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.