Storming the Castle (Gently)

Some of us lean more naturally toward rebel than others. You don’t have to think too hard for a few of history’s greats to spring to mind, like Che Guevara, Mahatma Ghandi or Rosa Parks. Of course, artists and musicians seem to be predisposed to be hell raisers. Jim Morrison had his run-ins with the law, as did the great Willie Nelson.

Me, not so much. I do have one unpaid parking ticket from another (unnamed) city. It’s still sitting on my desk, unpaid more for reasons of forgetfulness than thumb-biting. As I hunker down and brace for the siege of middle-age, I have made my peace with the fact that I am not glamorously dangerous enough to be known to the local authorities, and I will quite likely never lead throngs of righteous followers in crusades for monumental societal upheaval.

But it goes without saying that not everything need be done on a gargantuan scale. If you consider yourself only a small-r rebel, someone who prefers to bend the rules rather than burn the rulebook, music history has some sterling role models for you.

The great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, who had once caused a full-blown riot with his outrageous Rite of Spring, got a stern talking to one night in 1944 from members of the Boston Police Department. At the evening’s performance, Stravinsky had altered the American national anthem sufficiently so as to contravene Massachusetts law. He withdrew it from future programs.

Then there was Franz Schubert, Vienna’s most important composer after Beethoven. Though hardly notorious for his rabble-rousing, Schubert and a small group of his friends were observed one evening by Austrian secret police “inveighing against officials with insulting and opprobrious language.” Note the severity of tone here: inveighing opprobriously. Makes you wonder what sort of inveighing might have been done had Twitter been around. For this insurgent act, Schubert narrowly avoided jail time.

Although Schubert may not make the list of history’s great insurrectionists, he does deserve a place among the most original musical minds. In his short life—he tragically only lived to the age of 31–Schubert left us several symphonies, operas, incidental music, much chamber music and astoundingly, over 600 songs.

Perhaps most recognizable is his 8th symphony, better known as the Unfinished Symphony. While most of the great symphonies contemporary to this time have four or even five distinct movements, the Unfinished Symphony only has two. No one knows why Schubert never got around to writing more. Some people theorize that illness was to blame; some people think that Schubert had painted himself into a musical corner and couldn’t figure out how to finish it; and some people think he probably just got busy with other things. Or maybe this was Schubert’s compositional equivalent to biting his thumb. What’s not in question is that the part Schubert did finish is unique, fresh and remarkable.

If any of you, faithful readers, interpret this humble article as encouragement to storm any castle walls, I wish you all the best. I may join you, but not until after I pay my parking ticket.