Franz Schubert

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Franz Peter Schubert
Franz Schubert.jpg
Franz Schubert
January 31, 1797
November 19, 1828

Franz Peter Schubert (January 31, 1797 – November 19, 1828) was an Austrian composer considered to be the last master of the Viennese Classical school and one of the earliest proponents of musical Romanticism. He was the only notable composer of the so-called Viennese School to have been born in Vienna: Ludwig van Beethoven came from Bonn, Joseph Haydn from Rohrau in Lower Austria and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from Salzburg.

Schubert left few letters or diaries that could have provided insights into the motivations and inspirations behind his work and creative process. In what few letters survive, Schubert expressed his belief that music had spiritual underpinnings and should embody divine attributes, or at least, assist in the process of invoking the presence of God.

Although he died at the young age of 31, he managed to write some six hundred songs (Lieder) in addition to nine symphonies, various sonatas, string quartets, and other works. With a genius for original melodic and harmonic writing, Schubert is counted among the greatest.

Yet, during his lifetime, public appreciation for his work was limited at best. His works were rarely performed, he enjoyed little patronage, and he relied on the support of friends and family. However, interest in Schubert's work increased dramatically following his death in 1828, at which time over 100 of his compositions were published posthumously.

Early life and education

Schubert was born in the Himmelpfortgrund, a small suburb of Vienna. His father Franz Theodor Florian, the son of a Moravian peasant, was a parish schoolmaster; his mother Elizabeth Vietz, was the daughter of a Silesian master locksmith and had also been a housemaid for a Viennese family prior to her marriage. Of the Schuberts' 15 children (one illegitimate child was born in 1789), ten died in infancy; the surviving children included four sons Ignaz (b. 1785), Ferdinand (b. 1794), Karl (b. 1796), Franz, and a daughter Theresia (b. 1801). Their father Franz Theodor had possessed some reputation as a teacher, and his school on the Himmelpfortgrund was well attended. As an amateur musician, he was able to pass on his own measure of musical skill to his sons.

At the age of five, Schubert began receiving regular instruction from his father and a year later was enrolled at the Himmelpfortgrund school where, as he later recalled, he spent some of the happiest years of his life. His formal musical education also began around the same time. His father continued to teach him the rudiments of the violin while his brother Ignaz studied those of the pianoforte. At seven, having exceeded the abilities of his music teachers, Schubert was placed under the instruction of Michael Holzer, the 'Kapellmeister' of the Lichtenthal Church. Holzer's lessons seem to have mainly consisted of conversations and expressions of admiration and the boy gained more from his acquaintance with a friendly joiner's apprentice who used to take him to a neighboring pianoforte warehouse where he was given the opportunity to practice on better instruments. The unsatisfactory nature of Schubert's early training was even more pronounced during his time given that composers could expect little chance of success unless they were also able to appeal to the public as a performer. To this end, Schubert's meagre musical education was never entirely sufficient.

In October 1808, he was received as a scholar at the Convict, which, under Antonio Salieri's direction, had become the most distinguished music school in Vienna, offering the special office of training the choristers for the Court Chapel. Schubert remained here until about the age of seventeen where he profited less from direct instruction than by the practices of the school orchestra and by association with congenial classmates, who helped his career early on by supplying the composer with the music-paper he could not afford, and offering him loyal support and encouragement. It was at the Convict, too, that Schubert was introduced to the overtures and symphonies of Mozart. His exposure to these pieces as well as various lighter compositions, combined with his occasional visits to the opera, greatly expanded his musical knowledge.

Meanwhile, his genius was already beginning to show itself in his compositions. A fantasia for piano duet (D.1, using the catalogue number by Otto Erich Deutsch), a total of thirty-two close-written pages, is dated April 8-May 1, 1810. It was then followed in 1811 by three long vocal pieces (D.5 - D.7) written upon a plan which Zumsteeg had popularized, together with a "quintet-overture" (D.8), a string quartet (D.2), a second pianoforte fantasia, and a number of other songs. Through these early works Salieri became aware of the talented young man and decided to train him in musical composition and music theory. Schubert's early essay in chamber music is noticeable, since we learn that at the time a regular quartet-party was established at his home "on Sundays and holidays," in which his two brothers played the violin, his father the cello and Franz himself the viola. It was the first germ of that amateur orchestra for which, in later years, many of his compositions were written. During the remainder of his stay at the Convict he wrote a good deal more chamber music, several songs, some miscellaneous pieces for the pianoforte and, among his more ambitious efforts, a Kyrie (D.31) and Salve Regina (D.27), an octet for wind instruments (D.72/72a)—said to commemorate the death of his mother, which took place in 1812—a cantata (D.110), words and music, for his father's name-day in 1813, and the closing work of his school-life, his first symphony (D.82).

Early compositions

At the end of 1813, he left the Convict and entered his father's school as teacher of the lowest class. His father had remarried in the meantime, to Anna Kleyenboeck, the daughter of a silk dealer from the suburb Gumpendorf. For over two years the young man endured the drudgery of the work, which evidently he performed with very indifferent success. There were, however, other interests to compensate. He received private lessons in composition from Salieri, who did more for Schubert’s training than any of his other teachers. As Salieri was one of the first composers to add the specific sonority of the Biedermeier period to Viennese church music, it is not surprising that Schubert's early sacred works are directly linked to his teacher's church music of these days. Also, Salieri's great number of songs in several languages echo in Schubert's early song output.

His first completed opera—Des Teufels Lustschloss (D.84)—and his first Mass—in F major (D.105)—were both written in 1814; and to the same year belong three string quartets, many smaller instrumental pieces, the first movement of the Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major (D.125) and seventeen songs, which include such masterpieces as Der Taucher (D.77/111) and Gretchen am Spinnrade (D.118, published as Op. 2). But even this industry was far outpaced by that of the year 1815. In this year, despite his schoolwork, his lessons with Salieri and the many distractions of Viennese life, he produced an amount of music the record of which is almost incredible. Schubert's second symphony in B-flat (D.125) was finished, and a third, in D major (D.200), added soon afterward. The composer also completed two Masses, in G (D.167) (the Mass in G, written within six days) and B-flat (D.324), a new Dona nobis pacem movement for the Mass in F, a Stabat Mater (D.175) and a Salve Regina (D.223).

Opera was represented by no less than five works, of which three were completed—Der vierjährige Posten (D.190), Fernando (D.220) and Claudine von Villabella (D.239)—and two, Adrast (D.137) and Die Freunde von Salamanka (D.326), apparently left unfinished. Besides these the list includes a string quartet in G minor, four sonatas and several smaller compositions for piano, and, by way of climax, 146 songs, some of which are of considerable length, and of which eight are dated October 15, and seven October 19.

In December 1814, Schubert made acquaintance with the poet Johann Mayrhofer: an acquaintance which, according to his usual habit, soon ripened into a warm and intimate friendship. They were singularly unlike in temperament: Schubert frank, open and sunny, with brief fits of depression, and sudden outbursts of boisterous high spirits; Mayrhofer grim and saturnine, a silent man who regarded life chiefly as a test of endurance.

Maturing composer and support by friends

As 1815 was the most-prolific period of Schubert's life, 1816 saw the first real change in his fortunes. Franz von Schober, a student of good family and some means who had heard some of Schubert's songs at a mutual friend's house, came to pay a visit to the composer and proposed to carry him off from school-life and give him freedom to compose in peace. The proposal was particularly opportune, for Schubert had just made an unsuccessful application for the post of Kapellmeister at Laibach (the German name for Ljubljana), and was feeling more acutely than ever the slavery of the classroom. His father's consent was readily given, and before the end of the spring he was installed as a guest in Schober's lodgings. For a time he attempted to increase the household resources by giving music lessons, but they were soon abandoned, and he devoted himself to composition. "I write all day," he said later to an inquiring visitor, "and when I have finished one piece I begin another."

The works of 1816 include three ceremonial cantatas, one written for Salieri's Jubilee on June 16 (D.407/441); the "Prometheus" cantata (D.451) eight days later, for students of professor Heinrich Joseph Watteroth who paid the composer an honorarium ("the first time," said the journal, "that I have composed for money"), and one, on a foolish philanthropic libretto, for Herr Joseph Spendou "Founder and Principal of the Schoolmasters' Widows' Fund" (D.472). Of more importance are two new symphonies, No. 4 in C minor (D.417), called the "Tragic symphony," with a striking andante, and No. 5 in B-flat (D.485), as bright and fresh as a symphony of Mozart. Schubert also composed some items of church music, fuller and more mature than any of their predecessors, and over a hundred songs, among which are some of his finest settings of Goethe and Schiller. There is also an opera, "Die Bürgschaft" (D.435), of interest as showing how continually his mind was turned towards the theatre.

All this time his circle of friends was steadily widening. Mayrhofer introduced him to Johann Michael Vogl, a famous baritone, who did him good service by performing his songs in the salons of Vienna; Anselm Hüttenbrenner and his brother Joseph ranged themselves among his most devoted admirers; Joseph von Gahy, an excellent pianist, played his sonatas and fantasias; the Sonnleithners, a burgher family whose eldest son had been at the Convict, gave him free access to their home, and organized in his honor musical parties which soon assumed the name of Schubertiaden. The material needs of life were supplied without much difficulty. No doubt Schubert was entirely penniless, for he had given up teaching, he could earn nothing by public performance, and, as yet, no publisher would take his music at a gift; but his friends came to his aid with true Bohemian generosity—one found him lodging, another found him appliances, they took their meals together and the man who had any money paid the score. Schubert was always the leader of the party, but more often than not, was penniless. Though he was known by half a dozen affectionate nicknames, the most characteristic was kann er 'was? ("Is he able?") or more colloquially, "Can he pay?" (for the food and drink), his usual question when a new acquaintance was introduced. Another nickname was "The Little Mushroom" as Schubert was only five feet, one and one-half inches tall, and tended to corpulence.

The years 1817-1818 were comparatively unfertile in composition, although the second public performance of a work of Schubert's (the first one had been the performance of the Mass in F-major in September 1814 in Lichtental)—an overture in the Italian style written as an avowed burlesque of Rossini—was performed at a Jail concert on March 1, 1818. The same year Schubert secured his only official appointment, the post of music-master to the family of Count Johann von Esterhazy|Eszterházy at Želiezovce, Slovakia, then in the Kingdom of Hungary, where he spent the summer amid pleasant and congenial surroundings. The compositions of the year include a symphony in C major (D.589), some four-hand pianoforte music for his pupils at Želiezovce (including the well known "Marche Militaire in D") and a few songs, among which are Einsamkeit (D.620), Marienbild (D.623) and the Litaney. On his return to Vienna in the autumn he found that von Schober had no room for him, and took up his residence with Mayrhofer. There, his life continued on its accustomed lines. Every morning he began composing as soon as he was out of bed, wrote till two o'clock, then dined and took a country walk, then returned to composition or, if the mood forsook him, to visits among his friends. He made his first public appearance as a song-writer on February 28, 1819, when the Schäfers Klagelied was sung by Jager at a Jail concert. In the summer of the same year he took a holiday and traveled with Vogl through Upper Austria. At Steyr, he wrote his brilliant Piano Quintet in A Major (The Trout) (D.667). In the autumn he sent three of his songs to Goethe, but, so far as we know, received little acknowledgment.

The compositions of 1820 show a marked advance in development and maturity of style. The unfinished oratorio "Lazarus" (D.689) was begun in February; later followed, amid a number of smaller works, the 23rd Psalm (D.706), the Gesang der Geister (D.705/714), the Quartettsatz (Schubert)|Quartettsatz in C minor (D.703) and the great "Wanderer Fantasy" for piano (D.760). But of almost more biographical interest is the fact that in this year two of Schubert's operas appeared at the Kärntnerthor theatre, Die Zwillingsbrüder (D.647) on June 14, and Die Zauberharfe (D.644) on August 19. Hitherto his larger compositions (apart from Masses) had been restricted to the amateur orchestra at the Gundelhof, a society which grew out of the quartet-parties at his home. Now he began to assume a more prominent position and address a wider public. Still, however, publishers held obstinately aloof, and it was not until his friend Vogl had sung Erlkönig at a concert (February 8, 1821) that Anton Diabelli hesitatingly agreed to print some of his works on commission. The first seven opus numbers (all songs) appeared on these terms; then the commission ceased, and he began to receive the meagre pittances which were all that the great publishing houses ever accorded to him. Much has been written about the neglect from which he suffered during his lifetime. It was not the fault of his friends, it was only indirectly the fault of the Viennese public; the persons most to blame were the cautious intermediaries who stinted and hindered him from publication.

The production of his two dramatic pieces turned Schubert's attention more firmly than ever in the direction of the stage; and towards the end of 1821 he set himself on a course which for nearly three years brought him continuous mortification and disappointment. "Alfonso und Estrella" was refused, and so was Fierabras (D.796); Die Verschworenen (D.787) was prohibited by the censor (apparently on the ground of its title); Rosamunde (D.797) was withdrawn after two nights, owing to the poor quality of its libretto. Of these works the two former are written on a scale which would make their performances exceedingly difficult (Fierabras, for instance, contains over 1,000 pages of manuscript score), but Die Verschworenen is a bright attractive comedy, and Rosamunde contains some of the most charming music that Schubert ever composed. In 1822, he made the acquaintance both of Weber and of Beethoven, but little came of it in either case, though Beethoven cordially acknowledged his genius, the quote attributed to Beethoven being: "Truly, the spark of Divine genius resides in this Schubert!" Schober was away from Vienna; new friends appeared of a less desirable character; on the whole these were the darkest years of his life.

In 1997, musicologist Rita Steblin discovered Schubert's marriage petition in the archives of the Lichtental church. The petition (proposed bride: Therese Grob) was refused on the grounds of the applicant's impecuniosity (poverty).

Last years and masterworks

Schubert's first song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795, after poems by Wilhelm Müller, appeared in 1823. This work, together with the later cycle "Winterreise" D. 911, (also written to texts of Müller) is widely considered one of the pinnacles of Schubert's work and of the German Lied in general.

In the spring of 1824, he wrote the magnificent Octet in F (D.803), "A Sketch for a Grand Symphony"; and in the summer went back to Želiezovce, when he became attracted by the Hungary|Hungarian idiom and wrote the Divertissement a l'Hongroise (D.818) and the String Quartet in A minor (D.804). He held a hopeless passion for his pupil Countess Karoline Eszterházy, although its details are not presently known.

Despite his preoccupation with the stage and later with his official duties he found time during these years for a good deal of miscellaneous composition. The Mass in A flat (D.678) was completed and the exquisite "Unfinished Symphony" (Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D.759) begun in 1822. The question of why the symphony was "unfinished" has been debated endlessly and is still unresolved. To 1824, beside the works mentioned above, belong the variations for flute and piano on Trockne Blumen, from the cycle Die schöne Müllerin. There is also a sonata for piano and "Arpeggione" (D.821), an interesting attempt to encourage a cumbersome and now obsolete instrument. This wonderful music is nowadays usually played by cello and piano, although a number of other arrangements have been made.

The mishaps of the recent years were compensated by the prosperity and happiness of 1825. Publication had been moving more rapidly; the stress of poverty was for a time lightened; in the summer there was a pleasant holiday in Upper Austria, where Schubert was welcomed with enthusiasm. It was during this tour that he produced his "Songs from Sir Walter Scott." This cycle contains his famous and beloved Ellens dritter Gesang, D.839, today more popularly though mistakenly referred to as "Schubert's Ave Maria," for while he had set it to Adam Storck's German translation of Scott's hymn from The Lady of the Lake that happens to open with the greeting Ave Maria and also has it for its refrain, subsequently the entire Scott/Storck text in Schubert's song came to be substituted with the complete Latin text of the traditional Ave Maria prayer; and it is in this adaptation that this song of Schubert's is commonly sung today. During this time he also wrote the Piano Sonata in A minor (D.845, op. 42) and the Symphony No. 9 (D.944), which is believed to have been completed the following year, in 1826.

From 1826 to 1828, Schubert resided continuously in Vienna, except for a brief visit to Graz in 1827. The history of his life during these three years is little more than a record of his compositions. The only events worth notice are that in 1826 he dedicated a symphony to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and received an honorarium in return. In the spring of 1828 he gave, for the first and only time in his career, a public concert of his own works which was very well received. But the compositions themselves are a sufficient biography. The string quartet in D minor (D.810), with the variations on Death and the Maiden, was written during the winter of 1825-1826, and first played on January 25, 1826. Later in the year came the string quartet in G major, the "Rondeau brilliant" for piano and violin (D.895, Op.70), and the Piano Sonata in G (D.894, Op.78) (first published under the title, Fantasia in G). To these should be added the three Shakespearian songs, of which "Hark! Hark! the Lark" (D.889) and "Who is Sylvia?" (D.891) were allegedly written on the same day, the former at a tavern where he broke his afternoon's walk, the latter on his return to his lodging in the evening.

In 1827, Schubert wrote the song cycle Winterreise (D.911), a colossal peak of the art-song (despite the mawkishness of its texts, and its bleak, unremitting pessimism), the Fantasia for piano and violin in C (D.934), and the two piano trios (B flat, D.898; and E flat, D.929): in 1828 the Song of Miriam, the Mass in E-flat (D.950), the exceedingly beautiful Tantum Ergo (D.962) in the same key, the String Quintet in C (D.956), the second Benedictus to the Mass in C, the last three piano sonatas, and the collection of songs published posthumously under the fanciful name of Schwanengesang ("Swan-song," D.957), which while no true song cycle, retains a unity of style among the individual songs, touching unwonted depths of tragedy and the morbidly supernatural. Six of these are to words by Heinrich Heine, whose Buch der Lieder appeared in the autumn. The Symphony No. 9 (D.944) is dated 1828, and many modern Schubert scholars (including Brian Newbould) believe that this symphony, written in 1825-1826, was revised for performance in 1828 (a fairly unusual practice for Schubert, for whom publication let alone performance, was rarely contemplated for many of his larger-scale works during his lifetime). In the last weeks of his life he began to sketch three movements for a new Symphony in D (D.936A)

The works of his last two years reveal a composer increasingly meditating on the darker side of the human psyche and human relationships, and with a deeper sense of spiritual awareness and conception of the 'beyond', reaching extraordinary depths in several chillingly dark songs of this period, especially in the larger cycles, (the song Der Doppelgaenger reaching an extraordinary climax conveying madness at the realization of rejection and imminent death) and yet able to touch repose and communion with the infinite in the almost timeless ebb and flow of the String Quintet. Tragic as Schubert's early death was, (and Schubert expressed the wish, were he to survive his final illness, to further and develop his knowledge of harmony and counterpoint), Schubert still left a vast corpus of truly wonderful music. : Grillparzer wrote this inscription on Schubert's tomb:"The art of music here entombed a rich possession but far fairer hopes."

Death and posthumous history

Schubert's grave in the Zentralfriedhof, Vienna.

In the midst of this creative activity, his health deteriorated. He had battled syphilis since 1822. The final illness may have been typhoid fever, though other causes have been proposed; some of his final symptoms match those of mercury poisoning (mercury was a common treatment for syphilis in the early nineteenth century); at any rate, insufficient evidence remains to make a definitive diagnosis. His solace in his final illness was reading, and he had become a passionate fan of the writings of James Fenimore Cooper. He died at the age of 31 on November 19, 1828 at the apartment of his brother Ferdinand in Vienna. By his own request, he was buried next to Beethoven, whom he had revered all his life, in the village cemetery of Währing. In 1888, both Schubert's and Beethoven's graves were moved to the Zentralfriedhof, where they can now be found next to those of Johann Strauss Senior and Johannes Brahms. In 1872, a memorial to Franz Schubert was erected in Vienna's Stadtpark.

Shortly after his death, some of his smaller pieces were printed, but the more valuable seem to have been overlooked by the publishers. In 1838, Robert Schumann, on a visit to Vienna, found the dusty manuscript of the Symphony No. 9 (Schubert)|C major symphony (the "Great," D.944) and took it back to Leipzig, where it was performed by Felix Mendelssohn and celebrated in the 'Neue Zeitschrift für Musik|Neue Zeitschrift'. There continues to be some controversy over the numbering of this symphony, with German-speaking scholars numbering it as symphony No. 7, the revised Deutsch catalogue (the standard catalogue of Schubert's works, compiled by Otto Erich Deutsch) listing it as No. 8, and English-speaking scholars listing it as No. 9.

Schubert composed symphonies, chamber music, works for solo piano and opera, but it was in the collections of his songs and Masses that perhaps his creative genius is most evident. Fifty of his songs were transcribed for piano and then popularized by Franz Liszt.

The most important step towards the recovery of the neglected works was during a trip to Vienna by Sir George Grove (author of "Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians") and Arthur Sullivan|Sir Arthur Sullivan in the autumn of 1867. Grove and Sullivan found seven symphonies, the Rosamunde incidental music, Masses and operas, chamber works, and a vast quantity of miscellaneous pieces and songs. The publication of this music led to more widespread public interest in Schubert's work.

Immediately before Schubert's death, his friend Eduard von Bauernfeld recorded the existence of an additional symphony, dated 1828 (although this does not necessarily indicate the year of composition) named the "Letzte" or "Last" symphony. It has been more or less accepted by musicologists that the "Last" symphony refers to a sketch in D major (D.936A), discovered by Ernst Hilmar in the 1970s and eventually completed by Brian Newbould as the Symphony No. 10 (Schubert)|Tenth Symphony.


Schubert is considered to be the first genuinely “Romantic” composer. As pianist/author Charles Rosen observes, Schubert songs set forth concepts with regard to style and the marriage of text and music that were unprecedented.“After the first few tentative experiments, the principles on which most of his songs are written are almost entirely new," Rosen opines; "they are related to 'Lieder' of the past only be negation; they annihilate all that precedes.”

The facility and range of expression that he demonstrates in fusing music and text is perhaps his most significant contribution to music. Upon hearing the Mass in E-flat, one observer wrote, “It is the song of Christ’s incarnation. It’s as if the entire choir bears the crucifixion.”

Schubert's compositional style progressed rapidly throughout his short life, and he left many stunning masterpieces despite his early death. Chief characteristics of Schubert's music include a kind of spent resignation, ineffably deep sadness, self-consciously determined agitation, heartache (from striking key modulations and groundbreaking voicings), and a diluted intensity that, while lengthy and exhausting, is very moving both during its procedures and at the end. Franz Liszt declared Schubert to be "the most poetic musician who has ever lived."

Unlike Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert left very little documentation of the more personal aspects of his life, although there are several references to religious faith in what few letters survive. In one such letter Schubert expresses disdain for music that “engenders in people not love, but madness, which rouses them to scornful laughter instead of lifting their thoughts to God.” In another he alludes to the afterlife, “The world resembles a stage on which every man playing his part. Approval or blame will follow in the world to come.” His settings of the Catholic Mass reveal, according musicologist, Carl A. Abram, a ” heartfelt piety and God-fearing humility” that “is undeniably an expression of strong religious conviction.”

Always nearly destitute, he earned little from his compositions in his lifetime. Still, he continued to write prolifically and with great fervor, often completing scores in short time periods of creative passion. For Schubert, composing was decidedly more important than the financial benefits that it might generate. This unfettered, selfless motivation toward his art reveals a purity of spirit and motivation that shines though his most inspired works. It is a sincere expression of an artist who achieves a higher selfhood through his creative endeavors.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Newbould, Brian. Schubert: The Music and the Man. University of California Press, 1999. ISBN 0520219570.
  • Gibbs, Christopher H. (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Schubert. Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 0521482291
  • Gibbs, Christopher H. The Life Of Schubert. Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0521595126
  • Brown, Maurice J. E., The New Grove Schubert. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc., 1984. ISBN 0393300870

External links

All links retrieved April 11, 2024.


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