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Home | 2016 | December | Schober?

The cloud of unknowing

Posted by Richard on UTC 2016-12-09 06:48.

The cloud of unknowing

In any normal biography we could now move on to describing the circumstances under which Schober met Schubert and the course of their relationship over the next 15 years or so. Unfortunately the characters of the two men make this task almost hopeless.

Schubert corresponded with people, but, as far as we know, rarely wrote about himself. He really was not a diary person: the few pages of 'diary' we possess are mostly collections of a few short thoughts on some theme or other – more of a commonplace book than a diary. He seems to have been deeply introverted and as such unable to open up in any direct way in a diary. We have seen how obscurely and impersonally he expressed his desperate situation after the failure of his application for the Laibach job. He pulled a veil of abstraction and distraction over everything that he wrote about himself. In contrast, his letters to those whom he trusted are often full of fun, self-deprecating wit and irony. Thank heavens we have at least some of them.

'As far as we know' – that phrase again! Of Schubert's letters, notebooks, diaries and many music manuscripts, who knows what we have and what we don't have! Unknown unknowns. After his death the recollections and artefacts of his life entered a tunnel and would not reappear for thirty years. Some material had been thrown away or simply lost: executors and inheritors had little idea what these obscure scraps meant. Some people who did know followed the good old Austrian tradition of 'collecting' (='hiding') them – the Austrian magpies were busy in those years. Some people have inherited collections of manuscripts and/or pictures and regard these as family heirlooms. If a researcher happens to hear about them, they may be released for a quick examination. One Schubert descendent compiled a geneological tree of the the Schuberts from largely unknown sources and printed 100 copies privately, thus creating yet another 'collectors' item' that disappeared into the drawers and bookcases of the magpies.

Even when documents emerged from this tunnel, an astonishingly large number disappeared again, once their importance was realised. The phrase runs through Schubert scholarship: 'now lost', possibly to carelessness or accident, but often to that other good old Austrian tradition, theft. Many of the documents seen by early Schubert biographers are now – who knows where? Even in a public archive, Schubert artefacts are not safe: pages are sliced out of bound books and registers, loose sheets and entire folders disappear.

The missing documentary evidence is replaced by memoirs written at the request of biographers by friends and acquaintances about a time thirty or forty years before. Some remember or misremember a few scraps of information, others invent and inflate their own role in the life of the composer Schubert, who by that time, after all those years, is recognised as a genius. Others, gifted writers such as Eduard von Bauernfeld (1802-1890), do what gifted writers do and write carefully crafted, entertaining anecdotes, detached from all source material.

Shaping the past

Schober makes this bad situation in the Schubert sources much worse. As a witness he is – there is no kind way to put this – and unreliable fantasist, a self-obsessed egotist. He alleged that shortly after Schubert's death he wrote a memoir of the composer. This memoir is lost – more precisely, has never been seen by anyone. Had this been written with accuracy and honesty, this memoir of Schuberts closest friend, Schubert scholarship would be so much richer. Their conversations, their outings into the nightlife of Vienna, the other friends in the circles and so on. When asked by Schubert's biographers to set down his recollections of his great friend the musical genius, he was too busy arranging his poems for publication in an edition of his complete works.

Where the contemporaneous account is missing or never existed, it has been replaced by Schober's own ramblings in interviews a half-century after the fact. The biographical vacuum, abhored, is filled with self-serving storytelling. Almost everything we say in the following about Schober or Schubert that does not come directly from a reliable contemporaneous source comes with a health warning.

Schober archived assiduously many of the documents of his life, which sounds to be a good thing, until we realise that this archive is carefully selected to polish the nimbus of the collector. We know that some documents in the collection were redacted to Schober's benefit, but an unspecified number of documents seem to have been collected and deliberately destroyed. Unknown unknowns. Here and there in other archives we find references to Schober letters and documents, but the originals have mostly disappeared. After Schubert's death it seems that Schober collected all the letters he had written to Schubert and destroyed them. The same thing seems to have happened to many documents relating to his biography. It must have taken an obsessive determination on Schober's part to track down all these pieces of paper that might illuminate his character. The result is that we possess hardly any documents in Schober's own hand from the Schubert years. How can we arrive at fair and balanced judgements in such circumstances?

The charisma conundrum

Schober seems to have been one of those people with 'charisma', a term used first by the German sociologist Max Weber to describe the ability of some leaders to inspire loyalty and devotion beyond all rational limits. Schober seems to have had this property, which a German scholar in the Walter Benjamin tradition referred to as his 'aura'. Pick your delusion.

Some young people who knew Schober – quite a lot, including Schubert – succumbed. Their accounts of Schober are appropriately worshipful. Some didn't, but their opinions are rarely heard. Even those who did not entirely succumb had to acknowledge the social power of that charisma, as Anton Ottenwalt, writing to Joseph von Spaun, does here:

You are going to miss Schober a lot. There is something about him that one cannot resist and to which one must submit. He is himself a strong proof for his idea of friendship, one that knows nothing of a conventional limit, but rather requires belonging to the other person without reserve and unconsciously, his entire being, in which simultaneously what is ours has to be his and what is his has to be ours. The two of us are both different in many respects, I especially in my faith, in which I have lived my life and for which he attacks me - and [...] despite that I have to love him [...] I am amazed at the wonderful changes in his being, which he himself just calls development [,...].

Quoted in Waidelich Torupson p. 51.

As we shall see later, those who fell for Schober's charisma eventually – much later – awoke from the enchantment and scales fell from a number of former admirer's eyes. From the awakened we now receive an altogether less flattering picture of Schober than they gave us whilst under the influence. Schober was now seen as a reprehensible character, a reprobate and libertine whose bad influence cast a cloud over the bedazzled composer's life. Which of these views of Schober is right? How should I know?