Tuesday 22 May 2012

Schubert, atheism and death

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is dead and another milestone in my own journey to death. I remember very clearly the thrill of buying a cassette of one of his performances of Winterreise as a teenager, significant as part of my development of a cultural space separate from that of my parents. There are a few other pieces that  I remember from around that heady time, but very few others that whispered 'death' so clearly in my young mind and have gone on whispering it throughout my life. And now I'm an age where, although I don't expect to die in the immediate future, enough of the occasional tumours or heart attacks or accidents have occurred among those I know for me to realize that the whisper is for me and not just a conversation between others on which I'm eavesdropping.

Schubert of course isn't just the minstrel of death, but, quite apart from the explicit treatments of death in his songs, the constant themes of parting, failed love, and journeys, combined with his early death (at 31), have always made this, at least for me, his major theme. And now, the man who was Schubert's Lieder has died.

All this made me revisit Terry Pratchett's vision of the good death:

Sir Terry, who was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours, said in an article in the Mail on Sunday: 'I intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod.

Why Thomas Tallis? Why not Schubert? Well, here's one answer. With Tallis, you have the certainty of a Catholic composer that (as the text of Spem in alium has it):

I have never put my hope in any other but in You,
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness

Catholics have that hope in the Other. And drugged by fine brandy, consoled by the firm belief of a system we really don't believe in but can pretend to for the few minutes we are conscious, we atheists can screw our courage to the sticking place and swallow the poison.

Would you go out with Schubert on the ipod? After all, Schubert, unlike the loony Catholic Tallis, was an atheist. So why not face up to death and parting and the end of earthly love in all the clarity of its truth? Why look for consolation to the sky fairy believing Tallis when you have Schubert? I suspect that the answer here is that Schubert, genius that he is, portrays the death of the human being as simple creature: he gives no consolation because, really, for an atheist, there ought not to be any consolation, but merely the bleakness of ends and unsatisfactory partings.

Anyway, would you die with Schubert on the ipod? Here are two test pieces. The first, Der Leiermann, is the final song of Winterreise, and the desolate end of a desolate journey:

Way behind the hamlet 
stands an organ man 
and with freezing fingers 
grinds the best he can.

Barefoot on the snowbank 
swaying to and fro - 
and his little plate has 
ne'er a coin to show.

No-one comes to listen, 
no-one comes to greet, 
and the dogs are growling 
at the old man's feet.

And he lets it happen, 
lets it as it will - 
cranking - and his organ 
never staying still.

Strangest of the Ancients, 
must I walk with you? 
Will you grind my Lieders
on your organ, too? 

The second, the final song of Die Schöne Müllerin, Des Baches Wiegenlied, where the brook calls the young man to suicide:

Good rest, good rest,
Close your eyes!
Wanderer, tired one, you are home.
Fidelity is here,
You shall lie by me,
Until the sea drinks the brooklet dry.

I will bed you cool
On a soft pillow,
In the blue crystal room,
Come, come,
Whatever can lull,
rock and lap my boy to sleep!

When a hunting-horn sounds
From the green forest,
I will roar and rush around you.
Don't look in,
Blue flowerets!
You make my sleeper's dreams so troubled!

Away, away
From the mill-path,
Away, away,
hateful girl!
That your shadow might not wake him.
Throw in to me
Your fine handkerchief,
That I may cover his eyes with it!

Good night, good night,
Until all awake,
Sleep out your joy, sleep out your pain!
The full moon climbs,
The mist fades away,
and the heavens above, how wide they are!

Modern atheism, in Pratchett's version, ignores the depths of human death and love displayed in Schubert's music in favour of the stolen consolations of a religion it denies: it is death (and thus life) stripped of complexity and reduced to a lifestyle choice. For a Catholic, Spem in alium promises the hope of paradise but the reality of judgment, the probability of purgatory and the possibility of hell. It is, moreover, merely part of the lifetime of a journey through the hard religious discipline of the Church: if it is a consolation, it is one that has been paid for and one that has depths.


  1. I expect, I'm afraid, that it's just the music. Schubert's good, but Tallis is sublime. You don't even need to know what the words are about.

    1. Much depends here on how you take 'sublime'. If it's being used as a quality distinct from (say) 'beautiful', then I think I'd want to I'd want to unpack precisely what quality that is. Tallis' music -mirrored by the words but even apart from them- speaks of that hope in an other, of something which transcends humanity. (I suspect here that any complete answer would involve some reference to the sacred which I'd probably argue an atheist isn't entitled to.) If 'sublime'is being used simply as an intensification of (eg) 'good' (so Schubert's good but Tallis is better) I don't think I agree: both are perfect in their (different) ways. (But Tallis is a reflection on man oriented to God; and Schubert on man oriented to the girl down the lane.)

      One of my worries about the sort of new atheism that Pratchett seems to be signed up to is that it is so reductionist: everything is reduced to satisfaction of basic drives. (So he listens to Tallis because he wants to listen to Tallis -nothing else.) For a Thomist, beauty is a manifestation of being: it reveals something about the underlying reality. (And I suspect that is really what's going on here, but the atheist can't admit it: Tallis manifests God. Schubert doesn't.)