Friday, January 31, 2014

Philip und Johnny und Franz

It's my birthday today. It's also the birthday of Johnny Rotten from 70s British punk band, The Sex Pistols. And Franz Schubert was born on this day, too. It's a measure of how old I am, or am becoming, that I saw Mr. Rotten and his fellow musical scamps performing in a filthy club in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in 1977, when I was 15 years old. They were on the same bill as The Damned and another group whose name I can't remember. I was thrilled at the time by the loudness of the music, the absolute magnetism of Johnny Rotten, the pogo-ing throng occupying most of the dance floor (I was too timid to join in, and stood pressed against one of the side walls). I also remember that people were spitting so much at the performers -- considered a form of applause -- that they stopped the gig at one point to allow time for the guitarist to kick a few people in the front row, very hard, almost like a karate kick. This didn't seem to diminish the kicked people's enjoyment one little bit. The club had a very low ceiling, maybe only two feet above the Sex Pistols' heads, and I remember that all the sweat from the closely packed bodies in the room condensed on the ceiling and dripped back down onto performers and audience alike.

I imagine that the performing conditions for Franz Schubert in the salons of early nineteenth century Vienna were rather different. The music of The Sex Pistols and Schubert is about as far apart on the spectrum as you can go, too, without one or the other falling off the end of the chart. Yet that's the length of the line that I've travelled in my musical taste, too. If I heard "God Save the Queen" or "Anarchy in the UK" again, it would instantly bring back memories of my teenage years, but it's 'written down music' that I listen to almost exclusively these days. That's a phrase used by a college friend of mine who is a pianist and piano teacher: 'written down music', instead of 'classical music'. Probably for a few reasons: strictly speaking, the Classical period of so-called classical music ended more or less in the decade after Schubert's early death; and the phrase 'classical music' has so many cultural and social meanings, many of which get in the way of actually listening to the sounds.

Anyway, that's the music that I get most sustained pleasure from these days. But I've only recently come to like Schubert in more than just a superficial way. It's impossible to dislike Schubert, of course, because of the "endless melody", the simplicity of his songs, the attention to sonorities as much as harmony (the sounds the music makes, as opposed to the direction it takes). I've always liked listening to certain songs, piano sonatas, chamber music by Schubert, but it always seemed lighter than the Big Three of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. In the last few years, though, I've realized that there's more to it than pretty noises. I can't make a completely music-based argument for this, because I don't read a musical score that well, so this is more an argument based on feeling. But when I listen to some of his last music, like the B flat piano sonata, I hear something that sounds like melancholy mixed in with all that beauty. Schubert's music almost always sounds like singing, whether it's for voice or an instrument: someone singing for the moment, because they've had a sudden thought, or seen a beautiful thing, or because they're happy to be alive. Yet I also picture someone sitting at a piano, improvising these endless patterns of music out of the sheer joy of playing, and also being aware that none of this beauty can last forever, that the music has to stop at some point. In the Winterreise song cycle, Schubert expressly deals with coldness, loss, and death, but there are intimations of these things in his 'brighter' music too. Think of it this way: we expect that someone who is preoccupied with tragedy and the greatest contrast of existence (like Beethoven) to be turned into a sober human being. But think, too, about how someone who is dedicated to nothing but beauty feels when he realizes that it will all be taken away from him in the end. It's a smaller moment of self-realization than the sturm und drang of existence in a Fifth Symphony, but it's a completely human moment, too. This is the thorn in the rose of Schubert's music, I think: the sting, the thing that pierces even as it mesmerizes us.

Returning to the birthday thoughts: it often amuses me when Americans (as they do) say about dead people that, for example, "Today is Franz Schubert's birthday." I mean, dead people can't have birthdays, can they? They can have anniversaries of the day of their birth, but they can't have a birthday, with cake and candles and cards, and friends writing birthday wishes on Facebook. Yet maybe there is something to this quaint American custom. In a sense, they're treating the dead person as if they were still alive, as if they were still present, at least in our lives. So I'll wish the very much alive John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) a Happy Birthday:

And our absent friend Franz Schubert a gl├╝cklich geburtstags:

And may all our birthdays be filled with cake and music.

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