Schubert Soothes Savages, Becalms Beasts and Subdues Students (Throwing Food) – the Evidence is Here

As another in an occasional series that just relates pieces of music that had a great effect on me  I offer Schubert’s Impromptu Op 90 No4. I was a student at Oxford when I first heard this. It was at a formal college Christmas dinner of the Middle Common Room (the graduate students). It may surprise some people to learn that these were often quite rowdy affairs. Even though we were in the college dining hall (this was St Edmund Hall) and wearing black tie and tux, drink flowed freely (the drinking age in England is 18) and by then end food was being thrown across the hall. So if you have a picture of the typical Oxford University student as one who is highly sophisticated and cultured, think again. Instead, try to think of the BBC production of Jeeves and Wooster with Hugh Laurie playing Bertie Wooster, and a scene at the Drones Club. Usually, totally incidental to the conversation going on the front and centre, we see grown men, tux wearing toffs, throwing bread rolls being thrown left and right. This was the norm at college dinners that I went to, especially Christmas dinners. Despite all efforts of the dean to discipline students or to appeal to us to grow up it happened each year. In the end they gave up trying to stop us and made special wooden covers to go over all the portraits of past principles and notable Old Aularians. Into this atmosphere, once the dinner was over, the graduate students had decided to put on some musical entertainment (this was very unusual and, I thought when I heard the announcement, highly pretentious). First up was a lady singing a Victorian drawing room song (something like Come Into the Garden Maude). I couldn’t believe that anyone would think that this was worthy entertainment and spent most of the time with my head buried in the crook of my arm stifling childish giggles. Then it was announced that a pianist would play a piece by Schubert.  I rolled my eyes to the ceiling again and prepared to launch some soft fruit. This however stopped me in my tracks and just as was to happen with Palestrina and Mozart’s Laudate Dominum years later I felt goosepumps on the back of my neck and just wanted to the performance to go on and on. I was embarrassed by my reaction and tried to hide my face – I didn’t want people to know I was enjoying it. Afterwards the whole mood of the dinner changed and the audience became far more peaceful I noticed. It seems I wasn’t the only one affected. Afterwards I began to investigate classical music starting with Schubert and then moving into Beethoven. The pattern of these beautiful pieces is the same as before. Their beauty draws me in and leaves me wanting more, something beyond it. Initially it means trying to chase the experience by finding more pieces of music but in time (several years later)  I realised that this was beginning to stimulate a search for absolute Beauty that will only be satiated by God.

This is a truly beautiful rendition of Schubert there is no denying it and I would love to hear him play it in person.

It should be said also, that Mr Zimerman, while being able to play the piano with sublime beauty, also has a serious case of classical music face pulling. For your entertainment here is Rowan Atkinson satirising…

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at

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