th April, the centenary of the beginning of the Easter Rising, saw Michel Stas and myself continuing our Schubert Journey in the refurbished Kevin Barry Room of Dublin's National Concert Hall. In every respect an improvement: sound-proofed, air-conditioned, unobtrusively lit, beautifully polished. The new Steinway B however is not an improvement on the older, bigger model. Such is life. Dominating this programme of shortish songs was "Die Nonne", another ballad along the lines of "Der Liedler" or "Der Taucher", in which the principal protagonist is a brave, low-born cove who wins the socially unattainable girl of his dreams through deeds of derring-do. (In the case of "Die Nonne" the cove really is a cove, and gets his come-uppance.) The risible poetry in "Die Nonne" (no relation to that masterpiece "Die junge Nonne") forms no obstacle to Schubert's powers of invention, and the result is a gripping tale of seduction, revenge and the supernatural which works particularly well in live performance. I say that, since armchair experiences of CD recordings allow scope for cynicism, a notion foreign to Schubert. Listeners are intuitively attracted to him because of his ability to empathize with the human condition, in a way that is matched only by Beethoven, Verdi, Shakespeare and a few others. We see it above all in "Winterreise".
"Die Nonne" is Pre-Raphaelitism in music. I dislike the movement and its works, with its whiff of sanitized Ophelia, and its idea that a picture should tell a story, but there's no denying its scrupulous attention to detail. Schubert's best songs are centered around a state of mind ("Die Junge Nonne", "Der Zwerg", "Nacht und Träume"), and those songs which tell a story, such as "Die Nonne" (and there are many of them) are usually pipped to the post in terms of musical genius. Which is not to say there is not much good music in the ballads, and even less excuse not to perform them.
The Romantic movement in general and Pre-Raphaelitism in particular (one thinks of Ruskin) was a reaction first of all to the horrors of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, secondly to the encroaching character of The Industrial Revolution, with all that that entailed in terms of mass-production of cheap goods. Crucially, for Ruskin and his friends, this meant countering the scourge of a new philosophy, that of the cheap and nasty. (Think of the vile old Novello editions of oratorios, produced to encourage sobriety among the masses.) Excellence in execution of all details, that was what mattered: hence the Arts and Crafts Movement, leading to Art Nouveau and (if I stretch a point) Art-Déco. Schubert was an early protagonist of this in his ballads — in
"Adelwold und Emma", every modulation, every recitative of which is well-crafted ("Adelwold" was composed in ten days in the summer of 1815, and we know that Schubert was occupied solely with the song.)
One of the side-effects of the defeat of Napoleon was the renewed emergence of a stronger bourgeoisie and a consequent tailoring to their cultural needs. In Metternich's police state that meant careful surveillance of anything that could be remotely suspected of subversion. The Biedermeier movement was born, a kind of Eve's Pudding of cultural feel-goodery. Inevitably, some of Schubert's works fall into this category, as do those of other great artists such as Verdi and Dickens. I can't help preferring our ghoulish nun to Little Nell, though.