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If you were watching this website a fortnight ago, you will have come across a post I wrote called ‘Tale Spin’, and the challenges (so-called) of writing a biography for someone like Brahms who, in comparison with some of his wilder contemporaries, did not really live the kind of life that would easily transfer into a Hollywood epic. Aside from that bit with the Schumanns, of course – see the spectacular Song of Love for a film at once very sweet and historically nonsensical. But who cares when you’ve managed to get Katharine Hepburn to play Clara Schumann? It’s still a great watch.

Oddly enough, this week I’ve found myself confronted with what is, in some ways, the opposite dilemma. What do you do if there is seemingly inconclusive evidence both for and against a more unsavoury aspect of a composer’s life and attitudes? Or indeed, if there is concrete evidence of their demonstrating the kind of behaviour that, as someone who is researching their life and music because you admire them, lowers your opinion of them?

This is something that most of us have to deal with in the research business if we are interested in biography. Despite being nowhere near the public, shouty anti-Semitism of Wagner, and counting many Jewish musicians, scholars and writers among his close friends, Brahms did occasionally make rather unsavoury anti-Semitic comments. Since he didn’t do it loudly and in print like old Richard, it’s much easier to sweep under the carpet – but it did happen. Interestingly there’s a kind of ‘good’ bad and ‘bad’ bad here. ‘Good’ bad might be things we can count as being anti-establishment (like ripping off publishers), rock star behaviour (taking opium, throwing crazy parties, managing to sleep around because they were allegedly drop-dead gorgeous – although I’ve never seen the whole swoony thing about Liszt, myself), and that kind of thing. But ‘bad’ bad behaviour is harder to deal with, because it tends to include attitudes and actions that we still consider to be distasteful. Like anti-Semitic or racist rhetoric, for example. Or cruel behaviour towards friends and family. Or, indeed – lest we forget Gesualdo – actual murder. Not really something to be encouraged.

So here’s this week’s rather interesting quandary: Schubert. We know that poor little Schubert (really, really little – too short to legally join the army, in fact) died of syphilis. How and where he contracted it cannot be proven, nor whether he contracted it from a man or woman. His sexuality, indeed, is a topic that some scholars find extraordinarily distasteful to discuss, and some seek to protect him from ‘accusations’ that he was gay. (The language is telling, isn’t it?) We know that he had a number of close friends; we know that they played and talked and recited poetry together. They also ate and drank. A few days ago, I went through one of Otto Erich Deutsch’s rich compendia of Schubert material, Schubert: Memoirs by his Friends for various strands of information… and found a subcategory in the index about his drinking. Intrigued, I followed it through. I can see why Deutsch decided it warranted an index entry: several stories of Schubert getting drunk and disorderly are combatted with some rather ferocious messages of defence from one of his close friends in particular, Joseph von Spaun. So what’s the truth? Was a heavy drinker, or not?

Riedel portrait of Schubert

Now we’re into speculation territory. It would be reasonable to argue that, if some of his closest friends say he didn’t have a drink problem, then they were probably right. Conversely, if you were in your late twenties, had syphilis, knew you were going to die and could also rely on your friends to pick up the bar tab, then drinking a lot might have seemed an appealing option. The stories of unruly drunken behaviour are not extremely numerous, but they are fairly specific, and some corroborate each other. And what if his friends were just defending him because – well, because they were his friends? Like that time Brahms’s biographer excised the letter in which Brahms confessed to a close friend that he loved Clara Schumann?

What I found even more fascinating, though, was the attitude that later commentators – and I, for that matter – had to the notion of Schubert having a drink problem. Since he wasn’t a messy, wild-haired, unashamed alcoholic for many years, and since we mostly have an image of him as being quite a mild, reasonable sort of person as well as a tragic victim of circumstance, the possibility of such a vice grates. I’d suggest that it grates more, in fact, than it might if the person in question were either known to have more ‘good’ bad habits.

Where does this leave us? Well, in terms of anything I say about Schubert’s drinking (or not) at the forthcoming Ryedale Festival, the decision will have to be mine and mine alone in terms of whether I not I think it’s a) likely, and b) relevant. But it’s worth us all remembering that sometimes, there are unpleasant things to be discovered – and it’s my belief, anyway, that now and again at least these things should be talked about. These phenomenally talented individuals were people, after all – as fallible as the rest of us. A perhaps a little reminder of vices, now and again, helps remind us that their pedestals shouldn’t grow so solid as to allow us to forget altogether that they, too, were human.


  • The only question for me, is whether any of this shows up in his music: I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that. Hope to see you at Ryedale – I’ll be there with a party from Martin Randall Travel.

    Best wishes,


    • Katy

      Well just because a work isn’t directly autobiographical doesn’t mean that a composer’s life situation doesn’t affect the music that they create… so I’d say yes, it does ‘show up’ in his music. Exactly how and in what way is perhaps trickier to define. But I think the Man vs Artist distinction so popular in biographical writing for much of the C20th is a false dichotomy and one we should be wary of, not least because it tends to lead us into ‘elevating’ the Artist and ignoring (or whitewashing) the Man in order to make him into what we think he should be – the artist as hero, and all that.
      Hope we cross paths again at Ryedale next week! And all the best to you too, John.

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