Franz Schubert | Biography

Biography

Described by Liszt as ‘the most poetic of composers’, Schubert became the quintessential composer of the early Romantic period. He composed prolifically, writing music in almost all of the major genres, and his songs set a standard that was unsurpassed for more than a century. His was a short, brilliant life, spent almost entirely in the city of Vienna. His early death, at the age of 31, inspired a welter of sentimental myths. An image of a happy-go-lucky bohemian lingered well into the twentieth century. The truth was darker and more complex. In his lifetime, Schubert was known for his songs, part-songs and shorter piano pieces. The discovery of his wider output began in 1839, when Robert Schumann came across the manuscript of the ‘Great’ C major Symphony, then unperformed. In the 1860s further orchestral masterpieces such as the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony and the C major String Quintet received their premieres. Though chamber works like the ‘Trout’ Quintet, the Octet and the B flat Piano Trio radiate charm and cordiality, the A minor Sonata, the Winterreise song-cycle and the ‘Death and the Maiden’ String Quartet vividly illustrate the composer’s tendency to depression and despair. Schubert was acutely conscious of his unusual gifts as a child. His elder brother Ignaz taught him piano, but Schubert quickly surpassed him. Bluntly he told him that he intended to follow his own path. He sang in the choir of St Stephen’s Cathedral, where he was a star treble. There and at home he was steeped in the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. His early symphonies, masses and string quartets were composed as a teen, at college and, later, as a reluctant teacher in his father’s school. Inevitably they are filled with echoes of the Viennese masters he revered. Haydn’s Creation, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and G minor Symphony K550, and Beethoven’s Second and Seventh Symphonies were special favourites. His enchanting Fifth Symphony of 1816 is an overt homage to Mozart. These early works are charming and show signs of individuality. But they still breathe the spirit of the late 18th century. To turn from them to the finest of his early songs is to enter a strange new world. In instrumental music Schubert was deeply conscious of tradition. In song, however, he had few significant precedents. What he did have was the rich stimulus of the new German Romantic poetry, and the suggestive power of the rapidly evolving fortepiano. With his first Goethe setting, ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, composed when he was just 17, he created one of the world’s most impassioned songs, its perpetual motion accompaniment simultaneously evoking the whirring spinning wheel and mirroring the changing shades of Gretchen’s ecstatic agitation. Between 1815 and 1816 Schubert composed more than 250 songs. Among them were Goethe-inspired masterpieces ranging from the driving, harmonically audacious ‘Erlkönig’ and ‘An schwager Kronos’ to the exquisite, folk like ‘Heidenröslein’. Then, in 1817, he touched a new note of terrible grandeur, turning to the sombre neo-Classical verse of Schiller and Mayrhofer in ‘Freiwilliges Versinken’ and ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’, an astonishing vision of souls writhing in Hades. In the same year, he met the baritone Johann Michael Vogl. The singer’s initial attitude to the 20-year-old composer was condescending. ‘There is something in you,’ he acknowledged, ‘but you have too little of the comedian, too little of the charlatan.’ But Vogl was soon performing Schubert’s songs, accompanied by the composer, in the salons of Vienna. As with Mozart, the myth of Schubert’s perpetual poverty dies hard. He was certainly never well off, and he never had the security of a permanent position. Often he had to rely on the generosity of friends. But from around 1820 his reputation as a composer of songs and piano pieces grew rapidly. By the time of his death he was negotiating with several publishers eager to acquire his works. Schubert knew, however, that fame and affluence were only possible through the opera house. In 1818 Vogl had secured him a commission from the Court Opera for a one-act opera, Die Zwillingsbrüder. Opera was to dominate Schubert’s creative life over the next few years, but his lack of theatrical flair and opportunism proved fatal. Vienna was intoxicated, instead, by Rossini. When his grand opera Fierrabras was rejected by the Court Theatre in 1823, Schubert’s operatic hopes collapsed in disillusionment. By now he had become seriously ill with syphilis. A note of fatalism creeps into his letters. In his music the sense of yearning deepens and darkens: in the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, partly composed in hospital, for example. Or the two string quartets of 1824, the intensely nostalgic A minor quartet and the demonic ‘Death and the Maiden’. Yet there were periods of remission. In the summer of 1825 Schubert took a walking tour with Vogl amid the glorious mountain landscapes of Upper Austria. Here he began the ‘Great’ C major Symphony, marrying the ecstatic energy of Beethoven’s Seventh with an open-air lyricism that is quintessentially Schubertian. Schubert’s first great song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin traces a narrative from blithe innocence to tragic experience. But even Schubert’s friends were shocked by the unremitting bleakness of Winterreise, composed in 1827. The springing rhythms and rippling water music of the earlier cycle have given way to the sparest harmonies and images of cold and stasis. With frightening intensity Schubert explores a mind hovering between nihilism and delusion. He himself described them as ‘terrifying songs’. Yet we should not read them too autobiographically: the B flat Piano Trio was written in the same period, and that is full of soaring melodies. Even by Schubert’s standards his final year, 1828, was one of phenomenal creative energy. It produced the poignant F minor Fantasy for piano duet, the C major String Quintet, the last three piano sonatas, and a sequence of settings of the poets Rellstab and Heine, posthumously published in the Schwanengesang collection. Alongside these profound, often disquieting masterpieces, Schubert could still tap into a vein of easy conviviality or polished formality. But within weeks of completing these works, he was dead. His epitaph was written by the playwright Franz Grillparzer: ‘The art of music here has buried a rich possession, but still fairer hopes.’