The Friday Symposium: Death and the Composer

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

Franz Schubert died at 31, but he is hardly the only or even the youngest composer to die before their potential had been fully realized. Pergolesi died at 26; Bellini at 33. Mozart died just short of his 36th birthday, Purcell just over his. And, still to come in this history, neither Felix Mendelssohn, George Gershwin nor Georges Bizet saw their 40th birthdays. We are all poorer for that.

Just consider the monumental career of Beethoven, which I have spent the better part of six months chronicling. He seriously considered suicide at 32 due to his progressive deafness. Had he done so, Beethoven would have been a footnote in music history–a composer of two promising symphonies, no operas, a handful of chamber music pieces, and assorted other works. His Pathetique and Moonlight sonatas would be his best known works, hinting at what might have been a great career left unfulfilled. Schubert, by constrast, was already a great composer–even if he feared that his music would not survive his death.

I will sing a cycle of spine-chilling songs to you.

Franz Schubert

Staring clear-eyed into the abyss, Schubert composed Die Winterreise, his greatest song cycle. Over 24 songs, Schubert tells the story of a solitary man, tormented by his memory of love, seeing nothing but death before him. In contrast to the cheerful cherrub celebrated by his friends in their memorials of him, Schubert rips the shroud of religion from the mystery of death and presents us with the horror of the human condition: We die alone, cold and hungry, with an old organ grinder showing us the way.

The parallels to Schubert’s life are not hard to discern—the composer was frantically working on his magnum opus from his deathbed.  Unlike Mozart who was frantically trying to give instructions for how to complete his Requiem, Schubert had finished his song cycle and he died shortly after correcting the proofs from the printer.  Everything you need to know about Schubert the composer is summed up in these songs.  They are as clear a vision of a composer’s soul as I have found.

The tenor Ian Bostridge is one of the foremost contemporary interpreters of Schubert songs.  His recording around the turn of the century, at the start of his career, is a modern classic. Recently, however, he released a live version, recorded with the composer Thomas Ades at the piano.  This is, by far, the better recording.  Time has certainly taught Bostridge a thing or two about these songs, which he performs regularly.  But having Ades as a collaborator has surely paid benefits.  Bostridge’s singing is more lyrical and the music flows much more naturally.  Der Leiermann (The Hurdy Gurdy Man), which closes the set, seems to anticipate Kurt Weil a century on.  It is a remarkable song.  Use the links in the comments to listen to #1, #5, and #24—or the entire set. 

Franz Schubert, Winterreise, D. 911:

When talented composers die so young, we often wish that they had been granted more time and wonder what they would have produced had they lived into old age. We will never know. But the perfect cocktail for contemplating such questions about Schubert while listening to Winterreise is surely the Corpse Reviver No. 2. Conceived by thoughtful bartenders as a “hair of the dog” remedy, there are many versions of the Corpse Reviver. They are all strong and, as they say, to the point. Of these, Harry Craddock’s 1930 version, memorialized in his legendary Savoy Cocktail Book is the most famous and the most influential. When you see cocktails that have four equal parts (strong spirit+citrus juice+2 strongly flavored spirits), that cocktail finds its roots here.

The Corpse Reviver No. 2

1oz London Dry Gin

1oz Cointreau

1oz lemon juice

1oz Cocchi Americano

dash of absinthe

A few notes about the ingredients. I prefer Plymouth gin, but any well-balanced London dry gin will do. The original recipe calls for orange liquerer, but I would steer away from cheap or overly sweet versions. Cointreau strikes the right balance there. Finally, the recipe (like James Bond’s Vesper) calls for Lillet. The original version is no longer made and Lillet Blanc is a poor substitute. Cocchi Americano is closer to the mark. Finally, you can add a couple of dashes of Peychaud’s bitters instead of the absinthe rinse.

Instructions: Rinse couple with absinthe and discard. Combine the other ingredients and shake hard and strain. Garnish with orange slice or a cherry.

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