Like-minded across the water - an essay by Graham Johnson
Graham Johnson will perform Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin on Sunday 22 October, interspersed with readings and settings of William Blake. Here, he gives an insight into the concept for this programme and the links between Schubert, Blake, and Wilhelm Müller.
Emerson wrote "The men who come on the stage at one period are all found to be related to each other. Certain ideas are in the air." In Schubert studies this is particularly true (a great deal of what we know of the composer comes from close attention to the personalities in the artistic circle surrounding him in Vienna) but I have often pondered those links "in the air “between Schubert and his faraway English contemporaries. There is an eerily wonderful, not entirely fortuitous, relationship between the great mythological Schubert songs of 1817-1820 and the classically inspired works of the English poets of the same period, notably John Keats and his Ode on a Grecian Urn.
The heady metrical sophistications of Keats could not serve, however, as a mirror of the folksong rhythms of Wilhelm Müller's verse. In looking for something similar in English literature we seek something rougher, plainer, less concerned with the vagaries of the romantic self, and more inclined to draw pithy lessons from life and nature – Schubert’s settings of the two Müller cycles are among his most visionary, but also his most epigrammatic. It seems no surprise that the poetry of William Blake (1757-1827) should come to mind. Thinking of Müller’s mill, working in tandem with Blake’s dark and satanic variety, sets wheels turning in the imagination.
Blake was almost exactly forty years older than Schubert and much of his greatest poetry was written before the composer was born. Their lives and work were shaped by the French Revolution and the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the political and social effects of which were felt for years afterwards. Both men were metropolitans – Blake belonged to London just as Schubert was a child of Vienna; both got briefly into trouble with the police for sedition (in both cases they were victims of state paranoia); neither achieved recognition in his lifetime; both were accused by countless commentators of a lack of technical skill (Schubert was overshadowed by Beethoven, Blake by Coleridge and Wordsworth – the latter thought Blake insane, but far more interesting than Byron).
The links (although “in the air”) between the poets, Blake and Wilhelm Müller, are also fascinating. The German poet from Dessau was an expert in English literature: he wrote the article on Lord Byron for the famous Brockhaus Lexikon; early in his career he translated the works of Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser. In Müller’s writings we can detect the influence of English thought: for example, consider these lines from Spenser’s Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, and compare them to the opening of the Schubert-Müller Ungeduld:
"Her name in every tree will I endosse / That as the trees do grow, her name may grow."
Both poets were left-wing idealists by the standards of the time. Müller’s attitudes, ultra-democratic and lacking deference, irritated the older and more conservative Goethe who thought him arrogant; the younger poet enthusiastically took up the cause of Greek independence, following his hero, Byron. (In 1812 Byron had mounted a passionate defence in the House of Lords of those so-called miscreants who had broken the frames of the mechanical looms that were destroying jobs in the manual weaving of textiles). Müller wondered whether his lyrics would ever be turned into music, and Blake sang some of his poems to tunes of his own invention. Both poets died within six weeks of each other in 1827. Blake, long ignored by his contemporaries, was a disillusioned 70, Müller only 33. Schubert survived them both by just over a year.
Die schöne Müllerin is a watershed work; composed on the threshold of the Industrial Revolution in Austria, it is a poignant farewell to an age of innocence. Schubert was spared even the sight of a steamship (one first sailed on the Danube a year after his death), but millers' lives were soon to change forever, and a roving lad in search of work would soon find himself travelling in a third-class railway carriage, like Hardy's Journeying Boy. Living in a far more industrialised country, Blake was the matchless prophet of the misery brought about by the growth of mechanised labour. It was only later that Heine’s spine-chilling poem about the Silesian weavers (1844) would evoke the ominous rumblings of the oppressed German working classes.
Forty years earlier, Blake's Vision of Albion from Jerusalem had espoused a worldview that could conceivably have referred as much to the modernisation of the milling of wheat in Saxony as to the weaving of cloth in blighted Lancashire (Goethe had an aversion to Isaac Newton for other reasons):
I turn my eyes to the Schools and Universities of Europe, And there behold the Loom of Locke, whose Woof rages dire, Wash'd by the Water-Wheels of Newton: black the cloth In heavy wreaths folds over every Nation: cruel Works Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic, Moving by compulsion each other; not as those in Eden, which, Wheel within wheel, in freedom revolve, in harmony and peace.
The first half of Die schöne Mullerin takes place in a pre-industrial Eden where the melodiously turning millwheels ‘revolve in harmony and peace’. If Schubert, unlike Blake, was spared a sense of the impending loss of the beauties of rural life in his own country, he was not spared the death of his personal innocence: it is no coincidence that the cycle was written in the middle of the crisis arising out of that loss. His long-term prospects were utterly blighted by a venereal disease that was not only without cure, but which provoked fear and disgust even in the circle of his friends, not to mention his bigoted family. More than any of Schubert's contemporaries, it is Blake who comments most directly on this “plague” in his poem London:
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.
Blake names the curse of syphilis as the last of a catalogue of woes – thoughts which haunt him as he wanders through London’s “chartr’d streets”. He also laments the appalling abuse of child labour, the army-supported violence of the state, and the "mind-forged manacles" constricting the outlooks of his fellow countrymen. Franz Schubert might have understood this poem only too well – the barbaric hardships of British working-class life were legendary in Austria for those few in the know, and life in Vienna for working people was no picnic. There was a side of Schubert, seldom to surface publicly, that was angry and rebellious, contemptuous of his own country's political and religious masters. If we can hear echoes of the struggles of the year 1789 and The Rights of Man in a great deal of Blake, of course always interwoven with his uniquely peculiar religious beliefs, we can occasionally detect in Schubert’s circle, disguised by Biedermeier proprieties, auguries of popular anger and violence that would eventually come bubbling forth throughout Europe in 1848.
The public has often regarded the avant-garde artists of their own time with conflicting emotions: this is the grey area between pitying the madness of a pioneer and admiring the audacity of his vision. Blake was considered unhinged, even if he avoided incarceration in a lunatic asylum (the fate of Friedrich Hölderlin and Christopher Smart) and counting him insane gave his contemporaries every excuse to ignore him as both poet and painter. I believe that Schubert would not have been one of those people: someone who admired the obscure and truculent majesty of Johann Mayrhofer could easily have included Blake in his Pantheon. Blake's versatility as poet, philosopher, visual artist and self-publisher would have earned him high Schubertian marks. (The composer was an enthusiastic friend of painters: Leopold Kupelwieser, Moritz von Schwind, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, and his own brother, Karl). As for Blake’s exalted personal cosmology – apocalyptic visions peopled by strange and powerful god-like characters with names like Urizen and Orc, Schubert had coped perfectly well with an earlier British literary export, the Tolkien-like world of Ossian and its idiosyncratic nomenclature.
Blake was akin was to some of Schubert's friends in Vienna who wrote, or painted, year after year with little hope of recognition – although few of them had genius. As for Blake’s religious outpourings, white-hot visions of eternity of another kind were also very much “in the air: in Vienna: the ecstatic sermons of Zachariah Werner, the soirées exploring magnetism of Friedrich von Schlegel and, closer to home for the composer, the increasingly fanatical religious leanings of his friend, Franz von Bruchmann. Admittedly Blake’s plans for a new Jerusalem, heresies reminiscent of Gnosticism, would have profoundly shocked these rigidly Catholic mystics, but the poet’s visions might have had more traction with an open-minded Schubert who had once avidly read, and set to music, Novalis. If Auden saw Blake as someone who “spoke to Isaiah in the Strand”, many of us could quite easily imagine Schubert communing with St. Cecilia in the Kärntnerstrasse. In any case it is not in Blake’s grander broadsides but in his smaller lyrics where we find Schubertian parallels. Time after time we find resonances which have the Schubertian "ache" built into them – a similarly generous love of man and nature, as well as the celebration of the beauties of life and the here-and-now.
Blake's towering scorn for convention and authority would also have appealed to a composer grappling with his demons, as would the English poet’s conviction that the sexual prohibitions of their own time would be swept away by more enlightened generations, yet unborn:
Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page,
Know that in a former time,
Love, sweet Love, was thought a crime!
And there is a passage in the Proverbs of Heaven and Hell entitled A Memorable Fancy, which could have been written by the composer himself, so perfectly does it seem to define the Schubertian creed, at least as I perceive it:
The worship of God is: Honouring his gifts in other men, each according to his genius, and loving the greatest men best: those who envy or calumniate great men hate God: for there is no other God.
Some of Schubert's most rhapsodic and heartfelt moments seem to be in his verbal and musical homages to Mozart, Beethoven and Gluck, and in his giving Rossini’s genius its full due, despite their rivalry. The composer was an incomparable friend precisely because he honoured and encouraged any vestige of creative talent in those around him.
The more one knows Die schöne Müllerin the more one sees it as a highly wrought parable with as many layers of meaning as there are eddies in its ever-flowing brook. "Dip him in the river who loves water" commands Blake in his Proverbs, and Schubert and Müller do just this to their hero, to devastating effect. Their young miller, unable to bear his loneliness and unable to live in a world where experience has so warped and tainted the innocence of his Eden, dies at one with nature, re-purified in the caress of the brook.
The miller boy perishes in his stream, something of a sacrificial lamb, enabling his alter ego, the composer, to surmount his tragedy and carry on with his life's work, washed clean of the bitterness and regret which surely would otherwise have poisoned those last five years of his miraculous creativity. The miller boy takes the easy way out of his predicament, and it is one that must have occurred to Schubert in 1823, nearly suicidal as he was with fear and depression. Without knowing his Blake, the composer seems to have come to the same brave conclusion as the poet about one of the supreme challenges of life – and, in the shadow of the miller boy’s demise, and in the small amount of time granted him in this life, he rose magnificently to that challenge:
We are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.
© Graham Johnson, 2023