As our days darken and the sun becomes truant, it is important to remember some signs of warmth before the snow and winds of December visit us, so I’d like to share an anecdote known to students of music.
On this day, 14 November 1828, Ludwig van Beethoven extended a kindness to Franz Schubert from the grave. Schubert, dying from typhoid fever or syphilis, depending on which scholar you consult, had asked to hear a particular Beethoven composition. A word about Herr Beethoven – he was a short thunderous man, unpleasant, often rude, a consummate drinker (he would die of cirrhosis of the liver), a slob, and he was prone to gastric upset (listen to his Second Symphony). His progressive hearing loss, which began in 1802, made him both an angry and a tragic figure. Epic faults aside, he redeemed himself with his music, which was revolutionary in scope and magnitude, ingenious in how he took small simple constructs and parlayed them into grand themes and personality. He praised other musicians. Schubert was one of those musicians Beethoven had praised on his dying day. Literally. Schubert served as a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral in 1827.
Bedridden at his brother’s apartment in Vienna, Schubert requested only one piece of music as he lay dying: Beethoven’s String Quartet in C#, Opus 131. This composition is the focal point of the movie, The Late Quartet. This string quartet, one of Beethoven’s “late quartets,” is his most radical, for it begins its first of seven movements with a shattering, unexpected fugue, which was intended to prick up the ears of listeners, subvert expectation, and remind them of Bach’s Fugue in B Minor from Book 1 of The Well- Tempered Clavier. Both graduate students and professors are still interpreting the first- movement fugue. Movements two and three are light, like waiting for the water’s surface to become placid. Movement four offers several variations: playful, lyrical, a seductive dance, a French overture (imagine Louis XIV entering the room), and then picks up the pace with allegretto, or ‘moderately fast,’ a riff on a religious hymn, and concludes with a transition, with the cello standing up for itself, before the final movement. In movement seven, Beethoven returns to the fugue that includes a savage gallop in imitation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a dip and rising operatic swoon before a ferocious ending.
Schubert died five days later, on 19 November 1828, after hearing the performance. What is the significance of all this? There was no public premiere of Op. 131 until after Beethoven’s death. His own considerable musical output notwithstanding — 600 songs, ten symphonies, operas, pieces for solo piano, chamber music, and the list goes on – he had chosen Beethoven.
In 1888, the remains of Beethoven and Schubert were moved to the Zentralfriedhof , the Vienna Central Cemetery. Next to them are Johann Strauss II and Johannes Brahms.
Schubert, on hearing the string quartet performed the first time, said, “After this, what is left for us to write?”
On his deathbed, reading Schubert’s sheet music given to him by Anton Schindler, Beethoven said: “Truly in Schubert there is the divine spark.”
Violinist Karl Holz, present at the recital days before Schubert’s death, stated: “The King of Harmony has sent the King of Song a friendly bidding to the crossing.”