Why a Schubertiad?

Svend Brown, Artistic Director, talks about this year’s Schubertiad…

This year, on the 10th birthday of the East Neuk Festival, I have given myself a present (it is the Director’s perogative): a Schubertiad, a full afternoon and evening of Schubert’s music performed by some of his finest interpreters: song, sonata, quartet, trio, duo… He is one of the few composers I could listen to all day. I was prompted to reflect on why that is the other day when I heard someone describe Schubert as “the most human of composers”. Such glib phrases usually deserve to be dismissed out of hand, but a certain truth shines through this platitude.

Schubert does have a rare ability to communicate human emotion and invites us to share sorrows, fears, joys, hubris, elation, dejection, equability… he captures shades of feelings between them in the truest, subtlest colours music can offer. Schubert is also flawed – a very human attribute. Undoubtedly, being flawed is part of the Romantic aesthetic of his age, but usually in a heroic sense: in striving after the ultimate, man fails, but is no less magnificent for it. This lies at the heart of Goethe as much as it does Caspar David Friedrich. With Schubert you feel sometimes he simply misjudged. There are movements by him that are as interminable as they are gorgeous. There are points when his rhythmic or melodic obsessiveness suffocates the music’s power to elate or stir. Brahms – who loved Schubert passionately – expressed it beautifully when he wrote: “Where is genius like his, which soars aloft so boldly and surely…To me he is like a child of the gods, who plays with Jupiter’s thunder, albeit also occasionally handling it oddly”. This neatly encapsulates a great deal of what Schubert means to me: if he has flaws then they render him all the more absorbing and fascinating. One could argue that he was young – just 31 – when he died. Had he lived, surely he would have learned from his mistakes and attained ever-greater command and perfection. Perhaps: but we are talking about a teenager who wrote the wonderfully perfect Gretchen am Spinnrade at the age of 17. A teenager living in the shadow of Beethoven in the city of Mozart who brought to music aspects of the human condition never before expressed. The hesitant rhythm of the cello over the rapturous chorale of the String Quintet’s slow movement; or the G-flat Impromptu; the faltering melody of the F minor Fantasia. These are moments that, for me, define the sublime in music but all have something torn and heartrendingly fragile about them.

It is this complex nature of Schubert wedded to his awe-inspiring gift that make him the only composer that I can listen to at length, undiluted by other composers. There are very few of those. I hope you will join me, Christian Zacharias and all the artists for what promises to be a wonderful day.