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Franz Schubert

For the crater on the moon, see Schubert (crater)

Franz Peter Schubert (January 31, 1797November 19, 1828), was an Austrian composer. He wrote some six hundred romantic songs as well as many symphonies, sonatas, some operas and many other works. Public appreciation of his work during his lifetime for a long time was thought to be limited, but when he died at the age of 31 over 100 of his compositions had already appeared in print. He was never able to secure adequate permanent employment and for most of his life was supported by friends or employed by his father. Today, with his imaginative, lyrical and melodical style, he is counted among the most gifted composers of the 19th century.


Early life and education

Schubert was born in the Himmelpfortgrund, a small suburb of Vienna. His father, Franz, son of a Moravian peasant, was a parish schoolmaster; his mother, Elizabeth Vietz, had before her marriage been a cook in a Viennese family. Of their fifteen children (one illegitimate child was already born in 1783) ten died in infancy; the others were Ignaz (b. 1785), Ferdinand (b. 1794), Karl (b. 1796), Franz, and a daughter Theresia (b. 1801). The father, a man of worth and integrity, possessed some reputation as a teacher, and his school, on the Himmelpfortgrund, was well attended. He was also a fair amateur musician, and transmitted his own measure of skill to his two elder sons, Ignaz and Ferdinand.

At the age of five Schubert began to receive regular instruction from his father. At six he entered the Himmelpfortgrund school where he spent some of the happiest years of his life. His musical education began about the same time. His father taught him the rudiments of the violin, his brother Ignaz the rudiments of the pianoforte. At seven, having outstripped these simple teachers, he was placed under the charge of Michael Holzer, the Kapellmeister of the Lichtenthal Church. Holzer's lessons seem to have consisted mainly in expressions of admiration, and the boy gained more from a friendly joiner's apprentice, who used to take him to a neighboring pianoforte warehouse and give him the opportunity of practicing on a better instrument than the poor home could afford. The unsatisfactory character of his early training was the more serious as, at that time, a composer had little chance of success unless he could appeal to the public as a performer, and for this the meager education was never sufficient.

In October 1808 he was received as a scholar at the Convict, which, under Antonio Salieri's direction, had become the chief music school of Vienna, and which had the special office of training the choristers for the Court Chapel. Here he remained until nearly seventeen, profiting little by the direct instruction but much by the practices of the school orchestra and by association with congenial comrades. Many of the most devoted friends of his life were among his schoolfellows: Spaun and Stadler and Holzapfel, and a score of others who helped him out of their slender pocket-money, bought him music-paper which he could not buy for himself, and gave him loyal support and encouragement. It was at the Convict, too, that he first made acquaintance with the overtures and symphonies of Mozart and between them and lighter pieces, and occasional visits to the opera, he began to lay for himself some foundation of musical knowledge.

Meanwhile his genius was already showing itself in composition. A fantasia for piano duet (D.1, using the catalog numbers by Otto Erich Deutsch), thirty-two close-written pages, is dated April 8-May 1, 1810: then followed, in 1811, 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 songs. Through these early works Salieri got 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).

Teacher at his father's school

At the end of 1813 he left the Convict, and, to avoid military service, 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, we are told, he performed with very indifferent success. There were, however, other interests to compensate. He got 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 does not wonder that Schubert´s early sacred works are directly linked to his teacher´s church music of these days. Also, Salieri´s great amount 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 activity 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 afterwards. The composer also completed two Masses, in G (D.167) and B-flat (D.324), the former written within six days, a new Dona Nobis for the Mass in F, a Stabat Mater 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 Oct. 15, and seven Oct. 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. The friendship, as will be seen later, was of service to Schubert in more than one way.

Supported by friends

As 1815 was the most-prolific period of Schubert's life, so 1816 saw the first real change in his fortunes. Somewhere about the turn of the year Spaun surprised him in the composition of Erlkönig (D.328, published as Op.1) -- Goethe's poem propped among a heap of exercise books, and the boy at white-heat of inspiration "hurling" the notes on the music-paper. A few weeks later Franz von Schober, a student of good family and some means, who had heard some of Schubert's songs at Spaun's house, came to pay a visit to the composer and proposed to carry him off from school-life and give him freedom to practice his art in peace. The proposal was particularly opportune, for Schubert had just made an unsuccessful application for the post of Kapellmeister at Laibach (now 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, No. 5 in B-flat (D.485), as bright and fresh as a symphony of Mozart: some numbers of church music, fuller and more mature than any of their predecessors, and over a hundred songs, among which are comprised some of his finest settings of Goethe and Schiller. There is also an opera, "Die Bürgschaft" (D.435), spoiled by an illiterate libretto, but 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, and was known by half a dozen affectionate nicknames, of which the most characteristic is kann er 'was? ("Is he able?"), his usual question when a new acquaintance was proposed.

1818, though, like its predecessor, comparatively unfertile in composition, was in two respects a memorable year. It saw 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, and played in all seriousness at a Jail concert on March 1. It also saw the beginning of his only official appointment, the post of music-master to the family of Count Johann von Esterhazy at Zelesz , where he spent the summer amid pleasant and congenial surroundings. The compositions of the year include a symphony in C major (D.589), a certain amount of four-hand pianoforte music for his pupils at Zelesz 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 travelled with Vogl through Upper Austria. At Steyr he wrote his brilliant Piano Quintet in A (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 are remarkable, and 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 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 Kärthnerthor 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 in the Kärnthnerthor (Feb. 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 badness 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 1000 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. Schober was away from Vienna; new friends appeared of a less desirable character; on the whole these were the darkest years of his life.

Last years and masterworks

In 1823 appeared Schubert's first song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795, after poems by Wilhelm Müller. This work, together with the later cycle "Winterreise" D. 911, 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 Zelesz, when he became attracted by 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 Caroline Esterhazy; but whatever may be said about this romance, 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. To 1824, beside the works mentioned above, belong the variations for flute and piano on Trockne Blumen, the climactic song of "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 popularily known as his "Ave Maria", which was originally set to Adam Storck's German translation of Scott's original poem, not to the Latin text of the Ave Maria prayer that is commonly sung today. During this time he also wrote the Piano Sonata in A minor (D.845, op. 42).

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 a 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, with the variations on Death and the Maiden (D.810), was written during the winter of 1825-1826, and first played on Jan. 25. Later in the year came the string quartet in G major, the "Rondeau brilliant" for piano and violin (D.895, Op.70), and the fine Piano Sonata in G (D.894, Op.78) which, because of some pedantry of the publisher's, was originally printed without Schubert's title 'Fantasia' (although more recent editions have restored the title, at least as a subtitle). 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), 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 C major symphony (D.944), the Mass in E-flat (D.950), and 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). Six of these are to words by Heinrich Heine, whose Buch der Lieder appeared in the autumn. He also wrote Der Doppelganger in 1828, which focuses on the words from one of Heine's poems, namely "Der Doppelganger".


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 19th century); at any rate, insufficient evidence remains to make a definitive diagnosis. He died aged 31 on November 19, 1828 at the apartment of his brother Ferdinand in Vienna. By his own request, he was buried next to Ludwig van Beethoven, whom he had adored all his life, on the Währinger cemetery. In 1888, both Schubert and Beethoven's graves were moved to the Zentralfriedhof where they can now be found next to those of Johann Strauss I and Johannes Brahms.

In 1872, a memorial to Franz Schubert was erected in Vienna's Stadtpark.

Posthumous history of Schubert's music

Some of his smaller pieces were printed shortly after his death, but the more valuable seem to have been regarded by the publishers as waste paper. In 1838 Robert Schumann, on a visit to Vienna, found the dusty manuscript of the 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. 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 catalog (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.

50 of his songs were transcribed for piano and then popularised by Franz Liszt.

The most important step towards the recovery of the neglected works was the journey to Vienna which Sir George Grove (of "Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians" fame) and Sir Arthur Sullivan made in the autumn of 1867. The travellers rescued from oblivion seven symphonies, the Rosamunde music, some of the Masses and operas, some of the chamber works, and a vast quantity of miscellaneous pieces and songs. This led to more widespread public interest in Schubert's work.

Another controversy, which originated with Grove and Sullivan and continued for many years, surrounded the "lost" symphony. 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 (D936A), discovered by Ernst Hilmar in the 1970s and eventually realised by Brian Newbould as the Tenth Symphony .

Schubert is best summed up in the well-known phrase of Franz Liszt, that he was "the most poetic musician ever". In clarity of style, many judge that he is inferior to Mozart, in power of musical construction inferior to Beethoven, but in poetic impulse and suggestion he is unsurpassed. He wrote always at headlong speed, he seldom blotted a line, and the greater part of his work bears, in consequence, the essential mark of improvisation: it is fresh, vivid, spontaneous, impatient of restraint, full of rich color and of warm imaginative feeling. He was the greatest songwriter who ever lived, and almost everything in his hand turned to song. In his Masses, for instance, he seems to chafe at the contrapuntal numbers and pours out his whole soul on those which he found suitable for lyrical treatment. In his symphonies the lyric and elegiac passages are usually the best, and the most beautiful of them all is, throughout its two movements, lyric in character. The standpoint from which to judge him is that of a pianist who ranged over the whole field of musical composition and everywhere carried with him the artistic form which he loved best.


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Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:30:31
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