Franz Schubert's generation was not given to political activism; not that there was much opportunity to begin with. His was the time Austrians call Biedermeier or, on occasion, Backhendlzeit, the "Days of Roast Chicken." It was a time much like the late twentieth century in America, a time of smug reaction and happy-face efficiency. Godless French Revolutionary-ism had been defeated once and for all by the fall of Napoleon; anything smelling of youthful passion was suspect; anything that appealed to the subjective was subversive; even Kant was banned from the schools. Criticism was possible only from behind the mask of the Volkisch, the guileless wisdom of the People. Johann Nestroy, the Viennese playwright and writer of lyrics, made a specialty of this. So did Schubert.



Schubert's song, The Trout, is a deceptively simple folk-ballad: a trout is swimming in a stream; a fisherman tries to catch it; the narrator reflects that, as long as the stream remains clear, the fisherman has no chance. Then the fisherman muddies the waters, catches the fish, and the narrator looks down on the "betrayed one with burning anger." The word for "Trout" is feminine in German; there's an extra stanza in the original poem that points to the obvious moral: in today's terms the trout is the Woman Voter; the fisher stands for Certain Politicians who thrive on their own lack of transparency. Only by muddying the waters can they catch their fish. That last stanza was dropped, perhaps to make the message more subtle: Schubert's never one to jump the shark.

In one of his vertiginously perfunctory remarks, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu suggests that certain works of art are socially engaged to the extent that they suspend the type of closure that would define them. The "prise de position," the statement of the authority that is to explain the "real" meaning of the artwork, is perpetually delayed: in Schubert's case one thinks of the organ grinder in the last song of the cycle, Winterreise, but one might argue, also, that his handling of Volkisch themes is in itself a perpetual, deeply ironic postponement. With Schubert there's always some unfinished business; his strength and beauty is, that it's our business, too.


- Frederick Devious.





M. G., composer, writes:
This is something I had no idea about. Is it also in the music?

Dr. Devious Responds:
You mean, is the tension in Schubert's music between the harmonic development of the Volkisch form and the Volkisch form itself, for instance, political? Much of the political and cultural history of Austria is written in the tension between urban/urbane Vienna and the rural country that surrounds it. Visit the Pasquali house, where Beethoven chose to live from time to time: even today you can imagine the grassy view from his top-floor window. Or wander the streets of the Währinger district, where Schubert spent a good deal of time; where you can make out the hills of the Wienerwald framed at the end of the streets.

I'm more intrigued by the suggestion taken from Bourdieu in my last paragraph, that the tonal postponement that accompanies the narrative of the organ-grinder that's meant to conclude Winterreise is also the postponement of logical closure, hence an opening onto the world outside the frame of the narrative itself: an opening away from the myth of apolitical formalism, as Bourdieu sees it. If I happened to be a literal-minded Marxist I would point out that the narrative of the poet joining with the organ grinder is a near-perfect illustration of Marx's later suggestion that the dispossessed middle class is thrown down among the proletariat and joins with them. Given that Schubert's librettist, Willhelm Müller, had a strong political side to his writings, it's not implausible.

BlueStateRedhead writes:
"Vertiginously perfunctory:" can you explain? I know that the French sociologist meant a prise de position, a position taking was never fixed, stable, or limited, as it a position in a field, and in the field everything is relational. but I am not sure what how remark by him or anybody that is perfunctory, (defined as characterized by routine or superficiality, mechanical) can be also be vertiginous, 1. whirling; spinning; rotary: vertiginous currents of air. 2. affected with vertigo; dizzy. 3. liable or threatening to cause vertigo. I understand you're speaking into the woid, but are you speaking into the void, as well?

Dr. Devious responds:
Nietzsche says you should be cautious about speaking into the void, because WOID might answer back. The expression I used struck you as perfunctory, as in "casually tossed off, as a an afterthought;" yet it apparently caused something akin to vertigo in you, as if its superficiality of expression opened up to reveal a yawning abyss of complexity beneath your cognitive feet. The Surrealists would have compared this to "the chance encounter of a jaguar and a sewing machine on an operating table."

Sometimes, reading Bourdieu is like reading bad French poetry, except it's not bad, and that makes it a poetry of quite a different order. Like poetry, it's not necessarily stuff you have to agree with; it's stuff you have to figure out for yourself.

Hope this helps.