For years, CDs have arrived each week by the dozen, their styles, careers, and time periods all competing for my attention. I would get to them all eventually, I told myself — when I was idled or sick or housebound. But in these past weeks, I’ve found I have no appetite for exploration, no urge to be shaken by novel sonorities or huge orchestral dramas. Lighthearted distractions don’t distract. Instead, my musical desires have narrowed to a tiny illuminated point: a handful of Schubert’s last pieces. In the piano sonatas and chamber works he wrote a little less than 200 years ago, I hear a distillation of the world we’re all suddenly trapped in, vast and sad and radically confining.
Franz Schubert led a short but sociable life in Vienna, where he was born. He spent his 20s barhopping with friends, conducting vigorous, meandering discussions into the night. Music was the social medium of his day. Musicians and sympathetic listeners huddled around the piano, where Schubert often stationed himself for hours, unspooling that week’s output. Those who wanted to reproduce what they’d heard — or who couldn’t get entrée — could buy the sheet music, thereby supporting Vienna’s emerging gig economy of music.
But Schubert was also a poet of solitude. Few composers have ever rendered loneliness as lovingly as he did or surrounded it in such a halo of compassion. Especially in the music from his last years, he developed a language of isolation. Among the last tasks that absorbed him was reviewing the proofs of his song cycle Winterreise, composed the previous year and ending with a number of crushing melancholy. “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”) opens with a musical image: a bass drone of open fifths, blemished by a grace note, a fleck of grit. Above that, a minor-mode ditty can’t quite get going and hits a glitch, as if made by a musical gizmo with a broken flywheel. The lyrics describe the old musician staggering barefoot on the ice, disoriented, destitute, and utterly alone. Bleak as it is, the song draws a mesmerizing beauty from the consciousness of better times.
Any moment in music gets its meaning from the memory of what’s come before and the expectation of what will follow. A melody moves us because it contains nostalgia, hope, and the possibility that it will tragically peter out. Schubert slips from tense to tense. He grips us in a “now” that appears to be without change or escape, then exits without warning into another key, an altered state, a new harmonic costume. Winterreise, especially, is drenched in memories — of joy and disappointment, of a summer that, from this gelid landscape, seems unimaginably far away.
He never got the chance to grow old, which means that all his memories were recent and vivid. He contracted syphilis sometime around early 1823 and spent his most productive years in physical distress. The intermingling of pain, doom, uncertainty, and depression that dogged him has a familiar cast. His symptoms waxed and waned, so that he could never be sure whether he was dying or getting better. In October 1828, when he was 31, he felt strong enough to go on a three-day hiking trip. He died a few weeks later.
Those last months were feverish, and not just because of illness. He used them to produce work that is panoramic in scope and emotional range. The string quintet alone, which he finished just weeks before the end, lasts nearly an hour and sweeps from a mournful second movement to the impish delight of the fourth. But while some composers paint landscapes in music — Mahler’s mountain meadows, Sibelius’s Nordic forests, Ives’s rugged New England turf — Schubert explores interiors. Some years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a show of 19th-century paintings that focused on views through a window. In those cluttered studios and muted cells, I heard the same music as I now watch from my own window.
The final piano sonata, in B-flat major, opens with a tune of Zenlike serenity. It’s a vestibule into a grand palace of a piece, full of unsuspected rooms, some sunny and springlike, others sepulchral. The pianist who would do justice to this score needs to have a floor plan of the whole structure in mind, and at the same time preserve the surprise of stepping through each door. The first hint that something stirs beneath the floorboards comes eight bars in: a low trill that lands on a short, sharp eighth note, like a stone that’s rolled down a hill and landed with a quiet thud.
In the movies, a strange off-screen bump is never just a noise; here, too, ominous signs proliferate. The left-hand accompaniment grows more urgent, the volume inches up to forte, the chords grow volatile, and when the familiar melody starts up again, insistent, hammering triplets disrupt the calm. Those simple ingredients — song, trill, pulse, and harmonic turbulence — cycle and recombine through the long movement, stretching out into the kind of 4 a.m. interior monologue that has become a part of our COVID life. Later, having gone through the lengthy exposition twice, at the point where listeners of his social circle were trained to expect a stroke of drama, Schubert throws open a window and gives us the main tune again, now transformed and hazed in C-sharp-minor moonlight.
A classic sonata-form movement like this recounts a tale of traumatic change: We are led into a richly detailed scene, then take pleasure in its destruction. Convention tells us it will be restored, but Schubert doesn’t give it back to us whole. Instead, the music we recall from the beginning is scarred, hesitant, prone to erratic outbursts. What was normal no longer is.
The piece denies catharsis. It does no good to erupt into wrath. Schubert doles out fortissimos, then nips them off, restoring a mood of quietude. Terrors subside, but don’t disappear. In our world, the epidemic and its consequences have radically distorted time, making last year seem antediluvian, the week a string of undifferentiated todays, and next fall practically inconceivable. In the sonata, Schubert often performs a similar manipulation. A few minutes into the G-major quartet, he takes up a shuffling dance, then repeats it while the first violin flits quietly around in the upper register like a sparrow trapped in a greenhouse. The quivering goes on, but the harmony slips into a momentary coma, until it suddenly jerks forward in a quick-cut sequence of new keys and piquant chords.
The biographical record is stingy with clues to Schubert’s personality, but his music suggests an obsessional streak, someone constantly erecting buffers against the encroachments of chaos. Dotted rhythms settle into their troubled groove; obstinate repetitions of a single note or an entire section keep change temporarily at bay. I recognize that state of mind now, better than I used to. As I pace and wonder, my mind goes clattering around the confines of my home, or else grabs hold of one anxious thought, gripping it until it loses strength. You can hear the same febrile brooding in the G-major quartet.
Schubert’s gift to us is he never abandons us in his predawn disquiet, but rather finds pools of daylit beauty. In the B-flat sonata, the G-major quartet, and the C-major string quintet, the slow second movement is the heart, and a sublimely cherubic song lofts above the tremors. What makes those passages hopeful, and not crushing, is that Schubert weaves his tunes into ornate tapestries of sound. In the second movement of the B-flat sonata, the melody unfurls in the center of the piano, while C-sharps roll across the keyboard from low to high, gently thudding and tolling like the noises of a distant city. Often, the accompaniment grows busier even as the tune repeats, because one voice of sadness isn’t enough to still life’s bustle. Schubert, like W. H. Auden, understood that suffering takes place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
If all Schubert had to offer me just now were a reflection of my inchoate gloom, or a way of organizing it into poignant drama, I wouldn’t want to keep listening. What draws me through these pieces is the promise of joy. By the close of each of these multi-act dramas, the dance has returned, in endorphin-drenched spasms of outdoorsy vigor. The quintet rushes to its close in a gallop so vivid you can smell the upturned earth. The B-flat sonata recovers its equanimity in the scherzo, twirling around in triple time, like a hobbyhorse performing a frenzied minuet. These movements are not placid or blithe — the finale of the G-major quartet has lost none of its wounded determination — but they restore us to the world outside ourselves, reassuring us that we will one day have something to celebrate.
*This article appears in the April 27, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!