In advance of the upcoming release of the New Orford String Quartet's debut recording of Beethoven's Op.135 and Schubert's D.887 in G major, I would like to share some thoughts about Beethoven and Schubert. The recording will be released on Bridge Records in the summer of 2011.
In our time, Beethoven and Schubert can hardly be separated from each other. They have become intertwined in a way that they never were during their lives. In spite of sharing the same city streets during the same epoch and making acquaintances with many of the same people, they never had any direct contact. Part of this is easily explained by the difference in their ages, twenty-six years. By the time Schubert was beginning his musical career, Beethoven was already very famous, almost completely deaf, and because of this, increasingly shut off from society. The two quartets on this disc were composed in the same year, 1826; in the same city, Vienna; apparently in splendid isolation from each other.
Vienna in the early 19th century had a population of around 300,000. In a city of this size one would expect that two musicians would cross paths in the course of daily life, but that is not the case. The points of intersection between the two men are few. As the imperial capitol of the Austrian Empire, Vienna had been subjected to a brief siege by Napoleon in 1809. Schubert was a schoolboy, and witnessed the damage to his school building from the shelling. During the bombardment, Beethoven retreated to his brother's cellar and held pillows over his ears, desperately trying to prevent further damage to his hearing.
Both composers lived with serious personal afflictions which color their existence, causing social isolation and an inward retreat: Beethoven's deafness, and Schubert's venereal disease.
Both men worked with the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and his string quartet, but the relationship between the two composers and the violinist couldn't have been more different. Beethoven dominated Schuppanzigh, laughing at him when he struggled to play something Beethoven had written, writing a joking little song about Schuppanzigh being a “fat lump.” Schubert, on the other hand, was deferential. He had no response to Schuppanzigh's criticisms of the violin writing in the “Death and the Maiden” quartet; “my dear fellow, this is no good, leave it alone; you stick to your songs.”
Both men responded to Anton Diabelli's call in 1819 for composers to write a variation on his waltz theme. Schubert was one of the very first eager respondants, with a single very fine variation. Beethoven took this as an opportunity to singlehandedly outcompose all those responding by writing a massive work, four years in the making, and very pointedly one variation longer than the great Goldberg variations of J.S. Bach.
There are moments when the two men crossed paths, but surprisingly no direct contact can be established. We know that Beethoven was aware of the younger Schubert. In an 1823 conversation book entry, Beethoven's nephew Karl comments - “They greatly praise Schubert, but it is said that he hides himself.” Schubert was on hand at the legendary premiere of Beethoven's 9th symphony, an event that resonated enough for Schubert to quote the “Ode to Joy” theme in his own 9th symphony. Schubert was also present at the 1826 premiere of Beethoven's string quartet Op.130, at which some movements were well received and had to be repeated for the enthusiastic audience, but the last movement, the still controversial “Grosse Fuge,” was not understood at all. One wonders what Schubert thought of the performance.
During Beethoven's final months, Anton Schindler presented the bedridden composer with a collection of about 60 of Schubert's songs. According to Schindler, Beethoven was “amazed at the number of them,” and “utterly astonished when he got to know their content.” He “simply could not believe that at that time Schubert had written over 500 songs.” Beethoven, quoting Schiller's “Ode” himself, said “Truly, in Schubert there dwells a divine spark!” and pronounced “that he will still make a great stir in the world.” A month later, Schubert was one of the many torch bearers in Beethoven's epic funeral procession.
A year and a half later, in 1828, during Schubert's own final illness, the bedridden Schubert asked for Beethoven's string quartet Op.131 to be played in his tiny, sad chambers. After the musicians, including Karl Holz, the long time second violin of Schuppanzigh's quartet, finished playing, Schubert is reported to have said of Beethoven – “He's left us nothing else to write.” Schubert's wish to be buried next to Beethoven was finally fulfilled in 1888, sixty years after his death, when the two men were moved to new graves, still in Vienna, side by side for eternity.