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Paul Robertson's thoughts on Schubert

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 15:49 UK Time, Monday, 26 March 2012


Photo of Prof. Paul Robertson


For nearly 40 years Professor Paul Robertson performed throughout the world as leader of the internationally renowned Medici String Quartet, of which he was a founder member. He is Radio 3's guide to the chamber music in The Spirit of Schubert. Here, he offers his personal analysis of Schubert's greatness.


There are many ways of measuring musical greatness and, like everyone else, when it comes to composers I have  my own criteria. Naturally we would take as given that all 'great' composer possess superb technical mastery. But as we all know, there are many fine composers who, even despite their technique (and sometimes even perhaps because of it) somehow never, or only occasionally rise to 'greatness'.

Apart from an occasional tendency to explore 'divine length' I have never thought to question Schubert's place alongside the other immortals of the Western classical tradition. So to seek to define compositional greatness we clearly need to consider many other much more elusive qualities. Can these be measured or even articulated? and if so how many could we consider objective or impartial? I shall be very interested to read what you consider to be the unique qualities that marks out the genius of Schubert.

To start here are a few suggestions of my own:

  • Nobility of aspiration (equal to, but never imitative of his hero Beethoven whose triumphs always seem to reward immense prior striving)
  • Joyful music that is not trivial (as fine as Mozart but somehow more subjective)
    Sad music that is without sentimentality (the best illustration of this is to listen to any of Liszt's many piano realizations of Schubert).
  • Simplicity and complexity as best suited to the meaning and purpose of the music.
  • Brilliance and invention that never supersede the emotional content of the music.
  • An ability to take one further than could be achieved alone.
  • A precision of affect - indeed I believe this to be one of the key roles for music.
  • An original language (but not merely novel for its own sake)
  • Sincerity (whatever that means!)
  • A truthfulness of expression which renders the music somehow 'moral' 
  • All of this, and probably much else as well, is vital to musical greatness and we would all probably have a pretty clear notion as to who we believe should grace this list. However, with dear Schubert who more than fulfilled all the beautiful qualities above there is another much more rare set of personal qualities who, I believe set him apart even from many of the other 'greats':

  • Modesty
  • Warmth and affection
  • Simplicity of person (while we would all love to spend time with Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms et al, wouldn't we also feel pretty daunted with most of them? I know I would.)
  • But I feel sure that Schubert would have welcomed me into his home and fortunate circle without the least reservation or awkwardness.

    I also believe that one can sense this beautiful quality within his music and that makes it very precious indeed to me.

      His music is great but he is not ever 'grand' - how rare is that? And how truly modern this makes him. This was a truly contemporary man with modern preoccupations and a generous and open spirit which is a rare treat in any age.
    • Listen to Paul Robertson's Schubert Chamber Music introductions.
    • Visit the Radio 3 Home Page for full details of The Spirit of Schubert.
    • Consult the Schubert Lab for entertaining and enlightening explorations of Schubert's genius
    • Visit Schubert's old haunts in Vienna with Sean Rafferty


  • Comment number 1.

    As a description of the post-1822 Schubert, Paul Robertson's comments seem like a whitewash; can this be the composer of the string quartet in G D887? Personally I wouldn't visit him without a team of bodyguards ...

    I tend to rate Schubert near the top of division 1 but not quite on a level with the other "greats": Beethoven, Bach, Mozart (definitely superleague); Haydn (superleague or top of div1?), Handel (near top of div1) ... if you will excuse this crude style of assessment. To address the issues raised adequately would take hours, which I don't have to spare, but I would offer the following key points.

    1. Late Schubert is in touch with great (not necessarily "good") forces but he is not as consistently able as the other composers mentioned to deliver what (for want of better terminology) I shall have to call "positive directivity" or "positive vector" - by which I mean the harnessing and delivery of such forces and energies to empower the receiver of them (the listener to his music), rather than to make that receiver a (joint) victim of them.

    2. Schubert's relative lack of humour makes it hard to place him alongside Beethoven or Haydn.

    3. The very personal/"subjective" nature of Schubert's later style and intimate/private utterance militates against the making of "universal" statements. To my ears, when Schubert switches from intimate/private (in which he does indeed sometimes match the expressiveness and subtlety of other "greats") to a more public mode, the result often seems like hysterical outpouring; this is made worse by the tendency to very rapid shifts between the two domains, giving a sense that the discourse is out of control.

    4. Late Schubert's love of "slow" (sometimes even plodding) sonata first movements (paving the way for Bruckner et al) weakens the sense of transition into another world when such a first movement is followed by the real slow mvt. (It is true that this may be partially compensated, eg: by the use of a remote or unexpected key for the real slow mvt.)

    5. I feel that late Schubert contains a profound diagnosis of a troubled human being (himself) - with some (but not universal) generalisability [apologies for my clumsy words!]. A greater composer, such as Beethoven, can often provide not only the diagnosis but also the "medicine".

    [This next bit is going to be controversial ...] I don't think that I would rate any composer later than Schubert as greater than him. So perhaps his misfortune is to be at the start of the long decline th

  • Comment number 2.

    [last few words missing from my above post - perhaps it was too long?]

    [the long decline] that is Romanticism/Modernism.


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