Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 661:
LOOKING FOR SCHUBERT

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 661.

Today, we look for the real Franz Schubert. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

On Tuesday, I read a New York Times review of a Symposium on Schubert The Man: Myth vs. Reality. Now, two days later, I've met a very different Schubert. I've just heard the German lieder singer, Michael Schopper, sing the Schwanengesang cycle.

The New York Symposium was a post-modern dissection of Schubert. It ended with a two-hour analysis of Schubert's sexual preferences. Was he gay or straight? One participant found a homosexual agenda in his Unfinished Symphony. Another plumbed the profundity of his heroic suffering and isolation.

Now I've met Schubert himself and all that stuff has washed away. For two hours Schubert has added his huge musical dimension to the works of six German Romantic poets. For two hours he's told us what we really need to know.

The poems dealt with themes of unrequited love and human pain. That's what German Romantic poets liked to talk about, but Schubert has gone in a different direction. Something else entirely rose out of the music and touched me tonight.

This was the age when great iron machines rose up over Europe. It was an age in which we rebuilt nature. That's what the Romantic mind was all about. The Romantics said that nature rises within us. For the Romantic poet, and for Schubert, nature was expanded. Waterfalls were higher, darkness more terrifying, light brighter, thunder louder. Forests were deeper and more mysterious in our minds than in the real world.

Tonight I met nature, far larger than life. Schubert created a world of murm'ring brooks and moaning winds. I could smell the forest humus. I could feel leaves crunch under my feet.

Science and technology responded to the Romantics with the grandest creative upwelling the world has ever seen. Already the Romantic vision of nature had started to include locomotives and the boiling smoke of collieries. Already that creative vision had given us both Frankenstein and Goethe's Faust.

Up on the stage, singer, poet, and Schubert all tell us that the wild forces of nature, created within us, have the power to set us free. Listen to the words:

. . . Stilled by the breath of the spirit.
We feel the creative breath
Pervade our souls.
The rushing of the wind, God's own wings,
Deep in the dark night of the forest;
Free from all restraints
The power of thought soars; . . .
Schubert answers his dissectors with powerful force. Look inside your own minds, he says. Look upon your own nature. For that's where you'll find the truth. That is where you shall recreate the earth.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Rothstein, E., Was Schubert Gay? If He Was, So What?. New York Times, THE LIVING ARTS, Tuesday, February 4, 1992, pg. B3.

Rothstein, E., And If You Play 'Bolero' Backward . . . The New York Times, Sunday Feb. 16, 1992, pg. H25.

The performance took place series at the Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, on Thursday, February 6, 1992. (Michael Shopper, bass-baritone and Brian Connelly, piano.) The text I've quoted is from Waldesnacht by Freidrich von Schlegel. It is one of Drei Lieder aus Letzter Zeit which preceded the Schwanengesang cycle.



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Franz Schubert


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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