Schubert, Franz Peter (1797–1828)

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert playing the piano during an evening at Joseph von Spauns

Franz Schubert playing the piano during an evening at Joseph von Spauns.

A 'Schubertiad' (Schubert evening) in a Viennese salon. Schubert is at the piano is accompanying the singer Johann Michael Vogl.

A "Schubertiad" (Schubert evening) in a Viennese salon. Schubert is at the piano is accompanying the singer Johann Michael Vogl.

Franz Schubert, the son of a Viennese schoolteacher, was a prolific composer during his brief life, writing nine symphonies, much chamber music and piano music, and an incomparable number of more than 600 songs. He gained little public recognition during his lifetime – his C Major Symphony was not performed until ten years after his death – and his last years were spent in Vienna, often in real poverty.


On 29 March 1827, Beethoven was buried in the village cemetery of Wahring, just outside Vienna. Among the torch-bearers in the funeral procession was a dark-haired, bespectacled young man of 30. Schubert was paying homage to the member of his own profession he most revered. Less than two years later, Schubert's own body would be interred in the same cemetery, close to Beethoven's grave.


Unlike Beethoven, whose fame during his lifetime had spread all over Europe, Schubert's reputation was largely local. His composing career was short – a mere 15 years – and although he worked in the same genres as his three great predecessors, it was not his operas, or even his symphonies, but his more intimate works, particularly the songs and chamber music, which posthumously ensured his unique place in musical history.


By the time war in Europe ended with the Congress of Vienna (1815), European society had changed dramatically. A new generation of middle-class, independently minded citizens had sprung up, but conservative politicians, such as Prince Metternich in Vienna, attempted to maintain the status quo of the ruling classes and banish "subversive and revolutionary tendencies" by keeping the populace firmly under control through censorship and political repression. People sought relief through social activity. Balls and parties became fashionable for the rich, while the less well-off built up a network of like-minded friends, meeting in private homes or at the local coffee houses. This was Schubert's social milieu.



Vienna was the center of Schubert's universe. He was born on 31 January 1797 to a suburban schoolmaster, who taught all his children to play musical instruments. Franz learned the viola, and together with his father and brothers made up a string quartet. In 1808 he won a scholarship to the imperial seminary, where he had daily music lessons and played in the school orchestra. He also made several formative friendships, one with Joseph von Spann, an ex-pupil and law student. By the time Schubert left school at the age of 16, he had already written a substantial quantity of music.


Schubert and Goethe

After his mother's death and his father's remarriage, Schubert spent some time as a teacher at his father's school. He also fell in love with a young singer named Therese Grob, who performed in his F major Mass in the autumn of 1814. Perhaps as a result of unrequited love, he began composing songs. His first efforts marked the beginning of a lifelong involvement with the poetry of Europe's most celebrated writer and the "father" of Romanticism, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). Among these early songs was "Gretchen am Spinnrade" ("Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel"), from Goethe's Faust, a masterly characterization of the abandoned Margaret's distress.


The next year produced a huge crop of some 150 songs, many of them settings of Goethe's texts, such as the delicate ballad "Heidenröslein" ("Briar-rose"), and the stormy "Erlkönig" ("The Elf-king"), depicting a father's wild ride through the night to save his sick child from the grasp of Death. In spring 1816 Schubert's friend Spaun sent 28 Goethe settings to the poet, asking permission to dedicate them to him. Goethe, who loathed musical settings of his work, returned the volume without comment. Fortunately undeterred, Schubert went on to add another 100 songs – including the immortal settings of Goethe's "Nur werdie Sehnsucht kennt" ("Only he who knows yearning") and "Kennst du das Land" ("Do you know the country where lemon trees blossom?) – to his canon before the end of the year. In his 20th year he completed his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, both very much in the Classical mold, for private performance by amateur orchestras.



Schubert finally left the family home in December 1816, at the prompting of another close friend, Franz von Schober. A wealthy law student, Schober persuaded Schubert to abandon the drudgery of teaching and concentrate on composition (the song "An die Musik" – "To Music" – is a setting of a Schober poem). He also introduced Schubert to the singer Johann Michael Vogl, who became the leading interpreter of his songs. These continued to pour out throughout 1817, together with seven piano sonatas, heavily influenced by Beethoven.


In 1818 Schubert's Sixth Symphony – a substantial work which shows Beethoven's influence – was performed (again by an amateur orchestra), and he spent five happy months on a Hungarian aristocratic estate as music teacher to the daughters of Count Esterházy of Galan, concentrating on piano music for his young pupils. "I live and compose like a god", he told a friend.


Life in Vienna

The change of scene encouraged Schubert to broaden his horizons, and the next summer he and Vogl took a holiday in Steyr, where Schubert completed another piano sonata and the Trout Quintet, based on his own song "Die Forelle". From then onwards, Schubert's life took a regular shape. In Vienna, he was the focus of a close-knit group of talented young people – writers, poets, and students – who enjoyed a happy and carefree existence, meeting at caf├ęs, at parties in each other's homes or, in the summer, at a country estate owned by Schober's uncle. These informal gatherings, with games of charades, poetry readings, and performances of Schubert's music, became known as "Schubertiaden". In the summers, Schubert and Vogl went on long walking tours of Upper Austria, where Schubert drew inspiration from the dramatic landscape.


The early 1820s brought mixed fortune. Vogl's performance of "Der Erlkonig" at a concert in the Burgtheater in 1821 brought public recognition for the as yet unpublished composer, but he had no experience of business matters, and when demand for his work rose, he rashly sold the copyrights of ten volumes of songs to the publishers – Diabelli. And by 1823 it was dear that Schubert's operatic ambitions would never he realized. Of his 17 stage works, none achieved success, and only the charming and popular incidental music to Rosamunde has survived.



The same year – 1823 – brought disaster. Schubert's hedonistic existence had left him suffering from syphilis, then a potentially fatal disease. At the height of his illness, he composed the two-movement Unfinished Symphony, restless and tragic in mood, as well as the great Wanderer Fantasy and the A minor Sonata, both for piano.He also composed his first song-cycle, a new genre consisting of a set of thematically linked songs based on a sequence of poems, telling a story. Die schöne Miillerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill) is a quintessentially Romantic tale of rejected love and death by drowning.


The last four years of Schubert's life were a constant struggle against depression and illness, interspersed with frantic creative activity. As well as the Ninth Symphony (a work of Beethovenian proportions and unstoppable rhythmic impulse, which a Viennese orchestra declared "unplayable"), the works of these years included a great deal of chamber music: the Octet for wind and strings, string quartets in A minor and D minor (Death and the Maiden), two massive piano trios, and the three last piano sonatas (which Schumann memorably described as "purely and simply thunderstorms breaking forth with Romantic rainbows over slumbering worlds").


Last months

Schubert continued to compose songs until the end of his life. Some, such as the radiant "Ständchen" ("Serenade"), express a passionate delight in life; others – such as the bleak song-cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), based on poems by Wilhelm Muller – plumb the depths of despair. Among the last was "Der Doppelgänger" – a terrifying setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine in which a young man sees his "double", foretelling his own death. It was a prophetic vision.


By September 1828, Schubert's health had worsened, and he moved in with his brother. That month he completed the sublime String Quintet in C major, followed in October by his last major work, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock), for soprano and piano with clarinet obbligato. He died of typhus on 19 November, aged 31, leaving only an unsurpassed musical legacy. His tombstone in the Währing cemetery carries the telling epitaph by Grillparzer: "The art of music has buried here a rich possession, but still fairer hopes".


Major works

Symphonies No. 8 (Unfinished, 1822) and No. 9 (The Great, 1828); String Quintet in C (1828); Piano Quintet in A (The Trout, 1819); Octet in F (1824); String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden, 1824); Fantasy in C major for piano (The Wanderer, 1822); Fantasy in F minor for piano duet (1828); over 600 songs; song-cycles Die Schöne Mullerin (1823) and Winterreise (1827).