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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Alexander von Humboldt’s life began in 1769, the year of James Cook’s first, dramatic circumnavigation of the Earth. It ended in 1859, the year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. Franz Schubert began his life in 1797, when 28 year-old Humboldt started for Paris to lay the basis for his famous expedition with Aimé Bonpland to the Americas. Schubert died in 1828, only a few months after Humboldt delivered his wildly popular Kosmos lectures in Berlin. The great romantic composer, always circling Vienna, never met the great romantic scientist, who orbited first Paris and then Berlin. If they knew or knew of each other, I have not enquired. It is hard not to envision a confluence of their passionately experienced and expressed lives.

Humboldt envisioned a dynamic cosmos, awash in material forces: gravity, electricity, magnetism. He saw these forces driving chemical interactions and living individuals and communities. He saw the Earth interacting with the heavens, and especially with the Sun. Nothing was static. Nothing was isolated. Humboldt united intimate familiarity with instruments of measurement, a dedication to close observation, rigorous description, and occasional fanciful speculation of interconnections. He brought not only the New World of the Western Hemisphere to the old world of Europe. He also brought the new world of Earth-a-planet into cultural prominence, as Copernicus and Galileo had begun centuries before.

Franz Peter Schubert was born and died in Vienna, when it was the capitol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  It is likely he never traveled outside its borders.  The Empire gave him patronage, and also repression. Many of his compositions we regard now as masterpieces, but he wrote and produced and performed all of them amid a constant struggle for funding, for performance venues, for a basic living.  He survived major periods of his productive life through the support of his friends. The same political storms that affected von Humboldt (and in part caused him to leave the Old World for the New) also buffeted Schubert.  In 1820, Schubert and four of his close-knit circle of artists and friends were arrested by the Austrian police, who suspected them of revolutionary sensibilities, in the wake of the French Revolution and then the long strange career of Napoleon, the liberator-despot.  One of his friends was put on trial and imprisoned for a year and then permanently banned from Vienna.  Schubert was “severely reprimanded” but allowed to remain in Vienna. 

Von Humboldt brought the Cosmos “back home” through his celebrated publications, lectures, exhibitions, etc.  He lived a long and productive life, in good part because he had been able to escape into the Cosmos in a literal sense, during times of great peril and political turmoil.  Schubert never left that very Old World, but he changed it from within.  In his last few years he wrote music that is both listened to by the people and has also influenced the greatest of composers to the present day.  At his request, he was buried next to his great hero Ludwig von Beethoven in the village cemetery of Wäring, with a tombstone bearing an inscription from a friend and poet: “Music has here buried a rich treasure, but still fairer hopes”.  Those hopes come back when we listen to his music. 

This post is a collaboration of John Cloud and Greg Good, inspired by a concert to be held Saturday, 31 March, in Washington DC. Schubert Uncorked features the PostClassical Ensemble and the virtuosic bass trombonist David Taylor for a startling re-contextualization of a revered composer, including two newly commissioned world premieres.