Franz Schubert’s fantasy about an impossible love

Schubert Fantasy F minor
A glimmer of hope. © Charles Thibo

“Schubert seems to be in love for real with Countess E. I like that. He gives her lessons.” A single line in Eduard Bauernfeld’s diary. The Viennese writer was a friend of Franz Schubert and he certainly wished the composer well – a stable, loving relationship with a respectable and inspiring woman. And Schubert was indeed in love with his piano student Caroline Esterhazy de Galantha. In 1824, the composer had spent a summer at the castle of Caroline’s family in Zselitz an der Gran, today called Zeliezovce and located in Slovakia. During the spring of 1828, a few months before his death, Schubert wrote a piano piece for four hands that forces the pianists to cross arms – with the remote possibility of touching each other. What a thrill!

A heartbreaking piano duet

Schubert dedicated the Fantasy in F minor (D. 940) to Caroline Esterhazy, but this dedication did only appear in its first edition. Schubert was in love, but the countess had always been out of his reach. The son of teacher, a notoriously broken composer prone to drinking, was not deemed a suitable match for a noble woman. Not in Vienna, not at the beginning of the 19th century. Stop dreaming, Franz! No – don’t stop! Dream on, dream on and let this fantasy play out a little longer. It is heartbreaking. It is beautiful. Julia Fischer and Martin Helmchen have recorded it in 2010.

Joy and sadness – so close together. Violent emotions and a tender sensuality – so close together. Another friend of Schubert characterized the tonality F minor as Schubert’s tonality for deep melancholy, longing for death and, desperate crying. The fantasy has all of this and so much more.

Caught between rage and tenderness

The first movement – seeing the beloved one from afar, longing to be close to her. Melancholy gives way to rage – the anger at the impossibility of that love, at the social conventions of the time, the passion that overwhelms Schubert. The first part of the second movement encapsulates all the sadness and desperation of this world, the second part allows for a glimmer of hope, hope for a moment of tenderness, or is it the memory of a past encounter, a discrete touch?

The third movement takes up this tentative optimistic outlook, a daydream of what could be if… What is remarkable here is that the Schubert was inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano sonatas and his compositional technique visible in Beethoven’s “Appassionata”. The last movement takes up the theme and contrasts of the first movement and elevates them to a higher degree through a brilliant fugue.

Happiness and where to look for it

“These lines should not tempt you to believe that I am not well or not in an optimistic mood”, Schubert writes in a letter to his brother Ferdinand in July 1824 while he stayed at Caroline Esterhazy’s place. “Much to the contrary. The happy times when everything seemed to be surrounded by a youthful glory are obviously gone, but I resign myself to the miserable reality that I try to embellish through my fantasy, thanks God. We believe that happiness is linked to the places where we once felt happy, happiness however can only be found inside ourselves.”

© Charles Thibo

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