Considering Schubert and Nature: A Romantic Ecology
Donovan, Michael Francis
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Franz Schubert’s preoccupation with the nature-centric poetry of his day yielded a large body of musical landscapes and depictions of the human experience of nature. And while his songs are often associated with the “Volkstümlichkeit” of the 18th century, an aesthetic in which nature occupied a secondary role, this study underlines how Schubert would develop an idiosyncratic musical vocabulary conveying the inherently ecological nature of the texts, casting nature as a central subject in his poetic settings. The discourse of deep-ecology has reassessed the shallowness or quaintness traditionally ascribed to the Romantic view of nature, looking to the holistic view of nature in Romanticism as a template for the formulation of a contemporary deep-ecological worldview. Using experiential models of deep-ecology, namely phenomenology, embodied meaning and indigenous animism, this study revisits the archetypal Romantic wanderer’s experience of nature in Schubert’s poetic settings as an encounter between the individual and the natural world. Citing human-centric interpretations in musicological discourse, this study illustrates the need to reconsider the pivotal role of nature in seminal works of Schubert. Analyses of the choral setting of Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (D714), numerous Lieder, and the song cycle Die Winterreise uncovers the depth of Schubert’s commitment to the most forward-looking ideas on nature reflected in the philosophies of Goethe, Schiller, Schelling and Spinoza, fulfilling Friedrich Schiller’s vision for the formulation and expression of man’s place in nature in art. Deep-seated structural and harmonic characteristics of the Lieder are shown to be inexorably tied to Schubert’s need to express the wanderer’s direct experience of the outer world. Schubert’s extensive use of mediant and submediant tonalities emerges as an innovation partly born out of Schubert’s preoccupation with landscape and nature, constituting a lateral alternative to the Cartesian, mechanistic view of nature reflected in the diatonic musical vocabulary of the 18th century.