Franz Schubert

Died 1828, aged 31.

See, abased in dust and mire,
Scorched by agonizing fire,
I in torture go my way,
Nearing doom’s destructive day.

Take my life, my flesh my blood,
Plunge it all in Lethe’s flood,
To a purer, stronger state
Deign me, Great One, to translate.

Schubert wrote these words in May 1823, just a few months after the onset of an illness that would eventually kill him. Like Keats, whose work he almost certainly didn’t know, Schubert had a clear sense that his life would be short, and that he’d have to work at a sustained fever pitch to put on paper the vast wealth of ideas contained in his genius. It’s hard to give a satisfactory definition of “genius.” But I think we can recognize artistic genius, which almost without exception expresses itself in youth. Not necessarily in childhood or adolescence, but for sure, in the first flowerings of maturity, when the boy becomes a man. With the greatest of geniuses there follows an extended period of prodigious activity at the highest level, which seldom sustains its fire throughout a long life. Some, like Schubert, are taken at the height of their youthful genius, in the midst of frenetic activity, and their early death always begs the question, “What might have been?”
    We may well have a genius or two in the modern world, but we’ve no one that comes close to Franz Schubert. Perhaps in our current state of civilization, with all its trivial distractions, we can’t generate such single-minded energy. To get a glimmer of the Olympian genius that fired the soul of Schubert, it’s worth making a comparison with a modern artist whose prodigious talent we can grasp. Take, for example, a singer-songwriter such as Sting. Here we have a superbly gifted artist, now in his early 50’s, who, over the past quarter century has created an outstanding body of work, including several songs that are true masterpieces, both at the level of popular music and of fine art. At one level, he’s written Every Breath You Take, worthy of comparison with Schubert’s best “popular” songs, such as Die Forelle. At a more sophisticated level, he’s written Fragile, a song so bittersweet in its emotional power, it would merit inclusion in Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise.  But imagine that Sting had written all his songs by the time he was 31. Imagine also that he’d written another 500! Imagine on top of this he’d written 9 symphonies, 22 works for string quartet, 36 works for solo piano, 45 sacred works, 18 works for the stage, and over 200 other miscellaneous instrumental and vocal works. All by the age of 31! Yes, we can recognize such genius, but I’m not sure we have the vocabulary to comprehend it.

    The matter of genius aside, there’s one very practical reason why someone like Sting cannot possibly produce at the level of Schubert. In addition to writing a respectable catalogue of songs, Sting has been even busier performing them to a worldwide audience, or devoting as much energy to the weighty business matters that have come from the handsome fortune he’s generated through his art. Schubert’s art generated no fortune, largely because he was far too busy thinking about the next song, string quartet, or piano sonata to concern himself with the business of selling and promoting the piece he’d just written. He was no self-promoter, and, unlike little Wolfgang Mozart, he had no tireless publicity manager within his own family who could launch him into the celebrity arena. What little commercial success Schubert did achieve was due almost entirely to his own efforts, which at times were naïve, crudely managed, and sometimes far too ambitious given the popular tastes of his day.
And yet he did consciously choose music as the avenue in which he hoped to earn his daily bread; a brave decision which he made at the age of 16 when he was a student at Vienna’s prestigious Stadtkonvict school. One of his teachers there was the successful Italian-born composer Antonio Salieri, whom the modern world knows largely thanks to Peter Schaffer’s Tony-winning play Amadeus and the Oscar-winning movie that followed it. Significantly, Schubert also judged his teacher as a very mediocre composer. On resigning his scholarship at the Stastkonvict, Schubert had to subsidize his Muse by working as an assistant teacher at his father’s small but successful grammar school. But gradually, he did establish a solid reputation, and, once in a while, he made a tidy pile of florins, either from the publication of his songs, or, more rarely, from one of his more commercially viable instrumental works. Ironically, in the last year of his short life, he made good money, thanks largely to a sold-out concert devoted entirely to his music. He felt flush enough to say to some friends, “I have stacks of money!” with which confident flourish he declined their offer to buy his ticket for the Vienna show by the Italian virtuoso celebrity Nicolo Paganini. When Schubert had money, he would buy the tickets!
But for most of his fifteen-year career as a professional composer, Schubert lived a hand-to-mouth existence, dependent frequently on the kindness of his friends, who let him doss rent-free for months at a time, and with barely enough cash in his pocket to support his healthy demand for cheap Hungarian red wine. Schubert’s ongoing problems with money and in particular his inability to offer any long term prospect of financial success as a composer presented one of the two stark reasons why he never married. At seventeen, he fell passionately in love with a fifteen-year-old lass called Therese Grob, whom he wished, with all his heart, to marry. But, fond as they were of young Franz, Therese’s parents put the kibosh on his meager suit and married her off five years later to a more prosperous suitor. It’s possible, by the way, that even if Herr und Frau Grob had been sympathetic to the course of true love, the Austrian state bureaucracy might have intervened with its own kibosh. At this period, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was run with a fist of iron by its first minister, Prince Clemens Metternich. Amongst the many austere regulations the Iron Prince introduced were a series of marriage laws that made it extremely difficult for a man to marry without first showing he had the financial wherewithal to support a household. Not such a bad law when you think about it! The other reason why Schubert never married was the reason that led eventually to his death.
Though Schubert’s premonition of an early death certainly added to the intensity of his creativity, his unparalleled gift for staggering productivity had shown itself in his late teens. Musicologists refer to an annus mirabilis in Schubert’s life, the year 1815, when he was 18. His now well documented output for this year included, one and a half symphonies, a string quartet, nine works for solo piano, nine orchestrated sacred works, 140 regular songs plus another two dozen for multiple voices, and four Singspiele, a uniquely German form of light opera, such as Mozart had perfected in his Seraglio. All this in his spare time away from teaching squirrelly fourth graders at his father’s school!  Actually, Schubert probably composed a good deal of this music while he was teaching those squirrelly students. Like Mozart, Schubert possessed a remarkable ability to compose quite lengthy pieces of music in his head and then, from memory, commit them to paper at a later time.
    Most of the music composed in this ‘miraculous year’ is remarkable largely for being produced at such break-neck speed by such a young man. It’s all very accomplished, but not the stuff of immortality, with the exception, that is, of some of the songs. It was in this year that Schubert announced himself as the man who would become the supreme master of German Lieder. Indeed, he was introducing himself as the greatest songwriter of all time. German Lieder already existed. Two of his models in this art of setting poetry to voice and piano accompaniment were Reichardt and Zelter, who might as well be Rosencrantz and Guildernstern for all the lasting impact they’ve made on western civilization. But in the German-speaking world at the turn of the 19th century these two gentlemen were highly regarded. Their admirers included Goethe, whose poetry was much favored by composers of Lieder. Goethe was especially fond of Zelter’s settings of his work. In 1815, when the sixty-six year old titan was brooding on his youthful Werther, young Franz Schubert attempted a handful of Goethe settings and, with teenage zest, sent copies of his songs for the approval of the old master. The old master, however, was not as enthusiastic as young Franz might have wished, but for a very specific reason that highlights Schubert’s incipient genius. Goethe liked Zelter’s songs because the music did not get in the way of the poetry. Goethe remained the star act. But with this young upstart from Vienna something very different was happening. The poetry was being used as a vehicle for the music and vice versa. Moreover, the human voice and the piano were being given equal value, the piano often doing the job of interpreting the poetry, as Schubert does quite exquisitely, for example, in a Goethe song from this year called, appropriately, The Singer. It tells the tale of a wandering minstrel summoned to sing before the king and his court. Goethe’s poem cites the minstrel’s song, but Schubert gives these words to the pianist. Song suddenly becomes sonata, and it’s no accident that the greatest songwriter of all time emerged also as one of the greatest composers for solo piano.
It was a source of frustration for Schubert that he couldn’t get as much respect for his instrumental music as he achieved for many of his songs. Even his large body of literary and artistic friends, those with whom he established the celebrated “Shubertiad” musical evenings, even they focused their affections on his songs. This was partly because the element of known and revered poetry by Goethe and Schiller gave them something immediately accessible, and partly because some of the lesser poets whom Schubert graced with his music were members of that intimate circle of friends. Sadly, Schubert’s reputation as primarily a songwriter persisted until well into the 20th century. Today, at last, we’ve come to recognize that his output also includes two of the greatest symphonies in that genre, one of the greatest chamber works, his String Quintet, and, dating from the last few months of his life, three piano sonatas that in the hands of the virtuoso soloists of recent generations – the likes of Richter, Argerich, Pollini, and Lupu - are now included in the greatest treasures of the piano canon. Ironically, Schubert himself was no virtuoso pianist; he is, perhaps, the only great composer of piano music who was not also a star performer. What is even more remarkable is that he never owned his own piano. A top-flight piano has always been an expensive commodity, and Schubert never had sufficient ready cash to buy one. Nor, for that matter, did he ever have a home of his own in which to put one, living, as he did, a gypsy-like existence. So the vast majority of his compositions were written without the valuable assistance of a piano. Once in a while, he was able to use a friend’s piano, and there’s a touching story about his arrangement in this matter with his artist friend, Wilhelm Rieder. Given free rein, Schubert would have been at the well-apportioned Rieder house day and night, pounding the ivories. But the Rieders had their own domestic affairs. So Schubert was told to look for the curtains at a certain window. If they were drawn back, Schubert was welcome to come up and pound away. If they were drawn to…the forlorn composer would shamble back down the Hauptstrasse to his own temporary lodgings.
It is true, however, that Schubert’s mastery of the medium of song came very early, at a time when he was still experimenting, and at times fumbling, with the other more purely musical forms. But it was always his desire to attain the multi-musical mastery of his two great Austrian predecessors, Mozart and Haydn, and of his great living contemporary, the German firebrand from the north, Ludwig van Beethoven. And so it was, at the age of 26, aware of Beethoven’s overwhelming presence in his midst and aware that he might not outlive the man who was twenty-seven years his senior, that he invoked the “Great One” to take what remained of his life and to translate it into the purer, stronger state of music.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact that Beethoven had on the music of his time, or on the 200 years that have since elapsed. With the dramatic opening of his 3rd symphony, the “Eroica,” western civilization took one of its great strides forward. Schubert at that time was a small boy and his appreciation of Beethoven came only with maturity. As a teenage composer, still under the influence of “Maestro” Salieri and the Classical Italian style, he was even a little disparaging of the great man. In a diary entry from June, 1816, he even criticizes Beethoven for a “current eccentricity in music, which is due almost wholly to one of our greatest German artists; that eccentricity which joins and confuses the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, and heroism with howlings…” But that was the young Schubert. The mature Schubert would emulate that eccentricity and produce instrumental music that was every bit as heroic and as tragi-comic as Beethoven’s. And what must not be overlooked is the fact that when Beethoven himself was 31, he had not yet written the “Eroica” symphony, nor any of the towering masterpieces that followed. Had he died at this age, he’d be remembered as the promising composer of the “Moonlight” Sonata. He would not be in the same league as Schubert!
In his own youthful symphonies, Schubert was manifestly loyal to the Austrian tradition of Mozart and Haydn, especially that of Mozart, who remained the most constant musical love of his life. In that same diary of 1816 where he criticized Beethoven, he pours forth his love of Mozart, “O Mozart, immortal Mozart, how many, oh how endlessly many such comforting perceptions of a brighter and better life hast thou brought to our souls!” The sentiment was echoed by John Keats, who expressed his own love of “divine Mozart” three months later. Schubert’s teenage symphonies are rarely performed, with the exception of the cheerful 5th symphony, which is a clear homage to Mozart, and which could even be mistaken for a later Mozart symphony. But our reverence for Schubert as a major orchestral composer is based on the last two symphonies he wrote, which show the growing influence of Beethoven, both in their mood and in the scale on which they were written.
Beethoven took the symphony to new levels, not least of which was a dramatic increase in length, which placed heightened demands on performers and audience alike. With the classical symphony as perfected by Mozart and Haydn, thirty minutes was the maximum an audience could handle. Beethoven demanded attention for close to an hour, and with the two symphonies he composed at the ages of 25 and 28, Schubert did the same. The earlier of these is the so-called “Unfinished Symphony” of 1822, which consists of a gently paced allegro moderato and an exquisite andante; about half-an-hour’s worth of music. This has become one of the most popular Schubert pieces in the modern concert hall, partly because of its brilliance, partly because of its length, which permits another major work in the program, but partly also because of the popular mystique surrounding the creation of an unfinished masterpiece. There are indeed millions of people who have heard of “Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony,” but who haven’t the faintest idea what it sounds like or, if they did hear it, couldn’t distinguish it from My Old Kentucky Home. It did, however, receive an unusual public hearing to a massive audience in the1980’s, when a sizeable chunk of the first movement introduced the Peter Seller’s movie Being There. Like the main character of that splendid movie, the creation of Schubert’s B minor symphony is shrouded in mystery. If we delve a little into the Unfinished Symphony, we come no closer to a clear-cut answer to that mystery, but we do get a little closer to an understanding of Schubert’s genius.
The truth is that Schubert left many works “unfinished.” Sometimes he did this because he was dissatisfied with his work, but more often it was because he was juggling with so many ideas at once that he would set one project aside, fully intent – at the time! - on returning to it at a later date. We focus on the abandonment of this particular symphony because its sheer brilliance cries out for completion, especially as the composer still had six years to live. Some musicologists have suggested that the first two movements are so overwhelming in their grandeur, that Schubert felt intimidated by the task of completing two further movements of equal stature. But once in his mature stride, Schubert was intimidated by nothing. It’s interesting that the great Beethoven symphonies did intimidate some later 19th century composers, most notably Brahms, who felt so intimidated that he couldn’t get round to writing his own 1st symphony until he was in his 40’s. Schubert felt no such pressure, and while he may not have completed the B minor symphony, he did create a complete symphony of Beethovian grandeur, which posterity has called “The Great.” Actually, the complimentary subtitle is based on Schubert’s own writings about his work on this symphony, which he dubbed Die Grosse, more in reference to its length – almost an hour – rather than its quality. Of all the musical forms, the symphony was the most difficult to have performed or to have published. Schubert tried to get his “Great” symphony published in August, 1826, at a time when he was on his uppers. He sent it along with a batch of other new works to the publishing house of Heinrich Probst. Herr Probst’s rejection letter speaks volumes, “The public does not yet sufficiently and generally understand the peculiar, often ingenious, but perhaps now and then somewhat curious procedures of your mind’s creations.” Only one man at this time was truly capable of understanding the “curious procedures” of Schubert’s mind, and that was Beethoven. During his final illness he was shown some manuscripts of Schubert songs and is said to have cried out, “Truly, in Schubert there dwells a divine spark!” But he knew nothing of Schubert’s instrumental masterpieces, and he died in March of 1827, depriving the younger genius of the one voice that could have spoken with authority on his behalf.  We can well understand Schubert’s frustration when he read Probst’s letter, and it helps explain why he did not return to the Unfinished Symphony.
Instead, he immersed himself in other projects. It’s interesting that by Schubert’s own phenomenal rate of productivity, the last two years of his life were a little below the going rate, as assessed purely in sheets of paper. The stack of paper would still have been as high as that produced by many other serious composers in a lifetime! But of greater importance is the sublime quality of these last outpourings, produced, moreover, at a time when Schubert was increasingly ill and at times unable to work.
It’s tempting to say that the music Schubert created from the time of Beethoven’s death to that of his own death the following year expresses his growing feelings of desolation and of the imminence of death. His song cycle Winterreise fits perfectly into this assessment. Schubert composed this eerie masterpiece in two creative bursts, during the second of which he shut himself away in austere seclusion from his circle of friends. When he emerged from his intense labors, clearly tired and in a heightened emotional state, he gathered his friends together and told them “I will sing you a cycle of dreadful songs. I am curious to see what you think of them. They have affected me more than any other songs I have written, yet they please me more.” His friends listened for over an hour to the cycle of twenty-four ‘dreadful’ songs that tell the story of a young, rejected lover and his wanderings to who-knows-where across a desolate, winter landscape. Schubert had discovered the young poet Wilhelm Muller a few years earlier and had chosen a group of his narrative poems as the setting for his first great song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Lass of the Mill). These songs also told the tale of a rejected lover, driven to suicide. For Schubert - no candidate for suicide! - that work could only be the expression of a purely artistic persona. But with Winterreise there is clearly a more personal identification with the voice of the poet. The cycle ends with Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-gurdy Man) - one of the most haunting songs ever written,

    Over there beyond the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man,
    And with numb fingers he winds as best he can.
    He staggers around, barefoot on the ice,
    And his little plate always stays empty.
    No one wants to hear him, no one looks at him,
    And the dogs growl around the old man.
    And he lets it pass, lets everything be.
    Strange old man, should I come with you?
    Will you grind your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?

With what icy chill running through his veins must Schubert have composed this song! And what chill must he have felt singing it to his beloved friends! He must have felt that he was both the old hurdy-gurdy man - his plate always empty, his music unheard – and also the wanderer, who sees the old man as death. Perhaps in death he would find an audience for his music. As a grim portent of Schubert’s own imminent death, the poet Muller himself died during Schubert’s composition of Winterreise at the age of 33.
But we must be careful! Schubert, we have said, matured with all the eccentricities of Beethoven. So he was capable of the same outbursts of tragic-comic heroism. Sure enough, within days of completing Winterreise, with all its feelings of a sorrowful goodbye to life, Schubert began work on a brilliant piano trio that is a joyous celebration of life. Full of lilting melodies that anyone can whistle – there’s even a set of variations on a Swedish folk-song – it’s Schubert saying to that same group of friends who shared his suffering in Winterreisse, “Come! Let’s go down to the inn and down a few jugs of Hungarian red wine!” Yet the B flat Piano Trio is no piece of fluff, and stands today in the repertoire of great chamber works alongside Beethoven’s Twin Towers in the same genre, those known to us as “The Ghost” and “The Archduke Trios.” 
At his death, Schubert had already matched the greatest accomplishments in several musical genres. In song, he is still supreme. Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin at times came close, but they all acknowledged the debt they owe to the greatest of songwriters. With the symphony, he was at the start of an ascent to even greater things. Beethoven raised the bar in this medium, and Schubert was approaching that level, though not consistently because of the frustrations involved in getting his symphonic voice heard. The symphony would reach its final peak almost a hundred years later with Gustav Mahler. Beyond Mahler there is nothing to be said. Might Schubert in his late 30’s or 40’s have taken the symphony towards Mahler? The same beginnings of absolute greatness are evident in his chamber works for strings. Again, Beethoven raised the bar, first with his Opus 59 Rasumovsky string quartets and then, sublimely, with the series of six Late Quartets that remain the greatest expressions in that medium. At an age when Beethoven had produced merely excellent classical style string quartets, Schubert produced his C major String Quintet, which belongs with those late Beethoven quartets and also with Mozart’s own G minor String Quintet. The latter was clearly Schubert’s model for his own masterpiece, though in the true spirit of an experimenter, he changed the Mozartian model and brought in the deeper and richer tones of a second cello in place of Mozart’s second viola.
There was, however, one area of rather dismal failure in Schubert’s musical life; a failure that means he cannot quite equal Mozart, who, as we have already established, is the greatest genius of all time. This failure was in opera. But, by golly, did poor young Schubert give it a go! By the time he was 26, he’d written seventeen grand operas and singspiels, some incomplete and abandoned as hopeless causes, but some complete three-act works containing a couple of hours of music a piece. The lure of opera writing was strong, given the potential rewards. It was rather like an accomplished writer trying his hand at screenwriting for Hollywood movies. But it was just as fickle a business and just as dependent on connections and prevailing tastes. Vienna in Schubert’s day was an opera-mad town, but the taste was for Italian opera, and the big star was Rossini, who made out like a thieving magpie and then retired at an early age to enjoy his fortune. Schubert’s teacher, the dreaded Salieri, had done his best to steer young Franz toward the Italian style and even the Italian language. He even urged him to abandon completely the “barbarous German language,” which the old Italian judged totally unsuitable for musical expression. But much as Schubert admired Italian opera, his instincts were German, and it was in this language that he gave it his best shot, taking his inspiration from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Beethoven’s Fidelio. Mozart’s greatest hits, of course, happened to be Italian, and Beethoven’s heroic drama was a one-shot deal for a composer who did not really have a taste for opera. So it’s hardly surprising that Schubert failed, given the battalion of obstacles in his way, one of which must, in all fairness, be laid at his own door.
Schubert was a great enthusiast, often naively so, and he was easily lured into an operatic project by the vivid imagery his chosen librettist conjured up in pitching the storyline. More often than not, the promising storyline disintegrated into an abysmal script. We must never forget that Mozart’s great Italian operas were blessed with the words of Lorenzo da Ponte, which, perhaps, also shows that Schubert was not such an astute observer and judge of human nature as was his idol. On one occasion, he teamed up with his very close friend Franz von Schober to create a three-act medieval romance called Alfonso und Estrella. At the time, both men believed in the opera’s marketability and were very disappointed when they failed to get any bites. However, many years later, an older and wiser Schober commented on his libretto by saying, “It was such a miserable, still-born, bungling piece of work that even so great a genius as Schubert couldn’t bring it to life.”
It was shortly after Schubert abandoned Alfonso und Estrella that he was introduced to his fatal illness, and it’s possible that his good friend Schober had an innocent hand in this too! Schubert and Schober had a very deep friendship that was both artistic and social, the two men enjoying many a long session in their favorite Vienna taverns. Blessed with rakish good looks, Schober was also a gallant young blade, who urged his shy, bespectacled friend to join him on his outings to the pleasure domes, especially those of the goddess Venus. It was probably as a result of one of these outings that Schubert contracted syphilis, which, by slow degrees through its common run of three stages, caused his death six years later. Numerous biographers have documented the embarrassing and painful symptoms Schubert suffered over these six years, especially in the last few months when the tertiary stage had set in with its characteristic deteriorative anaemia. All the greater the miracle of Schubert’s staggering creation of music!
Whatever the cause of his death, Schubert would not have held the slightest grudge against his dear friend Schober. He was at all times the most stoical of men, and believed firmly that suffering was an essential part of the human experience. “Pain,” he wrote, “sharpens the understanding and strengthens the mind.” As for joy - Schubert discovered this through his music, in a universe of infinity, which few of us can ever see. Perhaps, as he slipped finally from consciousness, he recalled the words his friend Schober had given him for his immortal Ode to Music,

    Gracious Muse! How often in the darkness,
    When life’s cruel bonds have choked me,
    Hast thou enflamed in my heart a greater love
    And transported me to a better world.