Schubert’s unique inaction and repetition

The Melodie Hongroise (Hungarian Melody) is a quintessentially Schubertian gem of a work: it is bittersweet, dainty and elegant, yet at the same time almost overwhelmingly haunting and penetrating. Hearing its folkish rhythms, articulation and lyrical qualities, one cannot mistake it for anything other than a work of Schubert. It has the unsaturated simplicity that sets Schubert apart from composers before and after him, making him a “sanctuary” of emotional and expressive purity and candidness. 

That said, when one examines the score of this wonderful short work, its “Schubertian” characteristics become slightly less evident. Besides the simple and constant accompaniment, the most noticeable musical unit in the work is the repetition of a single note. At first it is a repeated B, then a D, then Schubert lingers for longer on a repeated F-sharp, before settling down on an A, only to go back up to the F-sharp above a dominant harmony. Curiously, this description doesn’t sound at all like a work of Schubert. If anything, the obsessive and unfaltering Beethoven comes to mind. Schubert, on the other hand, is known to us as a composer who doesn’t shy away from meandering melodies and unexpected melodic turns. These are after all the characteristics that we most commonly associate with him and with his song-based style, and that make us “tolerate” the composer’s occasional repetitiveness. (“Repetitive” is often used as an accusation when talking about a composer, but seldom would Schubert be accused of being too repetitive). Schubert does have works based on repeated notes, such as the C minor piano impromptu, but usually that repeated note yearns to “burst out of its shell” and develop into a melodic line whose continuation acts as a response to the repeated note. In the Melodie, however, that repeated note doesn’t seem to search for any response or continuation. Rather, Schubert tenuously hangs on to it. Thence comes the charm and uniqueness of the Melodie, and therefore, an interesting paradox emerges: the charm of this work is essentially Schubertian, yet its main musical characteristic is not. 

Contemplating the nature of this repeated note, and comparing it to other works by Schubert where we have similar material, gives us an insight into the “essence” of the work, beyond its general character. Taking into account that the opening repetition seems to develop into further repetitions, one gets the sense that the music is somewhat inert. Therefore, the most apt comparison would be to other “less assertive” repeated notes in Schubert, rather than to the C minor impromptu. Two instances come to mind—the slow movements of the Death and the Maiden quartet and the Wanderer fantasy. Both these movements are of course much more ambitious works than the Melodie. The slow movement of the quartet reaches a towering epiphany, while the slow movement of the fantasy accelerates and implodes into total chaos. The Melodie does neither, it stays where it began. However, in both the quartet and the fantasy, the “seed” for the revelatory musical development is the same listless and almost sluggish repeated note, and that is something all three pieces have in common. This makes me think about the Melodie as a melancholic piece, its “proud” rhythmic nature notwithstanding. Through the melodic repeated note, it sets itself apart from the somewhat similar third Moment musical. Whereas the Moment is a truly uplifting work, full of inner fervor, the Melodie settles for reflection and a most beautiful sense of idleness.  

To me, this proves yet again that our perception of what makes different composers special is somewhat limited and blinkered, and that we cannot reduce our notions of composers to mere a handful of works. A reverse instance of this would be Beethoven’s E minor sonata, Op. 90, which is often characterized as “Schubertian” because of its self-sufficient and florid melodic language. However, a close look at the score shows that this sonata is as “Beethovian” as it gets, and that not only does Beethoven not stray from his usual style, but uses it to the maximum. Likewise, Schubert resorts to his own style in the Melodie to the greatest extent while using musical material of a kind he seldom displays. 

This leads me to contemplate the following question: What is it about the repeated note that puts it at odds with Schubert’s style, and why didn’t he use it more often? Of course, I cannot give a definitive answer to this question, but it does seem to me that his reluctance to use this particular musical building block stems from his “natural musical habitat” being the song. Naturally, the repeated note lends itself less to song than Schubert’s typical rounded melodic lines. Hence, when we play the Melodie, should we look for a song-like tone, or should we instead embrace the gently obsessive nature or the work? It is this simple question for me that makes playing this piece so exciting and intriguing. 

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One thought on “Schubert’s unique inaction and repetition

  1. thankyou for share so interesting!!! idk, for me it was joyous birdlike reps… I have been listening to a lot of birds thru the “covid” times
    Because of you, now I REAally like Schubert

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