Schubert’s Diary 1: WALKING

Posted on 23rd February 2017 by Svend McEwan-Brown

14 June 1816
“After a few months’ lapse, I took an evening walk once again. After a hot summer’s day, there can hardly be anything more delightful than to stroll about on the green grass of an evening: the meadows between Währing and Döbling seem to have been created for just this purpose. I felt so peaceful and happy as my brother Carl and I walked together in the fading twilight. “How lovely!” I thought and exclaimed, and then stood still, enchanted.” [Schubert’s diary]

It is hard enough to remember a time before mobile phones, so how many of us can truly imagine life without cars, bikes, buses, trains, tubes and planes, Schubert’s world, in other words? As an impecunious composer, he had limited access to transport aside from walking, so clearly he walked by necessity as well as for recreation. The habit was encouraged early as part of his daily regime at school. Fellow pupil Georg Franz Eckel offered a snapshot of him as he “…kept apart, walking with lowered eyes and with his hands behind his back, playing with his fingers (as though on keys). He seemed entirely lost in his own thoughts”. There’s no room to explore it here, but the link between walking and artistic inspiration puts Schubert in the company of myriad great minds including Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, both of whom walked to think.

Urban vs Rural

Read any of Jane Austen’s novels (all but Persuasion and Northanger Abbey had been published by 1816), and you swiftly pick up two things: how universally popular an activity walking recreationally was (for those who had the leisure to indulge in it) and how importantly it was linked to the idea of nature. Austen’s characters often live in the countryside by choice or necessity, and walk in the properly natural settings beyond their doors. Schubert’s 1816 stroll will have taken him from the heart of urban Vienna (the Landskrongasse where he lived) just a few kilometres North West to where Döbling lay.

To an extent this walk is still a journey from urban to rural in Vienna, but in 1816, Döbling was very lightly populated. It borders the Vienna Woods and includes the highest point in Vienna, the Hermannskogel, offering marvellous open views to this day. Vineyards have been cultivated on its hillsides since the Middle Ages, and it was and is famous for its taverns. From the late 18th century onwards, the rich and influential of the city built their second homes up there, triggering a steady development; in 1835 it had just 1,550 residents, but an estimate for 2017 is 72,121. Now it is one of the most expensive places in Vienna to live – yet a quick scan of the internet confirms that the Viennese love to escape there now just as they did in Schubert’s time, and for similar reasons. For example:

Walking as an encounter with nature was a key aspect of the nascent 19th century tourism market. Hiking books were published. Pictures, fiction and poetry tell of sublime moments in the wild. Sometimes not wild enough, as Byron discovered to his cost. In 1816, just a few weeks after Schubert’s stroll in Döbling, he was walking the Alps, marvelling at Mont Blanc as “…the most anti-narcotic spot in the world!”, before a fellow tourist crushed his mood, declaring “Did you ever see anything more rural?” If the tourist industry could take such folk to the mountains, Romantic artists could bring a taste of the country to a large urbanite audience, sparing them the journey. Schubert wrote many, many nature songs, though of course he was responding at second-hand as his music took the poets’ responses to nature as inspiration. All the same, these songs are among the most superb of all pastoral art; Die schöne Müllerin contains masterpiece after masterpiece.

Walking Music

Walking is what caught my eye in this diary entry because of Schubert’s famous ‘walking pieces’.

Walking manifests itself in music differently at various times. The ‘walking bass’ was a key component of the Baroque as early as Monteverdi, a steady tread underpinning more sustained lines above. Listen to the Laetatus Sum from the 1610 Vespers and the Credo from Bach’s B Minor Mass for a later example; as a quasi-Baroque flavour it persisted into a solemn moment in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Then you find it more intimately in the Andante of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Sonata Op 28.

Schubert’s ‘walking pieces’ differ from all these. They feel very internal somehow, as personal as heart beats. They bring to mind that schoolboy Schubert, absorbed in his thoughts, walking in a dream. Their distinctively heavy tread is often created by combining a repeating chord with a dotted rhythm. Listen to the opening song of Winterreise, or the second movement of the Piano Trio. Sometimes he underpins a bigger texture with an insistent rhythm – like the use of the timpani at the start of the Credo of the Mass in E-flat.

There are walking songs in the cycle we will hear at ENF this year, Die schöne Müllerin. Try the opening song Das Wandern or Pause from later in the cycle. The most marvellous examples though, are undoubtedly in Winterreise. As it opens, the narrator departs on his journey and Schubert marks the pace ‘Moderate, in walking movement’. Some interpreters insist that that pace should be ever present, but to me it always feels as though the traveller’s thoughts sometimes completely consume him so his walking pace should recede in his consciousness. And when he returns to the here and now, as we all do from a reverie, the pace re-asserts itself. Try comparing the opening song with No 10, Räst or No 19, Der Wegweiser as points at which one might sense such a return. The mastery of Schubert in evoking this extraordinarily ephemeral and fleeting state of thought is for me one of the miracles of all music.

Come hear: Thomas Oliemans and Malcolm Martineau perform Die schöne Müllerin
Sat 1 July, 4pm Crail Church – BOOK TICKETS

Next Time: More from the diaries: Mozart.

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Laetatus Sum from Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers

Credo from Bach’s B Minor Mass

Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Andante of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Sonata Op 28

The opening song of Schubert’s Winterreise

2nd movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio

Credo of Schubert’s Mass in E-flat

Das Wandern from Die schöne Müllerin

Pause from Die schöne Müllerin

Räst from Winterreise

Der Wegweiser from Winterreise

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