Rita Katherine Steblin
Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Rita Katherine Steblin, 1951-2019
Rita Katherine Steblin, born April 22, 1951, Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, passed away on September 3, 2019 in Vienna, Austria after a brief and sudden illness. She studied in Vancouver, Toronto, and at the University of Performing Arts, Vienna and received her PhD in musicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (her dissertation was later published by UMI and University of Rochester Press as A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries). In 1991, acting on an offer to pursue her work on Franz Schubert, she came to Vienna, the city that would become her adopted home.
Despite having to subsist on meager financial support, it was here, in the countless libraries, collections, and estates that Dr. Steblin’s instincts for archival research blossomed. Her tireless pursuit of the minutiae surrounding Schubert and Beethoven and, more particularly, their often unknown friends and associates, helped historians gain a deeper sense of the biographical details and social context of the early nineteenth century in Vienna. Some of this work – on Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved and a supposed early portrait of Schubert – is notable, if still debatable; other discoveries, most prominently the “Unsinnsgesellschaft” (1998), have made an undeniable contribution to the scholarship of the time. Schubert’s membership in this clandestine club, the works and lives of his talented co-conspirators, their activities, even their humor, provide a fascinating glimpse of an entirely unknown facet of the great composer and his world.
It was also this composer and his gathering of friends that loomed so large in the biggest controversy of Dr. Steblin’s career: the debate that followed the publication of Maynard Solomon’s seminal article “Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini” (1989). Steblin’s round rejection of speculation regarding Schubert’s possible homosexuality in numerous articles unleashed controversy at a time when LGBTQ topics had emerged in the public conscience and queer musicology was about to establish its rightful place in the literature. What made Steblin’s skepticism of Solomon’s thesis most nettlesome was not simply her lack of agreement but her insistence on historically documented argumentation.
On a personal level, Rita could, by turns, be a good friend and a formidable adversary. To those who came to Vienna seeking to unlock the secrets of the archives she was generous with her time and expertise, prompting them to acquire the considerable skills required in mastering languages, deciphering handwriting, and simply knowing where to look. It was this approach she missed in our discipline and why she challenged us with what she found. To the end she lived for her work, work that she was confident would stand the test of time.
Steblin at the grave of Franz Schubert in Währing, Vienna, June 2012