Culture

To mark the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s performances of Schubert’s ‘perfect’ quintet, British poet George Szirtes explores how the work generates meaning from disruption and mortality. By George Szirtes.

Schubert’s nightingale

The author with his parents and younger brother Andrew after the family immigrated to England.
Credit: Courtesy George Szirtes

It is Schubert night
in the universe which squats
right down to listen

its ear pressed against
the window. It thinks it might
have to break the glass

to possess the sound.
And the glass gives a little
but it will not break.

Music does not break.

 

I was recently asked to choose six or seven mainly classical pieces of music for an interview program on radio. Any restricted choice is hard and my first instinct, like most people’s I imagine, was to make a preliminary list. Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major was at the heart of it.

But when I sent the list to the producer she asked me – if I could bear it – to leave it out, because too many other people had chosen it in the past.

I wasn’t altogether surprised and had secretly prepared an alternative. But why, I wondered? The classical repertoire is vast and various and even if you chose only chamber music – and I generally would choose chamber music – there is no shortage of great works. So I put that question to myself.

Why would I choose it?

My immediate answer would lie in the 2nd movement, the “Adagio”, which took my breath away the first time I heard it. When it is excerpted, inevitably people play the beginning of it.

I think of the “Adagio”, perhaps a little morbidly, as the antechamber of death. It’s a preparation for and apprehension of death, the point at which the heart begins to move more slowly, perhaps just a micro-beat more slowly than the universe itself while – and this is vitally important – remaining fully absorbed in the sheer splendour, sinuousness and rapture of life at its most energetic.

That’s a crude answer. I tend to be suspicious of abstractions and I see I have listed at least three. “Rapture” is a rather antiquated word we rarely use for fear of being accused of grand romantic gestures or hyperbole.

Rapture appears to us now between the faintest of inverted commas: we imagine the gesture in the air. Rapture is elsewhere.

The parallel between Schubert and Romantic poet John Keats has often been discussed. Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” offers a particular experience of rapture in the company of words that lend it some context; words such as: darkling, love, ease, soft, quiet, rich then cease, as here:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
    I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
    To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
    To cease upon the midnight with no pain

 

Rapture in Keats is rich and voluptuous, almost joyful. It is mortality having the time of its life. Is that morbid? To put death before pleasure does seem a deliberate romantic gesture. Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird, cries Keats. That’s not true. The nightingale was born for death, and so was Keats.

Keats died at the age of 25 in 1821, Franz Schubert at 31 in 1828. Though both died of diseases of one sort or another – tuberculosis in Keats’s case, typhoid or syphilis in Schubert’s – their deaths are early enough to be described as tragic. Tragedy is interruption given meaning. Cordelia’s death is tragic: Lear’s is not. Schubert died two months after he finished the composition. He was interrupted. Keats was interrupted. The literary form of tragedy renders meaning to fatal interruptions. So does music.

We too know that our lives are finite and that all we do is conducted in that awareness. We are aware that we are under threat and make the best of life while we can, because who knows when life will be taken from us, or when it might be taken from those we most treasure? I write this at a time of pandemic when Britain has lost more than 100,000 people. We spent most of the past year within the confines of our rooms.

The term “chamber music” implies a room, a strictly limited room, with a limited number of, mainly, string instruments. String instruments work through tension and vibration. In confirmation of that tension, the performers form an almost closed circle, facing each other around the focal point of the music. The music too proceeds inward. It will not open on rolling landscapes or great plains. It draws the world in.

Chamber music’s limitation is also its strength: it offers us a force field, an inner space we may inhabit in ourselves. Keats’s nightingale inhabits the same tension. As Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there

We hang in music’s force field, in that inner, often precipitous, space.

 

The “Adagio” is not the whole Quintet, it is just a phase of it. The first movement is labelled as “Allegretto ma non troppo” – fast but not too fast – but it actually starts with a single quiet note that says “Hush” as it establishes itself. Having done so, it immediately swells in volume before returning to pianissimo and holds it there, swelling and subsiding again before, slowly and tentatively, preparing itself for the storm about to develop.

High and low are the polarities between which we are to move, the bass notes sounding the necessary depths through the quintet’s two cellos while the violins dance and fret at the top. The unusual doubling up of cellos emphasises the need for extra power. Hopkins’s cliffs of fall point to a resonant depth.

Soon we are in a world of rapid change, of nervous ecstasy and foreboding, constantly carried forward, tune by tune. From the first few bars we learn that the musical terrain we are about to cross is unlikely to be stable or composed of long stretches of uninterrupted calm. But even while it remains susceptible to surges of weather and fortune, it’s steadied by the harmony that binds the changes together and prevents the moods from disintegrating into a succession of crises. Wonderfully seductive melodies continue to rise, even as the pizzicato pulse continues with echoes higher up the register. Those melodies will not desert us.

 

The first time I really heard the quintet was at home while listening to the radio. I had not set out to listen to it. I turned it on when the performance had already started. The bass pizzicato of the first movement was already conjuring a beating heart. A poignant melody was rising high above it, and there was an agitation in the middle range, just under the melody, that was disturbing. The “Adagio” followed and the antechamber opened. I hadn’t experienced anything like it in music.

It wasn’t that I had not grown up with music. Classical music was part of the wallpaper at home in our central European refugee house, but I hadn’t paid it much attention. My mind then was a crude version of what it is now, a kind of drunken butterfly no sooner alighting somewhere than taking off again. I had no long-term concentration. I had, I think, the gift of a kind of flight instead, but it wasn’t a flight that was going to be of any use. It was only when I began writing poems at the age of 17 that I learnt the intense, short-term concentration that tends to characterise poets. It was about then I started to become an adult. Poetry was a part of that process. As a child and adolescent, there was nothing I could really land on. Everything was a haze. Now there was something.

Through much of my schooling in London I was labouring through grades on the piano while my younger brother, Andrew, was already far ahead of me on the violin. He had a proper gift. Music was going to be his professional life ever since he had been offered a future place at the Liszt Academy in Hungary at the age of two. Music was in his nervous system. It was his body. It was also my parents’ hope for him. For me, it was wallpaper.

But what was it to my parents? We arrived in England after the failed Hungarian Uprising in 1956 without money or possessions, knowing no one except the refugees we had met en route. The change, while of long-term significance for us as children, must have been much harder for my parents, survivors of labour camps, concentration camps, as well as war and its aftermath in dictator-led Stalinist Hungary.

Neither of them had received a full education, though both had aspirations to a decent social and cultural life. My father’s father wrote unpublished and unread plays while labouring on the workshop floor of a shoe factory. His deportation to Auschwitz interrupted him forever. His wife, my grandmother, helped by taking in sewing. My mother’s family were lower middle-class Transylvanian Hungarians who were murdered in the war along with my mother’s brother, both children too young to have had a chance of third-tier education. Tragedy ran in the family.

Neither my father nor mother played a musical instrument, but they did build a small record library that they rarely had time to listen to. Chamber music tended to lie beyond their taste. They loved Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures for their energy and defiance, and Tchaikovsky’s ballet music for the sheer gorgeousness of his tunes. They joined a record club that sent them, among other things, a two-box set of Beethoven’s Quartets, but I don’t remember them ever playing it. They loved powerful and sweet emotions, rapture and pathos, and they liked them bold. They liked gypsy violins, popular operatic arias, operetta and songs of the Hungarian cabaret. War and suffering might have given them a thirst for such things. Chamber music, with its closely woven intimacy and what they might have perceived as cerebral intensity, belonged to other people, of another class.

My father did possess a mouth-organ, as did my brother and I. We would take them on picnics, settle down on a piece of grass and play together. He had played his at the International Scout Jamboree in Hungary before the war and later at the labour camps in which he served in Russia and the Ukraine. His repertoire included “My bonnie lies over the ocean”, “It’s a long way to Tipperary”, tunes from rhapsodies and operas, and popular songs. The last time I heard him play was round the camp fire at a reunion of surviving Hungarian Scouts when he was in his 90s, and so was everyone else.

 

In an old Spike Milligan anecdote, the sergeant major asks a private: “What are you doing here, you horrible little man?” To which the private replies, “Everyone’s got to be somewhere.”

During the Brexit campaign the then British prime minister, Theresa May, argued that anyone who claimed to be a citizen of the world was, in effect, a citizen of nowhere. It was an effective sleight of hand, equating world with nowhere. It appealed to people’s sense of continuity. Continuity was rooted in place, in substantial depth of soil. Somewhere people were people of deep soil and had substance and obligations, whereas nowhere people lacked both substance and obligation. The former were to be trusted more than the latter. The latter, the distinction implied, were unstable, fleeting, untrustworthy and potentially treacherous. This distinction was familiar to refugee migrants. The soil of somewhere was undeniably shallower for us.

Being somewhere is, after all, a set of associations: symbols, images and practices involving history and memory as received. I, as a nowhere person, was as susceptible to such associations as the somewheres, only in reverse. I associated Schubert’s Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin not with the notion of heimat, or belonging, but with the image of cultured Nazis drooling over the music’s purity, or with an image of lyrically susceptible young men surrendering themselves to their souls.

Purity tends to be unforgiving. Too much purity claims too much soul on the one hand and too much self-pity and self-regard on the other. Even now I find it difficult to rid myself completely of some wariness of either. But I can ignore them by telling myself that both the cultured Nazi and the self-dramatising, self-absorbed young man are received images. The music, in itself, is elsewhere, on its own terrain.

Isn’t Schubert himself a lyrically susceptible young man? And wasn’t I much the same? Did that make me more self-regarding and self-pitying than anyone else? Wasn’t that condition simply a token of the inner world where art happened? And isn’t that inner world shared as we, as an audience, share Schubert’s?

Everyone has to be somewhere, as Milligan’s soldier remarked, but somewhere, like anywhere, is provisional. One of the wonderful things about Schubert is that, much as he clearly loves his musical location – hence the Nazi love of him – he is continually aware of its provisionality. It is the provisionality that prevents him sliding into saccharine sweetness, a sweetness that is, after all, simply another name for sentimentality and cliché.

The truth of Schubert’s great C Major Quintet is that it constantly acknowledges its provisionality through disruption. Disruption is the truth of any proper work of art, but in Schubert the stakes are so much higher: the sweet is sweeter, the mood keener and more dramatic, the range of the imagination wider and more complex, the exploration deeper, and the control of rapidly developing and constantly contrasting emotions more miraculous. The miracle is that while we ourselves are aware of Schubert’s powerful and, at bottom, troubling feelings, we never feel we are intruding on a purely private experience. We never feel obliged to pathologise the music. We are never at the bedside. We are somewhere and nowhere, both inside the music and a million miles from it, moving on our personal orbits with all the distractions of the world to accompany us.

Art is neither control nor disruption: it is the necessary tension between the two. The melodic sweep of the quintet is continually reaching beyond itself, striking at us at various points while reassuring us that something sacred – a kind of central fire – remains in place. Individual instruments combine to establish a common harmonic landscape through which they lead us, without once moving from the tight room that is our mutual chamber.

The third movement brings us the joyful declarations of the “Scherzo” [playful composition]. After that comes the inevitable descent in the Trio with its new Andante [moderately slow section] which offers a correction, a coming down to earth with the awareness of a sadder reality, before returning to a now partly sobered-up Scherzo (how could it not be sobered up after that Andante?)

Where are we being taken? The last movement starts jauntily enough with a dance. The dancing persists in the violins, though solemnity keeps re-emerging only for the jauntiness to reassert itself with greater force. It is a defiant dance with a determined thrust. We are going to go on. We are not to be stopped. We will dance our way through. But the defiance is essentially gestural, right up to the triple forte at the end. The all-but-penultimate chord has a razor edge before it drops at the very end to the major.

 

That is a description: but what do descriptions achieve? Mine is just a sketch, a crude attempt to keep track, to follow the process through to the end and to seek in it something that might add up to meaning. But it’s only a meaning of sorts because music – like poetry, like any art – is not for paraphrasing and defining. The old-fashioned pedantic schoolteacher’s question regarding what the poet meant by this or that line can’t be answered in any useful way, because any answer is a reduction and a sum of reductions is not a poem. Meaning is a sum of possibilities, but each time we do the sum it works out differently, because we never know all the terms. That doesn’t make the uncomprehending student dimmer than the poet, because the poet doesn’t know either. Nor can they know, because meaning is that which is being explored. It flows between the fingers: it has sensible but fluid qualities that continue to be fluid.

Meaning is like music. It inhabits you as a poem might. How does it do that in this case? With Keats I can talk about death, since Keats keeps referring to it; but how does Schubert “refer”? How does the music – this music – come to enter me? Through the ears in the first place, you dolt! cries the inner schoolmaster. But where does it go from there? How does it spread? Perhaps a neuroscientist can offer an answer to that question. But there are ever more questions: such as, where has it been, and where is it now? More importantly, how does it manage to leave me both resolved yet entirely unresolved, and why is that in itself a kind of resolution? Frankly, I don’t know.

Fled is that music – do I wake or sleep? asks Keats. And I am exhausted and alive. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "Schubert’s nightingale".

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George Szirtes is a Hungarian-born British poet and translator. He has won many prizes for poetry and translation, including the Faber Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Man Booker International translators’ award.