'Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians, appear and inspire…' Auden wrote his words for the young Benjamin Britten, who was born on St Cecilia’s Day, and who set them to music, but his poem would also be a tribute to the composer that Britten admired above all others except Mozart. Franz Schubert was born in Vienna in 1797, and died there 31 years later.
‘Let us honour the memory of a great man,’ he said, raising a glass after attending Beethoven’s funeral in March 1827, ‘and drink to the man who shall be next.’ Schubert died in November the following year, having heard only one concert in his lifetime dedicated to his own work. It is the greatest loss in the history of music, yet what riches he left behind! Remarkably, he composed much of his finest music in that final year, stricken by syphilis, before he was carried away by typhoid fever.
For music lovers, then, a journey along the Danube in Schubert’s company is like bathing in honey. From Passau to Bratislava and back we travelled, breathing in music that matched the views. The stretch along the Wachau, that castle-strewn, vine-clad landscape between Linz and Vienna, was particularly striking. Schubert’s music came unbidden to all with ears to hear as we swept by the handsome villages that hug the river.
And what music it is! ‘The still, sad music of humanity’, Wordsworth’s famous words apply more to Schubert than to any other great composer.Wagner inspires more devotion. Bach and Beethoven compel veneration. But nobody, not even Mozart, inspires more affection than Schubert. His emotional kinsman is Anton Chekhov, the only man whose blending of joy and melancholy was comparable.
Our cruise, organised by Martin Randall Travel, stopped first at Grein, where we heard the Bennewitz Quartet perform the magnificent G major quartet — the 887 as Schubertians know it. Grein is a delightful little town and the Stadttheater which staged the concert is a chocolate-box treasure of which the townsfolk are justifiably proud. Gemütlich, ja?
On to Vienna we sailed, to the Albertina, home to many of the world’s most celebrated prints. In the Hall of the Muses we heard the baritone Florian Boesch, accompanied by Graham Johnson, sing a challenging selection of lieder. ‘Nobody knows more about Schubert lieder than Graham Johnson,’ said John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall, who had chosen the artists on the cruise. ‘Nobody understands more about singing Schubert lieder than a Viennese, and Florian Boesch is Viennese,’ Johnson said in turn.
That evening, in the Primatial Palace, Bratislava, the Atos Trio gave us the superb B flat trio, whose slow movement, once selected on Desert Island Discs by Kenneth ‘ooh matron!’ Williams, defines the adjective ‘Schubertian’ more than words ever could. Then it was back to Vienna for cakes, paintings and two early symphonies in the Palais Ferstel, situated above Café Central, the one-time haunt of every Viennese writer, painter, composer and intellectual you’ve ever heard of. Trotsky, too, before he became Trotsky.
It was time now for the castles and abbeys. At the great Benedictine abbey of Melk, which watches over the Danube like a maiden aunt, the Endellion Quartet and friends performed the Octet, a masterpiece of course but one that outstays its welcome. One couldn’t say that of the Moments Musicaux for piano, which Igor Levit, the rising Russian-German, paired with early Beethoven in the Schloss Grafenegg. Keep an eye, and an ear, on Levit. This chap’s going to give us a great deal of pleasure in the years ahead.
We ended at the Augustinian monastery of St Florian, near Linz, where Anton Bruckner, who served there as organist, is buried. And we ended in the right way, with a performance by the Heath Quartet and Alasdair Tait of the immortal C major quintet. Thomas Mann thought it was the greatest music composed by mortal hand. We did not withhold our consent.
It was a week of wonders, natural and musical. Our hosts pulled out all the stops and the conversations in both sunshine and moonlight were notable for their intellectual heft (even if there were some old Etonians on board!) As another great songwriter, Oscar Hammerstein, put it in Carousel: ‘The vittles we et were good, you bet. The company was the same.’ Our Schubertiade was a triumph.