Schubert: The most poetic musician who ever lived?
It’s hard to disagree with Liszt’s appraisal of Schubert, who, in his short life, used his astonishing gift for melodic and harmonic invention to create many enduring masterpieces.
He composed more than 600 songs – taking the art of writing German Lieder to a new plane – as well as seven completed symphonies, chamber music and piano sonatas. Yet there’s a sense that Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was still just beginning to exploit his immense gifts and to develop further the musical language he had inherited from Beethoven, which he combined with an astonishing gift for melodic and harmonic invention.
Schubert was never a great performer, and he was always a freelance composer, relying on what he could earn from commissions and fees. Only a fraction of his music was published in his lifetime, and it was only after his death that the greatness of his achievement was recognised internationally.
Anyone who first encountered classical music through Disney’s imperishable Fantasia, will have heard a rather glutinous arrangement of Schubert’s Ave Maria, which ends the film; it’s also quoted in Beyoncé’s song, Ave Maria. You can hear the slow movement of his piano sonata in A in Tori Amos’s Star Whisperer, or the theme from the second movement of his piano trio in E flat threaded throughout Busta Flex’s Hip Hop Forever.
His huge output is regularly raided for movie scores – one of the most recent was Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019), which features a number of his pieces. On television, his music has been heard in series from Sherlock Holmes to Foyle’s War, and in both Inspector Morse (the C major String Quintet) and its prequel Endeavour, while the 90s comedy series Waiting for God used the finale of the Trout Quintet as its theme music.
Few composers led such uneventful lives as Schubert apparently did. He rarely travelled far outside the city of Vienna, where he was born the 12th child of a schoolmaster in the Lichtental district. He began learning the violin aged eight, played the viola in his family’s string quartet, and began composing pieces for the group; at the age of 11 he won a choral scholarship to the Imperial College. Among his teachers there was Antonio Salieri, the éminence grise of Viennese music at the beginning of the 19th century who gave the boy private composition lessons. As well as composing string quartets, his first piano pieces and songs, Schubert also wrote for the college orchestra. His First Symphony was completed in 1813.
At the end of 1813, he returned to his family home – his mother had died the previous year – to begin work at his father’s school as well as giving private lessons, while still studying with Salieri. He met a young singer, Therese Grob, for whom he composed a number of works, but he was prevented from marrying her by a law that required prospective husbands to prove they had the financial means to support a wife. He found the drudgery of teaching hard, yet he was composing at an incredible rate. Before he was 20 he had written five symphonies, four masses, six operas (mostly unfinished), three string quartets, three piano sonatas and about 300 songs.
One of the triggers to Schubert’s explosion of songwriting had been his discovery of Goethe in 1814: his setting of Gretchen am Spinnrade, from Faust, was perhaps his first great song. It was quickly followed by others to Goethe texts, such as Erlkönig and Heidenröslein. At that time the writer was the standard bearer for German romanticism, and Schubert, like Beethoven before him, would play a major part in the musical transition between the classical era and romanticism.
He was making friends in Viennese literary and musical circles, and in 1816 he left his family home to share lodgings with a poet friend, Franz von Schober, in the centre of the city. His reputation was beginning to grow, and he continued to compose feverishly – orchestral and choral works, as well as more songs, including some of his most famous, such as An die Musik and Die Forelle (The Trout), which both date from 1817. In the Trout Quintet, written two years later, the song became the theme of a set of variations, and in 1824 Schubert would use another song of 1817, Das Tod und die Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), in the best known of his string quartets, in D minor.
That period also saw the beginning of the Schubertiades, informal evenings in private houses, sponsored by wealthy patrons, in which Schubert and his friends met to read poetry and to hear performances of his music. The composer, who – barely 5ft tall – was nicknamed Schwammerl (“Little Mushroom”), was the pianist. These gatherings also attracted the attention of the Viennese police, on the lookout for revolutionary activity in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, and Schubert and four of his friends were arrested. He was reprimanded and released.
Though the two composers would not meet until 1822, Beethoven’s influence is clear in the piano sonatas of that period and especially in the Sixth Symphony, which replaces the lightness and Mozartian grace of the earlier symphonies with much more dramatic intent.
The single-movement Quartettsatz, all that Schubert completed in 1820 of a planned string quartet in C minor, promised to take his instrumental music to a totally different level, but Schubert still craved wider recognition and devoted much of his energies in the early 1820s to writing operas. Two of them, Die Zwillingsbrüder and Die Zauberharfe, were performed in 1820 without much success, while the more ambitious Alfonso und Estrella and Fierrabras were rejected – Rossini’s operas were all the rage in Vienna, and German opera was distinctly unfashionable. In 1823, Schubert was asked to write the incidental music for the “grand romantic drama” Rosamunde. The play itself quickly vanished, but his score remains one of his most popular concert works.
The Unfinished Symphony, the two completed movements of his eighth symphony, was also written that year, shortly before the Wanderer Fantasy, his most virtuosic piano work. Like the Quartettsatz, the symphony seems to open up new musical worlds that – at that time – Schubert was unable (or unwilling) to explore further.
It was probably around 1823 that Schubert contracted syphilis, though whether that was the cause of his death five years later is unclear, just as his sexuality remains a subject of fierce debate. He suffered from depression through most of his life, and he was certainly very ill that year, at a time when his reputation was growing and some of his songs had finally been published. But his income, from commissions and some teaching, remained meagre.
Schubert’s last major orchestral work, and his last grand “public” statement as a composer, was the “Great” C major Symphony, unperformed in his lifetime. The two song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Miller-Maid), and Winterreise (Winter Journey), both to poems by Wilhelm Müller, belong to this period, too, and took to new expressive heights a form that Beethoven had invented less than a decade earlier.
But perhaps the essence of Schubert is contained in the intensely personal instrumental music from the final years of his life, music that stands comparison with the late works of Beethoven (at whose funeral Schubert was a pallbearer in 1827, just 20 months before his own death). Those final masterpieces include the two piano trios, the G major String Quartet, the C major Fantasy for violin and piano, F minor Fantasy for piano duet and C major String Quintet, piano pieces (the two sets of Impromptus) and the series of expansive piano sonatas that culminates in the great trilogy of the C minor, A major and B flat works.
Appreciation of Schubert grew steadily through the 19th century, as his music was increasingly published and performed. In 1838, Robert Schumann was shown the score of the Ninth Symphony in Vienna and took a copy back to Leipzig, where Mendelssohn conducted the first public performance. Liszt described Schubert as “the most poetic musician who ever lived”, while Berlioz, Dvořák and Bruckner were among those influenced by his orchestral writing. And the Lieder writing tradition, which Schubert did more than anyone to establish, was a persistent thread through German music into the 20th century.
Schubert’s symphonies have been part of the repertoire of almost every great conductor of the 20th century, from Furtwängler to Abbado, just as his string quartets have been played by all the leading groups, from the Busch Quartet, through the Quartetto Italiano to the Takács, while among the many outstanding performances of the String Quintet on disc the most famous features Isaac Stern, Paul Tortelier and Pablo Casals. Great Schubert pianists include Artur Schnabel, Rudiolf Serkin, Alfred Brendel, Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida and András Schiff, who has also performed the sonatas on a piano of Schubert’s time.
Male interpreters of the songs and song cycles are led by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Fritz Wunderlich with Matthias Goerne, Christian Gerhaher, Ian Bostridge and Christoph Prégardien following their example. The song cycles are not a strictly male preserve; Brigitte Fassbaender made a superb recording of Winterreise. Another great mezzo, Christa Ludwig, made treasurable recital discs of many of the songs, as have sopranos such as Elly Ameling and Barbara Bonney. And anyone wanting to work their way through all of the songs need look no further than Hyperion’s monumental complete edition.
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