1797 — 1828
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Franz Schubert was one of the foremost Viennese composers who made a remarkable contribution to piano repertoire, orchestral music, chamber music and most notably, the German lied. He wrote no less than 1,500 works in his short career. His influence on future generations was immense, especially the fact that he raised the lied genre from marginal to highly important.
Schubert was the son of a school headmaster who possessed enough violin-playing skills to give his musically talented son some basic training. From the age of eight, alongside violin lessons with his father, he studied counterpoint with Michael Holzer, who reported that ‘whenever I wished to impart something new to him, he always knew it already’. After showing great promise and completing an impressive audition,Antonio Salieri appointed him as a choirboy in the Hofkapelle, which included free tuition, accommodation and the best possible education for a non-aristocratic boy. Here, in the school orchestra in which he played violin, he encountered the orchestral music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. As well as his growing fascination with the style of these composers, and the poetry of Goethe and Schiller, Schubert was also encouraged by his teacher Salieri to explore the depths of Italian opera for inspiration in composing. Very little about Schubert’s early life as a composer is known, but it seems his earliest known compositions date from his 13th year.
In October 1813, at the age of 16, he completed his First Symphony in D and a year later, his Mass in F. These early works are full of the language that Mozart and Haydn before him had composed in, along with some flavours of Bach and evenRossini but at this stage of his youth, his music was barely distinguishable from other lesser-known Viennese composers from the turn of the century.
In the autumn of 1814, Schubert began a burst of creativity that lasted for 15 months. He composed over 150 songs that year, an average of at least one song every three days. Schubert had a close friendship with the poet Mayrhofer and two of Schubert’s operas and 47 of his songs are based on Mayrhofer’s lyric poems. He paid tribute to numerous other writers, focusing intensely on one poet at a time, for example 15 of his songs from 1814 are dedicated to Friedrich von Matthisson and he was focused on Goethe towards the end of the following year. One remarkable song from this time was theErlkönig, inspired by the Goethe tale of a father and son trying to escape the figure of death in which he vividly captures the frantic terror in a large ballad structure, tied together with urgent virtuosic triplet rhythms, ending in a poignant recitative.
The rate at which Schubert composed was unique in the entire history of Western music. His productivity has not been matched by any other composer with regard to the speed at which he had the ability to compose: on average 65 bars of new music per day, which is all the more surprising, considering he was a full-time schoolteacher and was taking two composition lessons per week with Salieri, attending operas and socialising with his friends.
By mid-1818, Schubert’s reputation had travelled and he was asked by Count Johann Karl Esterházy of Galánta to tutor his daughters, which also led to him providing musical entertainment for the family and their guests. Soon after, during a trip to Upper Austria, he composed his famousTrout Quintet, commissioned by an amateur cellist, Sylvester Paumgartner, who asked for the unusual instrumentation of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass, as well as requesting that he use the popular song by Schubert,Die Forell, as a basis for the theme-and-variations fourth movement.
From 1819 onwards, Schubert composed in a markedly more mature style. He wrote his Mass in A-flat major in 1822 which showed his maturing personal vision. Next came hisUnfinished Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759. It is still a mystery why he left this work unfinished.
His structurally complex and varied song cycle about a love-sick wanderer ‘ Winterreise’ (D911), along with his ‘Die Schone Mullerin’, is considered to be from the high point of his Lieder writing.
Although Schubert’s principal instrument was the violin, he is famed for his lieder and additionally, the piano was also at the centre of his creative life. He composed many sonatas as well as over 400 waltzes,ländlers and other dances for piano. His sixMoments musicaux, composed between 1823 and 1828 use familiar forms such as the minuet and trio forms, the most popular being no. 3 in F minor, which was originally published as ‘Air russe’.
Schubert also excelled in the string quartet genre. The Schubert family had a family quartet and he was able to experience first-hand the experiments with his composition. In 1824 he wrote the Sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano, at a time when there was a considerable amount of interest in that instrument which has since become obsolete.
Schubert was unique in his ability to fuse poetry and music in ways that now seem inevitable but at the time were ground-breaking. He raised the lied genre from something marginal to a highly important genre, containing multiple layers of meaning and introspection. The extensive catalogue of lieder by the likes of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Mahler would be unfathomable if it were not for Schubert’s influence. Likewise in piano music, the use of single-movement genres such asMoments musicaux, also left a lasting impact on classical music. Additionally, Schubert’s symphonic writing, particularly his ‘Great’ C major Symphony, had a profound influence onBrahms and Mahler.
Schubert died tragically young, at the age of 31, allegedly from complications arising from syphilis, although his biographers have never been able to confirm this fact. On his gravestone lies the following: ‘The art of music has entombed here a rich treasure but even fairer hopes’.