Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

“Schubertiana” is only one of Tranströmer’s many poems that, either directly or indirectly, refer to music and reveal his intense interest in music. Although Tranströmer is a psychologist by profession, he is also an accomplished pianist, and Schubert is one of his favorite composers. His other poems dealing with musical themes include “C Major,” “Allegro,” “Nocturne,” “Slow Music,” “Brief Pause in the Organ Recital,” and “Carillon.” The purpose of “Schubertiana” is not to imitate music or to attempt to re-create a musical experience in words, as many other poets have done; rather, Tranströmer explores the role of Schubert’s music, particularly in human existence, but at the same time explores the role of music more generally.

Tranströmer argues that music is not merely an embellishment or adornment of life. Schubert’s music is, on the contrary, something that lies at the foundation of human existence. It has to do with the ground of all being and the way in which human beings extend their understanding beyond empirical experience toward this ground that ultimately must remain unknown. It has often been pointed out that Tranströmer maintains a remarkable openness to the unknown. He does not allow his mind to be enclosed by systems, ideologies, or dogma. In the last lines of his poem “Vermeer,” for example, a prayer is addressed to cosmic emptiness, but the response that is whispered is “I am not empty, I am open.”

“Schubertiana” juxtaposes Schubert’s music to a sampling of the most extreme aspects of modern life, and, in so doing, the true nature of the music reveals itself. Schubert’s music in its own mysterious way is more real than the physical and social reality of New York City, the hard realities of life in that city notwithstanding; it is more marvelous and awe-inspiring than the complexities of the human brain or than the swallows’ ability to return home. This music, though, is more than heightened reality or the object of marvel and wonder: It is revelatory. It breaks down the boundary of time, allowing the arresting insight that plants are rational beings, that they have thoughts, and minds, and thus, is infused throughout the natural universe. Schubert’s music, moreover, is such that it more fully deserves human trust than do any of the institutions or conventions of modern life. The music, though, makes ethical demands. In order for any individual to experience these remarkable qualities, music requires absolute personal integrity; it cannot tolerate duplicity or dissemblance. When its demands are met, however, Schubert’s music partakes of the fundamental essence of human existence to the extent that it can accompany the individual from the depths of existence upward toward destiny.

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