Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert's Music

From Academic Kids

"Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert's Music" was originally a presentation in which musicologist Susan McClary set about to discuss how Franz Schubert's music may have been affected by his sexuality. At the time she was influenced by Maynard Solomon's evidence of Schuberts same-sex erotic activities in his "Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini." Following a presentation at the American Musicological Society in 1990 and a much sanitized but ill received version to the annual Schubertiade in 1992 the latter safe version was printed in the Gay/Lesbian Study Group Newsletter. Following evidence against Solomon's conclusions, the essay was renamed, again revised, and printed in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology.

She begins the essay with a clarification of its history and where she now stands regarding the issues in the paragraph above before continuing to discuss Schubert's possibly exclusive same-sex sexuality and self-identification as (to put it anachronisticially) a gay man. She then discusses how attempting to read his sexuality from his music would be essentialism, but that it may be possible to notice intentional ways in which Schubert may have chosen to compose so as to express his difference deliberatley as a part of himself at a time when, "'the self' began to become prominent in the arts." Schubert's music and often himself and the subjectivity presented have been criticized as effeminate, especially in comparison to the model and aggresive master of sonata form Beethoven (Sir George Grove, after Schumann: "compared with Beethoven, Schubert is as a woman to a man", Carl Dahlhaus: "weak" and "involuntary"). "In any case, what is at issue is not Schubert's deviance from a "straight" norm, but rather his particular constructions of subjectivity, especially as they contrast with many of those posed by his peers." (p. 214)

Schubert, in the second movement of his "Unfinished" Symphony forgoes the usual narrative of the sonata form by "wandering" from one key area to another in a manner which does not consolidate the tonic, but without causing its violent reaffirmation: "What is remarkable about this movement is that Schubert conceives of and executes a musical narrative that does not enact the more standard model in which a self strives to define identity through the consolidation of ego a Beethovian world such a passage would sound vulnerable, its tonal identity not safely anchored; and its ambiguity would probably precipitate a crisis, thereby justifying the violence needed to put things right again." (page 215) In regards to chromaticism and its resolution he "tends to disdain goal-orientated desire per se for the sake of a sustained image of pleasure and an open, flexible sense of self--both of which are quite alien to the constructions of masculinitity then being adopted as natural, and also to the premises of musical form as they were commonly construed at the time."

She then compares these strategies found in Schubert's music with those Earl Jackson noted in 'new narrative' author Robert Glück: rather than "clear dichotomies, active and passive roles, constast reinforcement of ego boundaries, and avoidance of experiences such as ecstasy or pleasure that threaten to destabilize the autonmous self...Jackson describes gay male sexuality in terms of 'a dialectic based on an intersubjective which self and other intermesh.'"

"Although we often speak of Schubert as if he managed to transmit his own subjective feelings directly into his music, these "feelings" had to be constructed painstakingly from the stuff of standard tonality." (page 223)

"It does seem clear that Schubert--for whatever reason--was producing constructions of male subjectivity that differed markedly from most of those that surrounded him."

Before closing her essay McClary does point out that while the second movement of the "Unfinished" Symphony is utopian Schubert also produced many "victim narratives" in which the flexible sense of self is crushed as if by outside forces such as a homophobic society hostile to models of masculinity which do not conform to the heroic model crystallized in music by Beethoven. She also discusses the many factors besides being, possibly, a gay man, which would have contributed to Schubert's wish to construct his alternative models, such as his being fat and short (seized upon by Schubertiade goers), his syphilis, and similarities to contemporary literary narratives and notions of subjectivity which would provide a cultural, rather than personal, reason.


  • McClary, Susan (1994). Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert's Music, Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology.

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