1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Schubert, Franz Peter
|←Schubart, Christian Friedrich Daniel||1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 24
Schubert, Franz Peter
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SCHUBERT, FRANZ PETER (1797-1828), German composer, was born on the 31st of January 1797, in the Himmelpfortgrund, a small suburb of Vienna. His father, Franz, son of a Moravian peasant, was a parish schoolmaster; his mother, Elizabeth Fitz, had before her marriage been cook in a Viennese family. Of their fourteen children nine died in infancy; the others were Ignaz (b. 1784), Ferdinand (b. 1794), Karl (b. 1796), Franz and a daughter Theresia (b. 1801). The father, a man of worth and integrity, possessed some reputation as a teacher, and his school, in the Lichtenthal, was well attended. He was also a fair amateur musician, and transmitted his own measure of skill to his two elder sons, Ignaz and Ferdinand.
At the age of five Schubert began to receive regular instruction from his father. At six he entered the Lichtenthal school where he spent some of the happiest years of his life. About the same time his musical education began. His father taught him the rudiments of the violin, his brother Ignaz the rudiments of the pianoforte. At seven, having outstripped these simple teachers, he was placed under the charge of Michael Holzer, the Kapellmeister of the Lichtenthal Church. Holzer's lessons seem to have consisted mainly in expressions of admiration, and the boy gained more from a friendly joiner's apprentice, who used to take him to a neighbouring pianoforte warehouse and give him the opportunity of practising on a better instrument than the poor home could afford. The unsatisfactory character of his early training was the more serious as, at that time, a composer had little chance of success unless he could appeal to the public as a performer, and for this the meagre education was never sufficient.
In October 1808 he was received as a scholar at the Convict, which, under Salieri's direction, had become the chief music-school of Vienna, and which had the special office of training the choristers for the Court Chapel. Here he remained until nearly seventeen, profiting little by the direct instruction, which was almost as careless as that given to Haydn at St Stephen's, but much by the practices of the school orchestra, and by association with congenial comrades. Many of the most devoted friends of his after life were among his schoolfellows: Spaun and Stadler and Holzapfel, and a score of others who helped him out of their slender pocket-money, bought him music-paper which he could not buy for himself, and gave him loyal support and encouragement. It was at the Convict, too, that he first made acquaintance with the overtures and symphonies of Mozart — there is as yet no mention of Beethoven — and between them and lighter pieces, and occasional visits to the opera, he began to lay for himself some foundation of musical knowledge.
Meanwhile his genius was already showing itself in composition. A pianoforte fantasia, thirty-two close-written pages, is dated April 8 - May 1, 1810: then followed, in 1811, three long vocal pieces written upon a plan which Zumsteeg had popularized, together with a “quintet-overture,” a string quartet, a second pianoforte fantasia and a number of songs. His essay in chamber-music is noticeable, since we learn that at the time a regular quartet-party was established at his home “on Sundays and holidays,” in which his two brothers played the violin, his father the 'cello and Franz himself the viola. It was the first germ of that amateur orchestra for which, in later years, many of his compositions were written. During the remainder of his stay at the Convict he wrote a good deal more chamber-music, several songs, some miscellaneous pieces for the pianoforte and, among his more ambitious efforts, a Kyrie and Salve Regina, an octet for wind instruments — said to commemorate the death of his mother, which took place in 1812 — a cantata, words and music, for his father's name-day in 1813, and the closing work of his school-life, his first symphony.
At the end of 1813 he left the Convict, and, to avoid military service, entered his father's school as teacher of the lowest class. For over two years he endured the drudgery of the work, which, we are told, he performed with very indifferent success. There were, however, other interests to compensate. He took private lessons from Salieri, who annoyed him with accusations of plagiarism from Haydn and Mozart, but who did more for his training than any of his other teachers; he formed a close friendship with a family named Grob, whose daughter Therese was a good singer and a good comrade; he occupied every moment of leisure with rapid and voluminous composition. His first opera — Des Teufels Lustschloss — and his first Mass — in F major — were both written in 1814, and to the same year belong three string quartets, many smaller instrumental pieces, the first movement of the symphony in Bb and seventeen songs, which include such masterpieces as Der Taucher and Gretchen am Spinnrade. But even this activity is far outpaced by that of the annus mirabilis 1815. In this year, despite his school-work, his lessons with Salieri and the many distractions of Viennese life, he produced an amount of music the record of which is almost incredible. The symphony in Bb was finished, and a third, in D major, added soon afterwards. Of church music there appeared two Masses, in G and Bb, the former written within six days, a new Dona nobis for the Mass in F, a Stabat Mater and a Salve Regina. Opera was represented by no less than five works, of which three were completed — Der Vierjährige Posten, Fernando and Claudine von Villabella — and two, Adrast and Die beiden Freunde von Salamanca, apparently left unfinished. Besides these the list includes a string quartet in G minor, four sonatas and several smaller compositions for piano, and, by way of climax, 146 songs, some of which are of considerable length, and of which eight are dated Oct. 15, and seven Oct. 19. “Here,” we may say with Dryden, “is God's plenty.” Music has always been the most generous of the arts, but it has never, before or since, poured out its treasure with so lavish a hand.
In the winter of 1814-1815 Schubert made acquaintance with the poet Mayrhofer: an acquaintance which, according to his usual habit, soon ripened into a warm and intimate friendship. They were singularly unlike in temperament: Schubert frank, open and sunny, with brief fits of depression, and sudden outbursts of boisterous high spirits; Mayrhofer grim and saturnine, a silent man who regarded life chiefly as a test of endurance; but there is good authority for holding that “the best harmony is the resolution of discord,” and of this aphorism the ill-assorted pair offer an illustration. The friendship, as will be seen later, was of service to Schubert in more than one way.
As 1815 was the most prolific period of Schubert's life, so 1816 saw the first real change in his fortunes. Somewhere about the turn of the year Spaun surprised him in the composition of Erlkönig — Goethe's poem propped among a heap of exercise-books, and the boy at white-heat of inspiration “hurling” the notes on the music-paper. A few weeks later Von Schober, a law-student of good family and some means, who had heard some of Schubert's songs at Spaun's house, came to pay a visit to the composer and proposed to carry him off from school-life and give him freedom to practice his art in peace. The proposal was particularly opportune, for Schubert had just made an unsuccessful application for the post of Kapellmeister at Laibach, and was feeling more acutely than ever the slavery of the classroom. His father's consent was readily given, and before the end of the spring he was installed as a guest in Von Schober's lodgings. For a time he attempted to increase the household resources by giving music lessons, but they were soon abandoned, and he devoted himself to composition. “I write all day,” he said later to an inquiring visitor, “and when I have finished one piece I begin another.”
The works of 1816 include three ceremonial cantatas, one written for Salieri's Jubilee on June 16; one, eight days later, for a certain Herr Watteroth who paid the composer an honorarium of £4 (“the first time,” said the journal, “that I have composed for money”), and one, on a foolish philanthropic libretto, for Herr Joseph Spendou “Founder and Principal of the Schoolmasters' Widows' Fund.” Of more importance are two new symphonies, No. 4 in C minor, called the Tragic, with a striking andante, No. 5 in Bb, as bright and fresh as a symphony of Mozart: some numbers of church music, fuller and more mature than any of their predecessors, and over a hundred songs, among which are comprised some of his finest settings of Goethe and Schiller. There is also an opera, Die Burgschaft, spoiled by an illiterate book, but of interest as showing how continually his mind was turned towards the theatre.
All this time his circle of friends was steadily widening. Mayrhofer introduced him to Vogl, the famous baritone, who did him good service by performing his songs in the salons of Vienna; Anselm Hüttenbrenner and his brother Joseph ranged themselves among his most devoted admirers; Gahy, an excellent pianist, played his sonatas and fantasias; the Sonnleithners, a rich burgher family whose eldest son had been at the Convict, gave him free access to their home, and organized in his honour musical parties which soon assumed the name of Schubertiaden. The material needs of life were supplied without much difficulty. No doubt Schubert was entirely penniless, for he had given up teaching, he could earn nothing by public performance, and, as yet, no publisher would take his music at a gift; but his friends came to his aid with true Bohemian generosity — one found him lodging, another found him appliances, they took their meals together and the man who had any money paid the score. Schubert was always the leader of the party, and was known by half-a-dozen affectionate nicknames, of which the most characteristic is “kann er 'was?” his usual question when a new acquaintance was proposed.
1818, though, like its predecessor, comparatively unfertile in composition, was in two respects a memorable year. It saw the first public performance of any work of Schubert's — an overture in the Italian style written as an avowed burlesque of Rossini, and played in all seriousness at a Jäll concert on March 1. It also saw the beginning of his only official appointment, the post of music-master to the family of Count Johann Esterhazy at Zelesz, where he spent the summer amid pleasant and congenial surroundings. The compositions of the year include a Mass and a symphony, both in C major, a certain amount of four-hand pianoforte music for his pupils at Zelesz and a few songs, among which are Einsamkeit, Marienbild and the Litaney. On his return to Vienna in the autumn he found that Von Schober had no room for him, and took up his residence with Mayrhofer. There his life continued on its accustomed lines. Every morning he began composing as soon as he was out of bed, wrote till two o'clock, then dined and took a country walk, then returned to composition or, if the mood forsook him, to visits among his friends. He made his first public appearance as a song-writer on February 28, 1819, when the Schäfers Klagelied was sung by Jäger at a Jäll concert. In the summer of the same year he took a holiday and travelled with Vogl through Upper Austria. At Steyr he wrote his brilliant piano quintet in A, and astonished his friends by transcribing the parts without a score. In the autumn he sent three of his songs to Goethe, but, so far as we know, received no acknowledgment.
The compositions of 1820 are remarkable, and show a marked advance in development and maturity of style. The unfinished oratorio Lazarus was begun in February; later followed, amid a number of smaller works, the 23rd Psalm, the Gesang der Geister, the Quartettsatz in C minor and the great pianoforte fantasia on Der Wanderer. But of almost more biographical interest is the fact that in this year two of Schubert's operas appeared at the Kärnthnerthor theatre, Die Zwillingsbrüder on June 14, and Die Zauberharfe on August 19. Hitherto his larger compositions (apart from Masses) had been restricted to the amateur orchestra at the Gundelhof, a society which grew out of the quartet-parties at his home. Now he began to assume a more prominent position and address a wider public. Still, however, publishers held obstinately aloof, and it was not until his friend Vogl had sung Erlkönig at a concert in the Kärnthnerthor (Feb. 8, 1821) that Diabelli hesitatingly agreed to print some of his works on commission. The first seven opus-numbers (all songs) appeared on these terms; then the commission ceased, and he began to receive the meagre pittances which were all that the great publishing houses ever accorded to him. Much has been written about the neglect from which he suffered during his lifetime. It was not the fault of his friends, it was only indirectly the fault of the Viennese public; the persons most to blame were the cautious intermediaries who stinted and hindered him from publication.
The production of his two dramatic pieces turned Schubert's attention more firmly than ever in the direction of the stage; and towards the end of 1821 he set himself on a course which for nearly three years brought him continuous mortification and disappointment. Alfonso und Estrella was refused, so was Fierrabras; Die Verschworenen was prohibited by the censor (apparently on the ground of its title); Rosamunde was withdrawn after two nights, owing to the badness of its libretto. Of these works the two former are written on a scale which would make their performances exceedingly difficult (Fierrabras, for instance, contains over 1000 pages of manuscript score), but Die Verschworenen is a bright attractive comedy, and Rosamunde contains some of the most charming music that Schubert ever composed. In 1822 he made the acquaintance both of Weber and of Beethoven, but little came of it in either case, though Beethoven cordially acknowledged his genius. Von Schober was away from Vienna; new friends appeared of a less desirable character; on the whole these were the darkest years of his life.
In the spring of 1824 he wrote the magnificent octet, “A Sketch for a Grand Symphony”; and in the summer went back to Zelesz, when he became attracted by Hungarian idiom, and wrote the Divertissement à l'Hongroise and the string quartet in A minor. Most of his biographers insert here a story of his hopeless passion for his pupil Countess Caroline Esterhazy; but whatever may be said as to the general likelihood of the romance, the details by which it is illustrated are apocryphal, and the song l'Addio, placed at its climax, is undoubtedly spurious. A more debatable problem is raised by the grand duo in C major (op. 140) which is dated from Zelesz in the summer of this year. It bears no relation to the style of Schubert's pianoforte music, it is wholly orchestral in character, and it may well be a transcript or sketch of the “grand symphony” for which the octet was a preparation. If so, it settles the question, raised by Sir George Grove, of a “Symphony in C major” which is not to be found among Schubert's orchestral scores.
Despite his preoccupation with the stage and later with his official duties he found time during these years for a good deal of miscellaneous composition. The Mass in Ab was completed and the exquisite “Unfinished Symphony” begun in 1822. The Müllerlieder, and several other of his best songs, were written in 1825; to 1824, beside the works mentioned above, belong the variations on Trockne Blumen and the two string quartets in E and Eb. There is also a sonata, for piano and “Arpeggione,” an interesting attempt to encourage a cumbersome and now obsolete instrument.
The mishaps of the recent years were compensated by the prosperity and happiness of 1825. Publication had been moving more rapidly; the stress of poverty was for a time lightened; in the summer there was a pleasant holiday in Upper Austria, where Schubert was welcomed with enthusiasm. It was during this tour that he produced his “Songs from Sir Walter Scott,” and his piano sonata in A minor (op. 42), the former of which he sold to Artaria for £20, the largest sum which he had yet received for any composition. Sir George Grove, on the authority of Randhartinger, attributes to this summer a lost “Gastein” symphony which is possibly the same work as that already mentioned under the record of the preceding year.
From 1826 to 1828 Schubert resided continuously in Vienna, except for a brief visit to Graz in 1827. The history of his life during these three years is little more than a record of his compositions. The only events worth notice are that in 1826 he dedicated a symphony to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, which voted him in return an honorarium of £10, that in the same year he applied for a conductorship at the opera, and lost it by refusing to alter one of his songs at rehearsal, and that in the spring of 1828 he gave, for the first and only time in his career, a public concert of his own works. But the compositions themselves are a sufficient biography. The string quartet in D minor, with the variations on “Death and the Maiden,” was written during the winter of 1825-1826, and first played on Jan. 25. Later in the year came the string quartet in G major, the “Rondeau brilliant,” for piano and violin, and the fine sonata in G which, by some pedantry of the publisher's, is printed without its proper title. To these should be added the three Shakespearian songs, of which “Hark! Hark! the Lark” and “Who is Sylvia?” were written on the same day, the former at a tavern where he broke his afternoon's walk, the latter on his return to his lodging in the evening. In 1827 he wrote the Winterreise, the fantasia for piano and violin, and the two piano trios: in 1828 the Song of Miriam, the C major symphony, the Mass in Eb, and the exceedingly beautiful Tantum Ergo in the same key, the string quintet, the second Benedictus to the Mass in C, the last three piano sonatas, and the collection of songs known as Schwanengesang. Six of these are to words by Heine, whose Buch der Lieder appeared in the autumn. Everything pointed to the renewal of an activity which should equal that of his greatest abundance, when he was suddenly attacked by typhus fever, and after a fortnight's illness died on Nov. 19 at the house of his brother Ferdinand. He had not completed his thirty-second year.
Some of his smaller pieces were printed shortly after his death, but the more valuable seem to have been regarded by the publishers as waste paper. In 1838 Schumann, on a visit to Vienna, found the dusty manuscript of the C major symphony and took it back to Leipzig, where it was performed by Mendelssohn and celebrated in the Neue Zeitschrift. The most important step towards the recovery of the neglected works was the journey to Vienna which Sir George Grove and Sir Arthur Sullivan made in the autumn of 1867. The account of it is given in Grove's appendix to the English translation of Kreissle von Hellborn; the travellers rescued from oblivion seven symphonies, the Rosamunde music, some of the Masses and operas, some of the chamber works, and a vast quantity of miscellaneous pieces and songs. Their success gave impetus to a widespread public interest and finally resulted in the definitive edition of Breitkopf and Härtel.
Schubert is best summed up in the well-known phrase of Liszt, that he was “le musicien le plus poète qui fut jamais.” In clarity of style he was inferior to Mozart, in power of musical construction he was far inferior to Beethoven, but in poetic impulse and suggestion he is unsurpassed. He wrote always at headlong speed, he seldom blotted a line, and the greater part of his work bears, in consequence, the essential mark of improvisation: it is fresh, vivid, spontaneous, impatient of restraint, full of rich colour and of warm imaginative feeling. He was the greatest songwriter who ever lived, and almost everything in his hand turned to song. In his Masses, for instance, he seems to chafe at the contrapuntal numbers and pours out his whole soul on those which he found suitable for lyrical treatment. In his symphonies the lyric and elegiac passages are usually the best, and the most beautiful of them all is, throughout its two movements, lyric in character. The standpoint from which to judge him is that of a singer who ranged over the whole field of musical composition and everywhere carried with him the artistic form which he loved best.
Like Mozart, whose influence over him was always considerable, he wrote nearly all the finest of his compositions in the last ten years of his life. His early symphonies, his early quartets, even his early masses, are too much affected by a traditional style to establish an enduring reputation. It is unfair to call them imitative, but at the time when he wrote them he was saturated with Mozart, and early Beethoven, and he spoke what was in his mind with a boy's frankness. The Andante of the Tragic Symphony (No. 4) strikes a more distinctive note, but the fifth is but a charming adaptation of a past idiom, and the sixth, on which Schubert himself placed little value, shows hardly any appreciable advance. It is a very different matter when we come to the later works. The piano quintet in A major (1819) may here be taken as the turning-point; then come the Unfinished Symphony, which is pure Schubert in every bar; the three quartets in A minor, D minor, and G major, full of romantic colour; the delightful piano trios; the great string quintet; and the C major symphony which, though diffuse, contains many passages of surprising beauty. Every one of them is a masterpiece, and a masterpiece such as Schubert alone could have written. The days of brilliant promise were over and were succeeded by the days of full and mature achievement.
His larger operas are marred both by their inordinate length and by their want of dramatic power. The slighter comedies are pretty and tuneful, but, except as curiosities, are not likely to be revived. We may, however, deplore the fate which has deprived the stage of the Rosamunde music. It is in Schubert's best vein; the entractes, the Romance, and the ballets are alike excellent, and it is much to be hoped that a poet will some day arise and fit the music to a new play.
Of his pianoforte compositions, the sonatas, as might be expected, are the least enduring, though there is not one of them which does not contain some first-rate work. On the other hand his smaller pieces, in which the lyric character is more apparent, are throughout interesting to play and extremely pleasant to hear. He developed a special pianoforte technique of his own not always “orthodox,” but always characteristic. A special word should be added on his fondness for piano duets, a form which before his time had been rarely attempted. Of these he wrote a great many — fantasias, marches, polonaises, variations — all bright and melodious with sound texture and a remarkable command of rhythm.
His concerted pieces for the voice are often extremely difficult, but they are of a rare beauty which would well repay the labour of rehearsal. The 23rd psalm (for female voices) is exquisite; so are the Gesang der Geister, the Nachthalle, the Nachtgesang im Walde (for male voices and horns), and that “dewdrop of celestial melody” which Novello has published with English words under the title of “Where Thou Reignest.” Among all Schubert's mature works there are none more undeservedly neglected than these.
Of the songs it is impossible, within the present limits, to give even a sketch. They number over 600, excluding scenes and operatic pieces, and they contain masterpieces from the beginning of his career to the end. Gretchen am Spinnrade was written when he was seventeen, Erlkönig when he was eighteen; then there follows a continuous stream which never checks or runs dry, and which broadens as it flows to the Müllerlieder, the Scott songs, the Shakesperian songs, the Winterreise, and the Schwanengesang. He is said to have been undiscriminating in his choice of words. Schumann declared that “he could set a handbill to music,” and there is no doubt that he was inspired by any lyric which contained, though even in imperfect expression, the germ of a poetic idea. But his finest songs are almost all to fine poems. He set over 70 of Goethe's, over 60 of Schiller's; among the others are the names of Shakespeare and Scott, of Schlegel and Rückert, of Novalis and Wilhelm Müller — a list more than sufficient to compensate for the triviality of occasional pieces or the inferior workmanship of personal friends. It was a tragedy that he only lived for a few weeks after the appearance of the Buch der Lieder. We may conjecture what the world would have gained if he had found the full complement of his art in Heine.
In his earlier songs he is more affected by the external and pictorial aspect of the poem; in the later ones he penetrates to the centre and seizes the poetic conception from within. But in both alike he shows a gift of absolute melody which, even apart from its meaning, would be inestimable. Neither Handel nor Mozart — his two great predecessors in lyric tune — have surpassed or even approached him in fertility and variety of resource. The songs in Acis are wonderful ; so are those in Zauberflöte, but they are not so wonderful as Litaney, and “Who is Sylvia?” and the Ständchen. To Schubert we owe the introduction into music of a particular quality of romance, a particular “addition of strangeness to beauty”; and so long as the art remains his place among its supreme masters is undoubtedly assured.
- (W. H. H.)