Schubert and the Romantic Sublime, Part I

Once Schubert took ahold of the Lied (German song with keyboard accompaniment), it was never the same. He vested what was mainly a domestic genre with the power to express a Romantic aesthetic, one that fused ideals of Romantic poets with a growing analogous trend in music: a drive toward Innigkeit (“innerness”) as a new and more complete way of experiencing reality. The harmonic language that Schubert developed to express Innigkeit was the extensive topic of Taruskin’s second chapter of vol. III, where he explicates all the harmonic inner workings in some detail (cf. Zach’s recent post). In short, Schubert accomplished a dislodging of time—and thus entrance into what Taruskin calls the “music trance”—through particular use of the flat submediant and modal mixture.

In his Lied, “Am Meer” (“By the Sea”), Schubert also utilized modal mixture. In particular, the opening piano chords oscillate between major and minor triads in direct juxtaposition, to express the pathetic (that is, infused with pathos) and, more to the point of this post, the sublime. It is musical foreshadowing of love once tasted, becoming fatally poisonous, a fate that, when finally proclaimed by the poet at the end of the Lied, we realize has loomed all along. Having asked the question of how harmony expresses the sublime, Taruskin pushes the question one step further: does the harmonic expressivity and evocation transfer into his instrumental works? The answer is yes, and the evidence is Schubert’s incomparable String Quintet in C Major. Taruskin connects the dots, so to speak, between “Am Meer” and the quintet, noting that both open with modal mixture. Is it mere coincidence? Not likely:

Without the eccentric context provided by the poem, one thinks, such a progression could have no meaning at all. But then one hears the very opening of the Quintet in C Major, composed the same year as “Am Meer,” and one has to think again. The same kind of uncanny juxtaposition materializes […]. Yet it materializes in an imaginatively open-ended context, all the more arcane for its being wordless. (III, 138-139)

Taruskin, immediately connects another dot that is surely pressing on the musicologist’s mind as she follows the argument:

In which context did such arcane eloquence originate? Impossible—tantalizingly, blessedly impossible—to say. The combination of an extreme subjective expressive immediacy and an unspecified or “objectless” context is what gave rise to the sublime romantic notion of “absolute music”—one of the most potent, but also one of the most widely misunderstood, of all romantic concepts.

Naturally, the misunderstood concept that Taruskin refers to is “absolute music,” hotly debated to this very day among musicologists. But there is another term in Taruskin’s last sentence that could be “widely misunderstood”—if not by specialists, then at least by the general reader. That is the notion of the sublime, an equal or perhaps more important concept than absolute music, when talking about Schubert and his Romantic comrades. And that will be the subject of my next post, the second in this two-part series.


  1. Taruskin is certainly no expert on the topic “Wiener Musikleben im Biedermeier”. The “Italian Overture” was first performed by a “restaurant orchestra”? (p. 81) Eduard Jaell who was a well-established musician at the Theater an der Wien had nobody else to accompany him but a bunch of restaurant musicians? The Viennese music historian Otto Biba “established”, that “Schubert was the only composer in Vienna at the time who was officially classified as freischaffender Komponist”? This claim is just as apodictic as it is absurd. Of course Beethoven enjoyed aristocratic patronage, but was the support Schubert received from Schober anything different? Schubert was of course among the countless composers who also had to teach. We must not forget that from the money he earned at Zselíz in 1818 Schubert was able to live for a very long time and he even was able to support Mayrhofer (who was broke as I was able to prove ten years ago). “Others say that alcoholism ended Schubert’s life”? Who are these “others”? To just mention alcohol in connection with Schubert’s death is simply irresponsible. The Great C Major was not “a product of Schubert’s last year” (p. 82). Taruskin seems to be unaware of Hilmar’s research and that this work was already begun in 1825. “Biba discovered that Schubert’s early symphonies were performed at the salons of Otto Hatwig”? Biba discovered nothing. That Hatwig (who played bassoon, not violin and was a poor professional, not a a “wealthy amateur” as claimed by Taruskin) premiered Schubert’s symphonies, has been known since Leopold von Sonnleithner published his “Musikalische Skizzen aus Alt-Wien” (in Recensionen und Mittheilungen über Theater und Musik) in 1861. Didn’t Taruskin read Deutsch’s “Dokumente”?

  2. Mark Samples says:

    Michael—I certainly can’t speak for Taruskin on these points. But thanks for pointing out some of these questionable facts and misnomers.

  3. Dan Ruccia says:

    Another fantastic example of the sublime in Schubert’s instrumental music comes in the Adagio of the quintet. The whole movement combines so many of the elements that you’ve been talking about over your posts on Schubert, but it’s the ending of the movement that really does it for me. (I haven’t read Taruskin, so I don’t know if he uses this example, so I apologize if I’m repeating.) In approaching the closing cadence, the texture thins out to be even more spare that in the rest of the movement, and Schubert uses that flat-VI chord to pivot to a minor Neapolitan, which then goes back to the flat-VI-as-augmented-6th, and back to the tonic. It’s an absolutely breathtaking moment, both harmonically and dramatically, what Scott Burnham has described as being like a change in lighting that recasts the meaning of the scene.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s