Skip to main content

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 glücklich geburtstags:

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


Popular posts from this blog

A List of Every Drink in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

I first read Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" when I was a teenager, and immediately fell in love with it. For the last couple of years, I have had the incredible privilege of teaching a class based around Hemingway in Paris -- while living and teaching in Paris itself, close to the Boulevard du Montparnasse, where most of the action of the novel's first half takes place.

Of the many things that one notices about the book, the colossal amount of drinking is something that stands out. These people didn't just drink like fish: they drank like whales, as if the ocean they swam in was alcohol and they had set themselves the task of drinking the seas of the world dry of it. During my read-through of the book before class started last year, I tried to underline every mention of drink in the book. And now, purely in the interests of science, I am listing the entire menu of booze mentioned directly by name. Some preliminary observations:
Most of this is…

How to etch a linoleum block

Linoleum as a material for printmaking has been used for nearly a hundred years now. Normally, you cut an image out using special gouges similar to woodcut tools, cutting away the lino around the image you want to print. This is called relief printmaking, because if you look at the block from the side, the material that remains stands up in relief from the backing material. You then roll ink with a brayer over the surface of the block, place paper over it, and either print by hand or run it through a press. You can do complex things this way (for example, reduction linocuts), but the beauty of the process is that it is quick, simple, and direct.

A few years ago, I saw some prints that were classified as coming from etched linoleum blocks, and I loved the textures I saw in them. In the last few months, I've been trying to use this technique in my own studio, learning about it as one does these days from websites and YouTube videos. I've also had email exchanges with several pr…

Brancusi in Plastic

Artist Mary Ellen Croteau is showing these columns made from recycled plastic cartons and lids in the window of the Columbia College bookstore on Michigan Avenue. They are a playful homage to Brancusi's "Endless Columns", with a serious environmental message for our times:

Mary Ellen also runs a wonderful experimental art gallery in a window space in west Chicago, called Art on Armitage. I will be exhibiting a mixed media piece there during August 2012.