Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828), an early romantic Austrian composer, is best known for his lieder, German art songs for voice and piano.
The lieder of Franz Schubert assumed great importance during the 19th century as a result of several concomitant cultural and sociological developments in Germany, which included the new profusion of lyric poetry, particularly in the works of Goethe, and the evolution of the piano into a highly complex mechanism. As a composer, Schubert possessed an astonishing lyric gift and at times turned out several songs in a day.
In musical history Schubert stands with others at the beginning of the romantic movement, anticipating the subjective approach to composition of later composers but lacking Beethoven's forcefulness and inventive treatment of instrumental music. Despite his more conservative tendencies, however, Schubert's contributions include the introduction of cyclical form in his Wanderer Fantasy for piano, the use of long-line melodies—instead of motto-type themes—in his piano sonatas and chamber music, and the increased emphasis on the role of the piano accompaniments in his lieder. Many of his large-scale instrumental pieces were unknown until after the middle of the 19th century. (The Unfinished Symphony, for example, did not receive its first public performance until 1865, 43 years after it was written!) Furthermore, unlike many of the other romantic composers, such as Carl Maria von Weber, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner, Schubert did not engage in a literary career; nor was he a conductor or virtuoso performer. Consequently he did not achieve considerable public recognition during his lifetime.
Childhood and Training
Schubert was born in Vienna on Jan. 31, 1797, the fourth son of Franz Theodor Schubert, a schoolmaster, and Elizabeth Vietz, in domestic service in Vienna. Franz received instruction in the violin from his father, his older brother Ignaz, and Michael Holzer, the organist at the Liechtenthal parish church. In 1808, through a competitive examination, Franz was accepted into the choir of the Imperial Court Chapel as well as the Stadtkonvikt (Royal Seminary), where he received a fine education and his talents were encouraged by the principal. A 20-year-old law student, Joseph Spaun, who founded an orchestra among these students, formed a lifelong friendship with Schubert.
In 1814 the genius of Schubert was first manifest in Gretchen am Spinnrade, inspired by his reading of Goethe's Faust. His first Mass, which included solos for a young woman friend, Therese Grob, and his first symphony appeared about this time and showed the influence of Franz Joseph Haydn. Schubert modeled his earliest songs, particularly the ballads, for example, Hage's Klage (1811), after those by Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg. Besides Gretchen, Schubert wrote five other Goethe songs that year. Before he died, he had set approximately 57 poems by the poet, at times exceeding in his music the high attainment of Goethe in the poetry.
Early Period, 1814-1820
By the end of 1814 Schubert was an assistant in his father's school and had begun to make the acquaintance of numerous poets, lawyers, singers, and actors, who soon would be the principal performers of his works at private concerts in their homes or in those of their more affluent friends. Spaun, now a student at the University of Vienna, introduced Schubert to his colleagues at the school, Johann Mayrhofer and Franz von Schober, the latter a dilettante in law, acting, writing, and publishing, who in turn introduced Schubert to the renowned singer Michael Vogl.
In 1816 Spaun sent a volume of Schubert's songs to Goethe for his consideration. All the songs were to texts by Goethe, and some, Gretchen, Wandrers Nachtlied, Heidenröslein, and Erlkönig, are among Schubert's most celebrated songs. Eventually Goethe returned the album, but he was unimpressed. Other 18th-century lyric poets whose works Schubert set include J. G. von Herder, the collector and translator of folk songs, and F. G. Klopstock. Friedrich von Schiller's poems account for 31 settings. None can compare, however, with the remarkable Goethe lieder. Even the uninitiated must respond to the excitement of the Erlkönig, where by means of changing accompaniment figures, sharp dissonance, and effective modulations Schubert differentiates the four characters of the ballad—narrator, father, son, and Erlking—and creates one of the masterpieces of romantic music.
The significance of Schubert's lieder tends to eclipse his equally fine choral writing in his six Masses. Unfortunately we cannot say the same of his approximately 11 completed works for the stage. Schubert's lyrical gift did not extend to large-scale dramatic works; his talents showed themselves most effectively in the more precise miniatures.
While still a schoolmaster, Schubert composed Symphonies No. 2 through No. 5, the outer two works being in the key of B-flat, a tonality he seems to have favored. At this time he also wrote many of the delightful dances, waltzes, and Ländler for which he was known during his lifetime. By 1817 Schubert was installed in the home of his friend Schober, where the presence of an excellent instrument may have inspired him to write several piano sonatas. In his father's house there had been no piano. Examination of the sonatas will prove Schubert to have been rather daring in his juxtaposition of keys, particularly in development sections.
In addition to instrumental compositions of 1817, lieder still flowed from Schubert's pen (50 that year). Among the best are Schiller's Gruppe aus dem Tartarus; the delightful Die Forelle, which later provided the theme for the variation movement of the so-called Trout Quintet; An die Musik, Schubert's hymn to music which was inspired by Schober's poem; and Der Tod und das Mädchen to words by the minor poet Claudius. This last song appears again as the theme of the variations in the second movement of the String Quartet Death and the Maiden. In July 1817 Schubert was appointed to the ménage of Count Esterhazy, who, with his wife and children, spent winters in an estate slightly north of Schönbrunn and summers at Zseliz in Hungary. There Schubert composed many of his four-hand works.
Middle Period, 1820-1825
Between 1820 and 1823 Schubert achieved his musical maturity. Two of his operettas and several of his songs were performed in public; amateurs and professional quartets sang his part-songs for male voices; and some of his works began to be published. Private concerts at the Sonnleithners and other middle-class residences soon brought Schubert a degree of renown.
In September 1821 Schubert and Schober left Vienna for the country with the intention of writing Alfonso und Estrella, his only grand opera. Shortly after his return to the city, he met Edward Bauernfeld, who introduced him to Shakespeare's works. In the fall of 1822, having completed his Mass in A-flat, Schubert began work on the Symphony in B Minor, which became known as the Unfinished. Three movements were sketched; two were completed. The reasons for the work being left incomplete are open to conjecture.
Schubert's health deteriorated, and in May he spent time in the Vienna General Hospital. Soon afterward, while working on the third act of another opera, Fierabras, he began his remarkable song cycle Die schöne Müller into the poetry of Wilhelm Müller. Rosamunde, a play for which Schubert had written incidental music—only the overture and ballet music are heard today—failed in 1823 and brought to a close his extended efforts to achieve a successful opera.
Schubert now turned to chamber music. At the Sonnleithners he had met Ferdinand Bogner, a flutist, and Count Troyer, a clarinetist. The latter commissioned Schubert's Octet for woodwinds and strings, which in style and number of movements closely resembles Beethoven's Septet, Opus 20. The A Minor and D Minor (Death and the Maiden) Quartets stem from 1824, the G Major from 1826. In 1825 Schubert moved again, this time next door to the artist Moritz Schwind. There, with Bauernfeld and Spaun, they formed the mainstay of the Schubertiads, evenings at which Vogl and others sang Schubert's songs. Schwind's illustrations of these evening musicales are among the best contemporary descriptions left to us.
Final Years, 1826-1828
In 1826 and 1827, despite a recurrence of his illness, Schubert wrote four masterpieces, each of which has remained a staple in the repertory: the String Quartet in G, the Piano Sonata in G, the Piano Trio in B-flat (all 1826), and the second Piano Trio in E-flat (1827). In his final years his style changed considerably. On March 26, 1827, Beethoven died, and Schubert, who, with the Hüttenbrenners, had supposedly visited the dying man on March 18, was one of the torchbearers at the funeral. Toward the end of that year Schubert completed his two series of piano pieces that he himself entitled Impromptus, thus enabling us to disregard Robert Schumann's suggestion that D. 935 (Opus 142) was conceived as a sonata.
In 1828, the last year of his life, Schubert composed several first-rate works: the magnificent F-Minor Fantasy for piano duet dedicated to Esterhazy, the C-Major Symphony, the E-flat Mass, and nine songs to Ludwig Rellstab's poems, which Schubert may have intended as a cycle. Seven of these songs, six Heinrich Heine songs, and one setting of a poem by J. G. Seidl appeared as Schwanengesang (Swan-song), a title given them by the publisher. On March 26, 1828, Schubert participated in the only full-scale public concert devoted solely to his own works.
On November 11, suffering from nausea and headache, he took to his bed in the house of his brother Ferdinand. Five days later the doctors diagnosed typhoid fever. One of the two doctors was a specialist in venereal disease; thus the suspicion that Schubert had syphilis is well founded. He was correcting the proofs of the second set of his song cycle Die Winterreise when he became delirious and died 2 days later on Nov. 19, 1828. Schubert's meager estate and all his manuscripts were left by default to his brother Ferdinand, who, fortunately for posterity, worked ceaselessly to enlist the aid of publishers, editors, and conductors in having them published.
In 1830 a subscription fund helped to raise money for a memorial stone over Schubert's grave. The dramatist Franz Grillparzer wrote this much-criticized epitaph: "The Art of Music here entombed a rich possession but even far fairer hopes." Schubert's closest friends were unaware of his achievement. A wealth of scholarly material has been devoted to the composer in recent years. Nobody, however, has done as much to correct the record as the great scholar O. E. Deutsch, whose initial is now inextricably linked to each Schubert work in his catalog.
Further Reading on Franz Peter Schubert
On Schubert's life, the two works edited by Otto E. Deutsch are definitive, The Schubert Reader: A Life of Franz Schubert in Letters and Documents (trans. 1947), with commentary designed to bring the documents into sharper focus, and Schubert: Memoirs by His Friends (1958). Two books by Maurice J. E. Brown, Essays on Schubert (1954) and Schubert: A Critical Biography (1958), are reliable. Marcel Brion, Daily Life in the Vienna of Mozart and Schubert (trans. 1962), describes the milieu in which Schubert lived and worked.
Alfred E. Einstein, Schubert: A Musical Portrait (1951), and Gerald Abraham, ed., The Music of Schubert (1947), offer valuable insights into the man and his music. Martin Chusid, ed., Schubert's Unfinished Symphony (1968), a critical edition of the score, treats a particular piece to a stylistic analysis, offering a historical essay, analytical notes, and a section on contemporary views and comments. Richard Capell, Schubert's Songs (2d ed. rev. 1957), is worth consulting. Ernest Porter, Schubert's Song Technique (1960), is easy to read. Particularly important is Otto E. Deutsch, Schubert Thematic Catalogue (1950), a list of all the works in chronological order.