Books: Cultural Amnesia — Alfred Einstein |
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Not to be confused with his physicist cousin Albert Einstein, the musicologist Alfred Einstein (1880–1952) was born in Munich and went into exile after 1933, first in Italy and then in London. He devoted much of his life to scholarship, of which the principal results were his three-volume history The Italian Madrigal and his reworking of Köchel’s Mozart catalogue. He also produced the standard monograph on Mozart—still the best single book to read on the subject—and an authoritative survey of the golden period in Vienna, Music in the Romantic Era. Abetting these major works were some superbly compressed essays, the best of which are collected in Essays on Music (1958), the book through which he is most easily approached. At a time when biographies of great composers so often run to many volumes (the trend began well with Ernest Newman’s Wagner, but by now it is out of hand) it can be a revelation to discover how much Einstein could say in a single paragraph. He had both wit and a sense of proportion. The second thing is not always accompanied by the first, but the first is impossible without the second.

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If we let our imagination roam, it is difficult to conceive what might not have happened in the realm of music if Mozart had lived beyond the age of thirty-five, or Schubert beyond thirty-one.


LATER IN THE same essay, the musicologist gives a brief list of what Mozart did with the few years of extra life he had that Schubert hadn’t: “Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, the three great Symphonies and the last four quartets.” The musicologist thus refocuses an eternally nagging question. The question isn’t about what Schubert would have done if he had lived as long as Beethoven. The question is about what Schubert would have done if he had lived as long as Mozart. Einstein doesn’t actually ask the question in that form, but he makes sure that we do. Einstein says that the word frühvollendet (too early completed) is often “strangely and mistakenly” applied to composers who were never completed, because they were interrupted.

For the twentieth—century Jewish scholars of the arts, the idea of a truncated creative life was an ever imminent reality. First in a disintegrating Europe and then later in American exile, Alfred Einstein wrote his books about musicology in the shadow of a looming threat to culture. With persecution always a danger, his view of the past was inevitably tinged with pessimism. One of the elements that make his monograph about Mozart a great book is this projected sense of cultural fragility. He makes Mozart’s prodigious outpouring a race against fate. He treats Mozart the gentile as a Luftmensch with a tenuous claim to a place on Earth. He did the same for Schubert, and was surely right. Schubert’s career—what in German would be called his Laufbahn, the road he ran—was one of busy contentment. Though the occasional romantic radical of today sometimes paints him as an embattled rebel, Schubert was in fact very much at home in bourgeois Vienna, surrounded by friends, a byword for merriment. But he was also an avatar. If he had climbed out of a flying saucer, he could not have been less of this world.

How do we account for such genius? The first question to deal with is how its prodigality did not interfere in any way with its quality. In a conversation I had with the Australian poet Peter Porter, who has a vast knowledge of classical music, he argued that this is nearly always so with the great composers. Modern literature since Flaubert might lead us to cherish the paradigm of a few perfect products slowly refined over a lifetime, but the main tradition of music from Bach through to Mahler allows of no such ideal. The composers churned the stuff out, and it was all good. There would have been no better Bach cantatas if he had written a hundred fewer of them.

But even among his prolific ancestors and heirs, Schubert was something else. My own way into his sonic universe was through the piano sonatas, played by Artur Schnabel. Theoretically my main interest was in the Lieder, but I found that the words got in the way. The better I got at understanding German the less I liked most of the texts. (With the French chanson tradition at its height there is no such restriction, because Fauré, Hahn, Duparc and the rest took care to set first-rate texts; but with Schubert that was less often so.) Schubert’s wordless works presented no such barrier: there was no verbosity to interfere with the eloquence. After a while I could place any phrase from any of the sonatas to the correct sonata, and the time arrived when I could do the same for the symphonies. At Cambridge I knew the future musicologist Robert Orledge. We were in Footlights together—he was musical director for several of the revues I produced on the Edinburgh Fringe—and it would not have surprised me at the time to be told that he would one day be one of our leading musical scholars. (It was a pity he did not compose more: the future student of Duparc could write melodies fully as beautiful as those of his hero.) One evening we had a long discussion about music in which we brandished at each other the names and opus numbers of all our favourite works by the great composers. Orledge admired them all, but Schubert, he said, was beyond admiration. He was surprised that I had not yet heard the Quintet in C Major, and predicted that when I did hear it for the first time it would be one of the great days of my life.

He was right. I heard it played by the Amadeus quartet plus one, in a performance that I later judged to be too lush with the rubato; but a certain amount of over-interpretation probably helped the initial impact. (Over-interpretation does some of your reacting for you: you hate it later, but it can help you on the way in.) I had thought that nothing could be more wonderful than Beethoven’s late quartets, but the adagio of the Schubert Quintet in C Major contained them all with room to spare. Thirty years later, I listen to the Quintet only rarely: it takes me back too far and too deep, and anyway I already know it note by note. But I can already see that I might listen to it many times in my last years, and might even die to it—during the adagio for preference. I was not surprised, merely satisfied, to find Wittgenstein referring to the Quintet in C Major in one of his letters to the British linguist C. K. Ogden. In language unusually fervent for so cool a hand, Wittgenstein hailed its “fantastic kind of greatness.” The italics were his, and well judged. No more measured words will do. But here, at the moment of rapture, is the exact time to return to Einstein’s formulation. If Schubert had lived even four more years—the difference between his lifetime and Mozart’s—he would have written not just a few more works of the same complexity, but dozens, perhaps hundreds. It is like thinking of the Bellini operas we lost because of a simple sickness. (The same sickness took Bizet, but he was three years older: if he had been the same age, it would have cost us Carmen.) It is not like thinking of the Aristophanes plays we lost because someone mislaid them, or of the missing books of the Annals of Tacitus that took with them the story of how Sejanus came to ruin: those works were composed, they existed. But Bellini’s lost operas, like Masaccio’s lost frescoes and Seurat’s lost paintings, were lost because they never happened. Their creators were not early completed: they were interrupted.

And the creator who was most catastrophically interrupted was Schubert. It could be said that Masaccio, who died at twenty-six, was an even more grievous loss. Young trainee appreciators of art who stand astonished in front of Masaccio’s frescoes in Florence can comfort themselves with the thought that Michelangelo once stood in the same spot and was equally daunted by Masaccio’s transformative genius. Masaccio’s untimely death switched off a miracle. But there is the consideration that he had probably already worked all the revolutions he could, and what we would have been given had he lived would have been more of the same—bigger and better, perhaps; even monumental on the scale of Michelangelo’s ceiling and the Raphael Stanze; but surely within the limits of representational art. He would not have gone all the way to impressionism, cubism and abstraction. But Schubert might have gone anywhere. There is just no telling. Einstein’s contribution to criticism was to remind those of us who practise it that we have an inbuilt tendency to freeze the past into position with an injection of the shaping spirit.

Poetic sensitivity, like poetic creativity, is fraught with the sense of an ending. But the tradition we cherish could have been very different: a fact that the twentieth century brought home to us with anachronistic violence. The whole of modern Polish literature, in which Witold Gombrowicz and Czeslaw Milosz are only two of the most luxuriant flowers, might have had an utterly different layout if some Nazi thug, in 1942, had not put a bullet through the head of Bruno Schulz, who, although already fifty, was probably only at the beginning of what he would have written. And as a painter, Schulz was only one of a whole Jewish generation who never got as far as their first exhibition. When we look at the single easel painting by Schulz that survived, we are clearly looking at the start of a magisterial creative outpouring. But the start is all we get to see. Such possibilities were always on Alfred Einstein’s mind. As a young scholar, he had the Nazi nightmare still in his future, but he had the eastern pogroms in his memory. It’s the Jewish contribution, and a very dubious privilege: to restore to the past the sense of happenstance that its great works contrive to obviate. But of course the great works contain it too, or they could never have been created. Proper criticism brings it out: the play of chance, the capricious fate that energized the inevitability, the number of strokes of luck it takes to make something that will last.