Faculty Author Analyzes Perceptions of Franz Schubert's Music
More than a decade of careful research and writing has resulted in the pending publication of a two-volume scholarly work by Scott Messing that examines the historical reception of Franz Schubert, considered among classical music’s greatest composers.
“I have always loved Schubert’s music,” said Messing, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Music at Alma College. “It’s important to love your subject if you are going to write about it.”
Messing is the author of Schubert in the European Imagination, a two-volume study that analyzes the public perceptions of Schubert after his death in 1828.
“Schubert’s life spanned only 31 years, but he composed more than 1,000 compositions,” said Messing. “So what we think of as a tragic life was counterbalanced by an enormously rich and prolific output. He was the only major composer of serious music who was born and lived in Vienna. He became the city’s greatest music native son.
“After his death, his music, rightly or wrongly, was categorized as having a feminine quality, as opposed to the masculine Beethoven. My books trace how that came about and what implications it had in the 19th and 20th centuries,” he said.
The first volume, targeted for a September publication release, focuses on Schubert’s impact on the Romantic and Victorian eras. The second volume, to be published in Spring 2007, centers specifically on the culture of Vienna around 1900.
“The issue becomes more complex because Schubert was a native son of Vienna,” said Messing. “Was it a good thing for a city to have a native son who represented a feminine type? Could one also conclude, then, that the nation itself was somehow feminine? And was that a good thing to be on the eve of a World War?”
“These aren’t just books about Schubert’s life and his music. It is an interdisciplinary analysis about how people after his death interpreted him and his music, and what it meant to them and their culture. I explore music, history, art and literature,” he said.
Messing first began studying Schubert in 1994 while participating in a National Endowment of Humanities seminar at Columbia University. He concluded writing in 2004 at the end of a sabbatical year.
“It became a much larger project than I initially anticipated because of the nature of the discoveries I made and the research I was doing, both in the Untied States and in Vienna,” he said. His publisher responded to his initial manuscript with enthusiasm. Concerns about its length resulted in a decision to split the work into two volumes.
The books, though scholarly in nature, nonetheless can be read by a broad audience, said Messing. One doesn’t need technical experience in music, or even know how to read music, to understand and appreciate the books.
“Anyone interested in history, literature, art and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries in central Europe will find this an interesting read,” he said.
Lawrence Kramer, a Schubert scholar from Fordham University, has written of Messing’s work: “This book impresses both by the prodigiousness of its scholarship — Scott Messing seems to have tracked down every 19th century word, daub and note inspired by Schubert — and by the fascination of the materials it collects. Better yet, it puts these materials to excellent use, demonstrating beyond question the extraordinary depth to which Schubert penetrated 19th century consciousness and culture and the extraordinary degree to which Schubert was perceived as feminine.”
Even though he has produced two volumes of Schubert, Messing doesn’t intend to give up on his subject.
“Somebody once said, ‘You never finish a book, you abandon it,’” he said. “But there is plenty of material I did not include in these volumes. I will continue to study and research the composer.”
Schubert in the European Imagination is published by the University of Rochester Press.
Posted: Thu, September 7th, 2006 at 2:32PM