Roland Barthes describes a photograph as being composed of two things. The first layer is the studium, the cultural lens from which we perceive a photograph. The other is the punctum which breaks through the studium. It is a wound, an “accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)”. With the punctum, a photograph becomes more than an object of interest. Such a photograph stirs something in us; pierces our entire being.
It is then that Barthes observes how such a photo is analogous to music: “…in general the photographs I like were constructed in the manner of a classical sonata”. Barthes’ observation elicits inquiry beyond analogy. How can musical form be both studium and punctum? How can musical form both draw on expectations and shatter them with an evocation that surprises us?
A piece that has wounded me as Barthes describes is Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major. It is a kaleidoscope of being, a Janus of violence and serenity. Even these two faces are loaded with supplementary emotion: delight, resentment, courage, longing, protest. To further articulate the piece’s punctum would disservice it.
What interests me is how its studium, in this case the piece’s formal structure, creates a target for the punctum to hit. One layer of form in particular informs this relationship: Schubert’s life. Therein the Quintet should receive another portion of studium beyond structural analysis: a life of the artist at a work’s conception.
Late style involves an intense amount of personal drama. There is urgency because of death’s beckoning. It is a swan song. Schubert’s String Quintet fits snug in late style, perhaps as late as one can get. He wrote the piece within the last three months of his life, slowly wasting away from syphilis. What is extraordinary about these last months of Schubert’s is the volume of work he put out. He published an Eb Piano Trio, twenty art songs, and both parts to his song cycle Winterreisse. This also does not take into account the works that he wrote during this period that were published posthumously: his last three piano sonatas and the Schwanengesang song cycle. Another piece which falls under this category? The String Quintet in C Major .
A question to ask is whether Schubert knew he was on the brink of death while writing the String Quintet. Was his condition in those passing months known to be terminal? Musicologist Robert Winter ponders over the fruit wrought in these last days, bringing such a proposition into play: “the sheer quantity and quality of productivity in Schubert’s last months point to a man who has by sheer force of will resolved not to acknowledge his failing body. But it could just as easily describe a man who knows that his time is almost up – or a man who, in his creative prime and, having survived worse bouts of illness, had no expectation of dying”.
Could Schubert have thought he had longer? The String Quintet could have been written more like a comma than a period. And yet part of the punctum of this piece for me is an acknowledgement of mortality. In describing a photo of a man in his cell, waiting to be hanged, Barthes mentions that the “…the photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die…I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake”.
Schubert is going to die. Is this what the music reveals to me? A presence of anguish and acceptance that comes from the acknowledgment of fate? Yet is that not what all music reveals in its very act? Through making themselves known in the performance of a piece, the composer and performer are (perhaps) aware that they are putting their mortality on display.
And what of the listener? In engaging in the temporal art of music, are we not acknowledging our own fate?
Roland Barthes made such an observation with photography. If one replaces “each photograph” for “music”, the impact is just the same.
“It is because each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death that each one, however attached it seems to be to the excited world of the living, challenges each of us, one by one, outside of any generality”.