The Excellent Mediocrity, Mediocre Excellence of Franz Schubert


Schubert’s piano pieces for four hands are so mediocre, in a sense, as to be especially excellent. 

Piano masters Alexander Melnikov and Andreas Staier, hailing respectively from Russia and Germany, performed a wide selection of these pieces by Franz Schubert last Friday as part of the Mahaney Performing Arts Series. 

Mediocre is the wrong word, by far, to be using for these pieces and yet, I struggle to select a more appropriate one: they fall between extremes, occupying a high middle ground of art. A somewhat appropriate description comes from the TV Show A Good Place in which Manny Jacinto’s character explains a “scale from one to thirteen [where] eight [is] the highest. It goes up and then back down like a tent.” 

The Schubert pieces played were an eight, middle of the road and yet the best. The problem here is that Schubert is not Bach. His pieces are not dramatic like, say, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 2 or his Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Nor is Schubert Debussy. His music is not dreamlike and ephemeral like Nuages or Clair de Lune. The comparisons could go on; he’s no Liszt or Mozart either. Schubert’s pieces here were not deeply moving per se but nor were they light and frivolous. They were not overwhelming, they did not transport one to a different state, but yet they were consistently intriguing and engaging. As I was trying to find a proper adjective, I considered both “pretty,” and “nice,” — because they were. Although there is no cause to diminish them as such. The pieces were beautiful and seemingly nothing more. 

There came a point when this quality started raising particular questions about the state of Schubert’s art. What was the point of such music? It didn’t seem to come from any deep emotions. No anguish or true love stemmed from them. Did they stem from fears? Joy? Awe? Or were they simply playthings for Schubert to share with his friend and student the Comtesse (countess) Caroline von Esterházy? They were too good to be shallow pieces written without emotion and yet not raw enough to be deep personal expression. 

Again, I found myself circling around a middle ground — and yet, they were excellent. 

There was certainly a range. Some pieces were light and very much felt like a plaything for a Comtesse. Take the first piece, the third of Six Grande Marches in B minor. It slid around, sometimes a light, at times flowery tune punctuated by deeper, stronger interludes. The first of the Ländler also had a prominent sense of levity through much of it. It could easily be an exercise written simply for the amusement of two flirtatious pianists. And yet the second Ländler was much more ominous, more mysterious. The third, exhilarating, producing much the same feeling as one gets when cruising along a sunny road in summer. 

Take this in contrast to the closing piece, on the other end of the program: the Fantasia in F Minor. This piece was, of all the night’s program, the most dramatic. Dedicated to the Comtesse, whom one friend called Schubert’s “ideal love,” the piece has a definite sense of wistfulness. This is raw, especially in comparison to the tighter pieces earlier in the program. Still, it seems to restrain the possible outflow of emotions that one might find with a different artist. That is to say, one neither shakes nor swoons upon hearing it, but one is nonetheless entirely engaged. 

Ultimately, I cannot answer any of the questions or contradictions raised above, perhaps a musicologist of higher degree would be better addressed, but there is something I find intriguing about the idea of Schubert’s mediocre excellence. He clearly had the technical genius with which he could have unleashed the same shivering chills, bone rattles and heart wrenching emotional catharsis that other composers have left us. Equally possible (although as the vanguard of the budding Romantic spirit, perhaps only anachronistically possible) was his potential to create immersive soundscapes that release into the imagination a Bacchanal flood like the later impressionists. 

But he doesn’t. Instead, he produced music that is so simply well-crafted that no other quality distracts from its excellence. The music, and not the effect that it produces, pulls in the listener’s attention. The listener can’t help but acquiesce.

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