SIUK's first online study day – a report

Updated: Jan 29

On 7 November 2020 the Schubert Institute hosted an online graduate study day. The event brought together students and scholars from all over the world – Austria, Australia, France, Hong Kong, Germany, Ireland, Prague, Scotland, UK, and the US – who tuned in for five stimulating presentations which focused on aspects of performance, composition, as well as the expressive worlds of Schubert’s music and their wider contexts.

The study day opened with a welcoming introduction by Joe Davies (Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford), in which he offered an overview of the ever-expanding areas of Schubert scholarship. Remarking on the gradual shift from a sentimentalised view of Schubert as a clairvoyant to a more nuanced portrait of the composer’s artistic vision, Joe Davies highlighted recent developments in Schubert scholarship which explored the image of Schubert as both an intellectual and a pragmatic musician. These refreshing avenues of inquiry into Schubert’s music and his artistic vision set the scene for a series of thought-provoking presentations, each of which continued to open up new ways of engaging with Schubert’s expressive worlds.

The first session of the day, titled ‘Performing and Conducting Schubert’, began with a presentation by Ruth Minton (University of Liverpool). Her paper, ‘Schubert’s Piano Music: Origins in Performance’ considered the ways in which Schubert’s knowledge of keyboard instruments may have shaped his compositional process. The presentation surveyed features of the Viennese piano action alongside Schubert’s own experiences of performing, and improvising on a range of keyboard instruments, as well as their implications on his manipulation of texture and register. These intersections between performance and composition came to life through Minton’s remarkable demonstrations on the piano with excerpts taken from Schubert’s Impromptu in C minor, D. 899/1.

The following paper, ‘Uncovering Schubert’s Piano Works for Four Hands’, was given by Darragh Gilleece, a first-year PhD student at Maynooth University. Here Schubert’s piano duets – pieces that are ripe for further analytical attention – took centre stage. The presentation explored reasons for the neglect of Schubert’s piano duets in concert programmes, and traced the development of this genre back to domestic settings in which the music served a largely pedagogical function. Influences from the wider context, such as the decline of the amateur and the rise of the virtuoso, were also discussed in relation to the piano duets. These associations offered fresh perspectives for reassessing both the significance of piano duets within Schubert’s oeuvre, and the composer’s contribution to the development of the genre more generally.

Moving from Schubert’s piano works to his C major Symphony, D.944, Peter Shannon (Maynooth University) offered a stimulating reading of the Symphony’s healing effect on the composer, who was in remission from syphilis at the time of composing the work. The presentation, titled ‘Schubert’s Ninth Symphony: A Composer’s Ability to Heal’, demonstrated through a close focus on the opening horn solo how the music can be seen to capture the effect of consolation, and the ways in which music can be used as a healing tool. Drawing chiefly on the works of the German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer, the presentation considered Schubert’s musical representation of healing through examples of melodic and harmonic contours in the C major Symphony.

Taken together, the first session of the study day explored various aspects of performance in connection with a wide range of genres from solo piano works, duets to symphonies. The presentations provoked lively discussions in which participants exchanged ideas, and shared their own experiences performing Schubert’s music in a variety of settings.

The second session of the day featured two fascinating presentations centring on the aesthetics and meaning of Schubert’s music. Anhad Arora (University of Oxford) delivered an absorbing account of Schubert’s Orientalist world in his paper, ‘Schubert and the Orientalist Lied’. Drawing on examples from Schubert’s settings of Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan in 1821, this presentation highlighted the ways in which Schubert’s Lied oeuvre can be contextualised through the lens of the Orient. Influences from historical Orientalist networks with such figures as Anna Milder and Franz von Schober, were also explored in relation to Schubert’s ‘Suleika II’ (D.717) and ‘Suleika I’ (D.720). This presentation offered imaginative ways of reassessing Schubert’s interest in, and his engagement with the Orient, and his musical representations of these cultural differences were also brought to the foreground.

Alison Shorten’s (Maynooth University) final presentation, ‘A Setting of Sorrow and Suffering: Franz Schubert’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa’ opened up yet another perspective for crystallising this relationship between the music and the text through her discussion of Schubert’s smaller sacred works. Taking the text of the Stabat Mater as a starting point, the presentation explored Schubert’s settings – the G minor setting in Latin (D.175, 1815) and the F minor setting to a German paraphrase (D 383, 1816) – in relation to early nineteenth century practice in Vienna, while recontextualising Schubert’s contributions through references to musical settings of the text by his predecessors, for example Palestrina and Pergolesi. In addition to bringing Schubert’s smaller sacred works to the centre of musicological attention, the presentation engendered fruitful discussions about Schubert’s religious convictions, as well as the composer’s portrayal of pain and suffering through his own musical works.

From Schubert’s piano works, his C major Symphony, to his writings for the voice, the study day offered an opportunity to develop and discuss new approaches to understanding Schubert’s expressive worlds, and reassessing the composer’s creativity across a variety of different genres within his oeuvre. The broad range of stimulating perspectives presented serve as a testimony of the ways in which, to borrow Joe Davies’s words, Schubert’s music constantly invites new modes of critical, and emotional engagement, offering a glimpse into the exciting future that lies ahead of Schubert scholarship.

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