University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Franz Schubert

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In the central cemetery of Vienna there are two graves side by side. Over the one may be read the inscription "Beethoven," over the other "Schubert." And little as those among whom he lived believed it, we now know that there is not one of all the great musicians of the past to whom a place by the side of the great Beethoven could so fitly have been given as to poor Schubert.

Certainly he was one of the most luckless of all great composers, though the race has never been celebrated for good fortune. He was miserably poor, ugly, and uninteresting-looking. His finest compositions were utterly disregarded during his lifetime. He was never able to hear even an orchestral rehearsal of his grandest symphony, and after his death large bundles of his manuscripts were stuffed away and left to rot in a dark cupboard for many years, until discovered by Messrs. Schumann and Grove. He lived an utterly obscure life, his genius only recognized by a few faithful friends; and at the early age of thirty-one he passed away from the life that to him had been so weary and sorrowful.

The records of his life are very scanty; he wrote few letters, he did not move even to the extent to which Beethoven did in those circles of society where a genius is talked about and his admirers treasure the recollection of his slightest word and deed; a few torn pages from his diary, two or three letters, the list and dates of his works, and above all, the works themselves—these are all.

Schubert's father was the parish schoolmaster at Lichtenthal, Vienna. He was twice married, and had a large family, of whom ten survived. Franz Peter, a child by the first marriage, was born January 31, 1797. As every child in Germany learns at school something of music, he very early picked up the rudiments of it, and at eight years of age his father began to teach him the violin. Singing he learned from Michael Holzer the choirmaster, whose testimony to the early display of talent by him is almost comically straightforward. He says: "Whenever I wished to teach him anything new, I found that he had already mastered it. Consequently I cannot be said to have given him any lessons at all. I merely amused myself and regarded him with dumb astonishment."

At the age of eleven a small piece of good fortune fell to him, for in a competition for the post of choirboy in the Imperial Chapel, he was the selected candidate, and this position entitled him to a free education at the Stadtconvict school. Soon afterward we find traces of his first compositions. In 1810 he wrote a pianoforte piece for four hands, bearing the remarkable title of "Leichenfantasie," or Corpse fantasia,.and the next year he had ventured on an overture, a quintet, quartet, and other instrumental works, besides a long cantata-like piece, "Hagar's Klage." The last composition was seen by Salieri, who detected the talent in it and sent the boy to Ruczizka for lessons in harmony. Ruczizka soon sent him back, saying, "He has learned everything, and God has been his teacher."

We know little of Schubert's home life at this time, but however straitened in poverty it was, it can hardly have been altogether unfavorable to the development of his musical powers. His father and brothers joined with him in quartets; his two brothers Ferdinand and Ignaz played first and second violins, Franz took the viola, and his father the violoncello.

The year 1813 was his last year at school, for, his treble voice breaking, he had to leave the Imperial Chapel and the school attached to it. In this year he wrote his first symphony in D, which was performed by the orchestra composed of members of the choir. A large number of songs, already showing the true Schubert style, were also produced about this time. After five years of training he was adrift again, and as he could obtain no other more congenial occupation he was compelled to spend the next three years as his father's assistant, teaching the poor children in the school the alphabet and a little arithmetic. But a long list of musical compositions is assigned to these years.

Schubert was throughout life exceedingly shy, and in general society was the reverse of brilliant, but he appears to have had rather a talent for forming intimate friendships with other young men, artists like himself. Mayrhofer, a poet, clever and hypochondriacal (who afterward committed suicide by throwing himself out of a window), many of whose poems Schubert set to music; Schober, an intense admirer of his friend's musical genius, and at whose house Schubert lived for a number of years; Johann Michael Vogl, a celebrated baritone singer, who was of great use in introducing his songs to the public; Josef Hüttenbrenner—these and others formed an enthusiastic band of kindred spirits, who, over such potations as their scantily filled purses would permit of at the tavern in the evening, used to discuss art, philosophy, and life.

Some of Schubert's finest works were written during these three years of drudgery with the spelling-book and the birch rod. His mass in F, which, with the exception of the one written in the last year of his life, is his best, was composed in 1814, and first produced at the centenary festival of his own parish church at Lichtenthal. Schubert himself conducted, and for once in his life must have tasted some of the sweets of triumph. Salieri, his old master, was present, and after the performance embraced him, saying, "Franz, you are my pupil and will do me great honor;"—and old Schubert, the schoolmaster, was so proud of his son's work that he made him a present of a five-octave piano on the occasion. During the same year, the music of a comic opera, "Des Teufels Lustschloss," was composed, but of this only the overture and the first and third acts remain, as, with the same ill luck that befell so many others of his compositions, the second act of the unpublished score was afterward used by an ignorant servant of Josef Hüttenbrenner to light fires with.

The next year, 1815, while still engaged as the parish "dominie," Schubert wrote an almost incredible quantity of music. Two symphonies and six operatic works, two masses, nearly 150 sings, and a large amount of choral and chamber music were then composed. The operas are hardly known at all, and indeed a great part of the score perished by the hands of the undiscriminating domestic of Hüttenbrenner's together with the one already mentioned.

One day Joseph Spaum, a friend of Schubert's, happened to call upon him, and found him in a state of the greatest excitement, muttering wildly to himself and pacing recklessly round the narrow circle of his room. He has been reading Goethe's magnificently weird "Erkling"; the idea of that terrible night-ride had taken possession of him, and the same day he wrote his famous setting of the song. It is rather provoking to think that Goethe himself never in the slightest degree acknowledged, or indeed had any idea of, the services which the then obscure Viennese composer rendered him. Schubert had an unbounded veneration for Goethe, and after setting a number of his finer songs to music, he sent these settings to the poet himself. But Goethe did not vouchsafe to take the slightest notice of the offering. It was only late in his life, when Schubert had been a long time dead and buried, that he at all was brought to change his mind. Madame Schröder-Devrient then sang the "Erkling" to him, and he had to confess its grandeur, saying, "I once heard this composition in my earlier life, and it did not agree with my views of the subject, but executed as you execute it, the whole becomes a complete picture." Surely, of all the strange reversals that the "whirligig of time" brings us, this is not the least strange—that many of Goethe's songs are now far better known as of Schubert's setting than as of Goethe's writing!

In 1818 Schubert's first opportunity came to him in the shape of an offer from Count Johann Esterhazy—a member of a family always famous for its patronage of the arts—that the composer should be installed as master of music to the Count's family at a salary which, to Schubert, seemed princely, while he was to have the additional privilege of living in the Count's house. The latter part of this arrangement seems in some way to have fallen through, for in the following year we find Schubert living in a Bohemian fashion with his friend Mayrhofer, the poet, in a small room in Vienna. One of the greatest advantages to Schubert from the Esterhazy connection was an intimacy formed with Baron Karl von Schönstein, the finest amateur singer of his day. He was very enthusiastic over Schubert's compositions, and made a point of singing them everywhere. This, at a time when publishers were exceptionally timid, was naturally of immense assistance to the young composer's reputation.

Save in the music that he constantly poured forth, there is little eventful to record in his life for the next few years. A comic opera, "Die Zwillingsbrüder," was accepted at the Kärnthnerthor Theater, and produced with moderate success; but the critics treated it rather contemptuously, as wanting in melody, and written in an old-fashioned style. Another opera, "Alfonso und Estrella," to a weak libretto by his friend Schober, was written in 1822. The year before, he wrote his seventh symphony in E, a work that, though fully sketched out, was for some reason that cannot now be ascertained, never completed. Yet his memoranda for it are so full, that even now it would be an easy task for a competent musician to complete it. At one time Mendelssohn is said to have intended doing this. Schubert's grandest unfinished symphony, however, was that in B minor, commenced in 1823. Of this only two movements are completed, and the work was not performed for many years after his death. It was first produced in Vienna in 1865, and soon afterward at the Crystal Palace in England, and since then has been frequently performed. All musicians now acknowledge it as one of the grandest and most lovely musical creations of the century.

In 1823 Schubert was asked to write the incidental music to a play by Helmine von Chézy, the eccentric and half-mad lady who wrote the stupid libretto of Weber's opera "Euryanthe." The overture, entr'actes, and ballet music to the piece, "Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus," were written by Schubert; but exquisite as his music was, the piece fell utterly flat, and was only twice performed. The critics again wrote with contemptuous indulgence. Every musician now knows and loves the exquisite "Rosamunde" music; and, even if Sir George Grove had done nothing else for music, his rescue of the forgotten manuscripts from a dusty cupboard at Dr. Schindler's, in Vienna, is enough to entitle him to lasting and grateful remembrance. Two more operas, composed about this time, "Fierabras" and "Der Häusliche Krieg," are very little known. The first was never performed or printed, the second has been occasionally performed; but, like all of Schubert's other operatic works, though full of melody, it is wanting in the dramatic symmetry required for successful stage representation.

Depressed and lonely as he was, as time went on, Schubert found the secret of happiness in himself—in work, by means of which he forgot and was raised far above his troubles. In 1824 he writes to his brother Ferdinand: "Certainly the happy, joyous time is gone, when every object seemed encircled with a halo of youthful glory; and that which has followed is a miserable reality, which I endeavor, as far as possible, to embellish by the gifts of my fancy (for which I thank God). . . . I am now, much more than formerly, in the way of finding peace and happiness with myself. As a proof of this, I shall show you a grand sonata and variations upon an original theme, which I have lately composed." His exquisite set of songs, "Die Schöne Müllerin," many other songs, and sonatas, marches, and quartets, were written during this time of sadness and depression. There is also a strange "dream-story," found after his death among his papers, without any other writing to give a clew to its meaning. It is difficult to understand it all, though that it represents his own life, many touches, as, for instance, the pathetic allusion to his "Lieder," appear to indicate. Apart from its interest as a revelation of the musician's inner life, it has been said to be a fragment of wonderful beauty, worthy of Novalis or Jean Paul Richter.

In March, 1825, Schubert accompanied his friend Vogl, the singer, on an excursion through the Tyrol. His letters at this time are full of gaiety. Some of his most beautiful compositions, for example, the "Hymn to the Virgin," date from this holiday; and Vogl and he seem to have met appreciative people, to whose delight Schubert, shy as he was, was quite ready to minister by his playing.

From the Tyrol the two friends wandered on to Salzburg, and Schubert in his letters very graphically describes the quaint old town, girt by the glorious mountains. He describes a visit to Michael Haydn's tomb, but, strangely enough, says nothing of Mozart, though Mozart was, next to Beethoven, his greatest favorite, and born and had lived for many years in this town.

This journey was the last holiday among the mountains that he enjoyed, for though afterward we find him longing for another tour, his pecuniary means did not allow of it. Many as were his pieces that had now been published, he made little profit by them, and he was never successful in obtaining any of the posts as conductor or organists for which he on several occasions applied. Whether the latter failure was his own fault or not it is hard to decide; but, if a story told by Schindler, Beethoven's biographer (and not the most veracious of men, be it said), is to be believed, it was mainly attributable to his own obstinate opinionativeness. Schindler says that in 1826 the post of conductor to the Kärntherthor Theater at Vienna was vacant, and that Schubert, strongly supported by his friend Vogl, was a candidate. Some operatic scenes had to be set to music as a proof of the applicants' capacity. This Schubert had done, and Nanette Schechner was to sing the soprano part. "During the rehearsals," says Schindler, "the lady called the attention of the composer to some insurmountable difficulties in the principle air, and requested him to make curtailments and to simplify the accompaniment, which Schubert flatly refused to do. At the first orchestral rehearsal the artist endeavored in vain to master the air, and Schubert's friends begged him to make the required modifications, but without result. He persisted in his determination. At the last rehearsal everything went smoothly until the air, when it happened as every one had anticipated. The singer struggled hard with the weighty accompaniments, especially with the brass, but was fairly overpowered. She sat down on a chair by the proscenium quite exhausted. No one spoke, and despair was on every countenance. Meanwhile Duport, the manager, went from group to group and whispered mysteriously.

"As for Schubert, he sat motionless during this most unpleasant scene like a statue, his eyes fixed upon the score lying open in front of him. At length Duport advanced to the orchestra, and said very politely, 'Herr Schubert, we should like to postpone the performance for a few days, and I must request that you will make the requisite alterations in the aria, so as to make it easier for Fräulein Schechner.' Several members of the orchestra now entreated Schubert to yield; but his anger was only intensified by Duport's observations and these added entreaties, and exclaiming in a loud voice, 'I alter nothing!' he closed the book with a bang, put it under his arm, and strode away quickly. All hope of his appointment was of course abandoned."

It is right, in fairness to Schubert, to mention that Josef Huttenbrenner, on the contrary, says that the singer was delighted with the air, and that Schubert's failure to obtain the appointment was solely due to intrigues at the theater.

Not long after this Schubert paid a last visit to Beethoven. He had previously called upon the great master with some of his own compositions, but though Beethoven had received him kindly, Schubert's great nervousness and the awkwardness of writing everything in consequence of Beethoven's deafness, had prevented any close intimacy. We are told, however, that during his last illness Beethoven had perused a number of Schubert's songs with great delight, and had said of him, "Truly Schubert possesses a spark of the divine fire!"

When he heard of Beethoven's serious illness, Schubert once more mustered up courage to call upon the master whom he venerated so much, and it is said that as the dying man was then unable to speak, Schubert stood for some time in silence beside his bed. And when the funeral took place Schubert was one of the thirty-eight torch-bearers who stood beside the grave. Afterward he went with two of his friends to the Mehlgrube tavern, and wine was called for three. First they drank to the memory of the great departed genius, and then Schubert called upon his friends to drink to the one who should next be laid in the grave. The glasses were again filled, and Schubert, exclaiming, "Myself!" hastily drained his own and left the place, It may be that already he knew of the malady that in less then two years was to remove him.

Of these two years, save a few letters written at the time of a pleasant trip to some friends, almost the only record is in the catalogue of his works, but during this period some of his grandest compositions, the symphony in C, the mass in E, many of his most beautiful "Lieder," the "Winterreisse," and others, and the exquisite pianoforte impromptus were written. He was never able during his life to gain a hearing for his great symphony; but it appears that public interest had by this time to some extent become aroused in his favor, and we hear of a private concert on March 26, 1827, at a Musikverein, where the programme, entirely composed of his own compositions, was exceedingly successful.

But already symptoms of the illness destined to be at last fatal were exhibiting themselves; nervous headaches and rush of blood to the head, from which for some time he had occasionally suffered, were now more frequent and affected him more severely; yet to the very end he continued working. He had removed to his brother Ferdinand's house, and, this being new and damp, his health was unfavorably affected by the change. But he was still ardently contemplating future work, and indeed, on November 3, a few days before his death, he paid a visit to Sechter, a learned contrapuntist, to arrange for taking lessons from him.

A few days after this he began to complain of weakness and depression; he was not able to take food, and soon could not rise from his bed. But even then he continued to work. On the 17th he became delirious, and piteously supplicated his brother Ferdinand to help him. "What is going to happen to me? What are they doing to me?" When his brother and the doctor tried to inspirit him by speaking of his recovery, "No, no, here is my end!" he said. Then horrible fancies came to him; he thought he was being put in the tomb. "Oh! I entreat you to carry me to my room; don't, don't leave me in this hole in the earth! What! don’t I deserve a place above ground?" They tried to assure him he was indeed in his own room, but his mind was wandering again. In a frenzy he cried out, "No, no, it's not true; Beethoven is not laid here!" But soon the last remnant of his strength was gone, and very quietly he breathed his last, at three o'clock in the afternoon of November 19. His illness had only lasted a week.

The next day his friends came to the house and covered his coffin with wreaths, and placed a laurel crown upon his brow. On the 21st the funeral took place in the Währing churchyard, and Schubert was laid in his last resting-place, only separated by three graves from that of Beethoven. A concert was soon afterward given by his friends to raise the money to pay for a monument over his grave. Three hundred and sixty florins were realized, and with this sum was erected the monument that may now be seen with the first lines of Franz Grillparzer's poem engraved beneath the name of Schubert: "Here lies buried a rich treasure, yet more glorious hopes."

But Schubert's greatness does not consist, as Grillparzer and his friends of the Viennese clique probably imagined, in the promise of great things that might have been accomplished in the future. He left work already done, symphonies, masses, chamber music, sonatas, and, above all, songs of imperishable worth, to which the world has long since accorded an assured place among the noblest of musical classics. Writing in 1838, Liszt, the greatest of modern pianists, said: "In the salons I have heard with the keenest pleasure, and often with an emotion bordering on tears, an amateur, the Baron Schönstein (a friend of the Esterhazy family, and always an admirer of Schubert), sing the 'Lieder' of Schubert—the musician most truly poet that ever lived!"

Years after his death Schumann discovered his great symphony in C, dusty and utterly forgotten, at Vienna, and prevailed upon Ferdinand Schubert t send it to Mendelssohn at Leipzig, under whose baton it was first performed at the Gewandhaus concerts in that city. Other treasures have been since then unearthed from dusty cupboard and old lumber-rooms in Vienna, and Schubert's music is now played and sung everywhere at concerts and in drawing-rooms.

Schubert and song! These must ever be associated, and who, indeed, would wish to sever the tie? Song was the life-long object of this true tone-poet; for it he strove, and, above all, he accomplished. Many may know him by other music, but the world at large knows him only by those inspiring melodies which enkindle all the emotions appertaining to human nature—love and hatred, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, consolation, resignation, and the like. His six hundred songs form a unique and precious bequest to music. Well has his work taken its place with the stately and strong columns on which the vast edifice of modern musical art rests—the symphonies and sonatas of Beethoven, the operas of Mozart, the oratorios of Handel, the chamber music of Haydn, and the songs of Schubert.

Schubert himself said, "For many many long years, I sang my 'Lieder.' If I would fain sing of love, it turned to pain; if I would sing of pain, it turned to love." But from the sorrow of that obscure and lonely life has gone forth such music of consolation and gladness as the world can never tire of; from Schubert, the poor neglected musician, whom so few knew and cared for while he lived, have come the many songs now piped or sung in Germany and in other lands, sweeter and more lovely than any known before.


Schubert was, to borrow the phrase used by Tennyson of A. C. Swinburne, "a reed through which all things blow into music. Music was his life-blood. He thought in music, felt in music, as no other composer has ever done. It was to him not merely a means of expressing emotion, it took the place of emotion itself. His fertility in musical ideas is unparalleled in the history of music. He had but to read a poem and its musical complement burst full-grown from his brain. He wrote music as other men write a letter—like Shakespeare, rarely blotting a line. As Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, it would have been better for him had he blotted thousands. His very fertilizer was a snare. Had it been less easy to him to write music, he would have taken more pains to master the principles of technique, in which he was always deficient. Toward the close of his life he seems to have realized this himself. It appears that his friends had often held up Beethoven's laborious methods of composition before him as an example, and after Beethoven's death he studied the manuscript of "Fidelio" closely, comparing the different versions of various passages and tracing the gradual development of the composer's ideas. A short time before his death he became possessed of the scores of some of Handel's oratorios. A close study of these showed him how much he had to learn in the matter of counterpoint, and the result was his determination to take lessons with Sechner. While in his songs he is supreme, Schubert's lack of technical musicianship is often felt in his instrumental and choral works.

In his song work Schubert was far more than a mere melodist, though in this respect few composers have equaled him. Modulation was one of his favorite devices. Occasionally he carries his use of this device to extravagant lengths, but as a rule he uses it with extravagant discretion and with thrilling beauty and force. His accompaniments are individual and original, and are always adapted to the subject of the song in a masterly manner. In his earlier years he was addicted to romantic and picturesque subjects, but as he grew older he inclined more to songs of an intimate and personal character, such as his two great song-cycles "Die Schöne Müllerin" and "Die Winterreise," which deal in the subtlest fashion with the play of varying emotions and the development of feeling.

Apart from the intrinsic beauty of his songs, they are historically important as being practically the foundation of the school of modern German song-writing. In this respect Schubert's position has been admirably defined by Sir George Grove: "Songs there were before him, those of Schulz, for instance, and of Zumsteeg, which he so greatly admired, and of Haydn and Mozart—touching, beautiful expressions of simple thought and feeling. But the song, as we know it in his hands, full of dramatic fire, poetry, and pathos, set to no simple Volkslieder, but to long complex poems, the best poetry of the greatest poets, and an absolute reflection of every change and breath of sentiment in that poetry, with an accompaniment of the utmost force, fitness, and variety—such songs were his and his alone."

The Schubert whom we find in his songs is a nature of exquisite sensibility, responsive to every poetical suggestion, alive to every claim for sympathy. This is the man viewed in relation to external circumstances; the inner man is pictured for us in his instrumental works, in which, unfettered by the chains of poetry, he poured forth his soul in music. And the picture is one of singular charm and attraction. We must not expect from Schubert the serene wisdom of Mozart nor the soaring imagination of Beethoven. Schubert had a gentle and childlike spirit, alert with noble impulses but restricted in its range. Schubert was not, like Beethoven, a great intellectual force. He died young, it is true, but his development was so rapid that his best work cannot be called immature, and there is nothing even in his latest productions that warrants us in assuming the probability of any further intellectual development. By a kind of super-human instinct he divined in other men ideas foreign to his own nature and clothed them in fitting music. There is something almost miraculous in his setting of some of Goethe's lyrics, in the manner in which he keeps pace with the marvelous conceptions of that great poet; but his own music shows no attempt to face the baffling problems of life.

The charm of Schubert lies in his eternal youthfulness. He is the musician of springtime; the ardor of budding manhood bubbles in his strains. His greatest and most characteristic work, the symphony in C, is an Odyssey of youth. It pictures for us the feelings of a young man starting upon the pilgrimage of life. The spirit of romance hovers over the opening notes—the mysterious call which seems to summon man to put away childish things. The allegro is in very truth a "Song of the Open Road," with its gay marchlike rhythms and the full-blooded enthusiasm that animates every note of it. The andante takes us further afield. We seem to follow our hero through the dim aisles of a forest, where sunlight and shadow alternately checker his path. How the leaves flicker and dance in the summer breeze, and how sweetly the mysterious depths of the woodland solitude breathe their secrets in his ears! The scherzo touches a lighter note, and in the marvelous finale the noble ardor of youth seems kindled to a fervor of passionate aspiration, not without a touch of strange yearning, a hungering for beauty that has a curious pathos of its own.

There is something singularly moving in the tenderness, purity, and boyish faith—almost credulity—revealed in his work. Happy Schubert to have died with his ideals unclouded by disillusion and remorse! Even when the bitterness of life and the cruelty of disappointment touch him, as in the first movement of the unfinished symphony in B minor, it is the unreasoning petulance of rebellious youth of which the music speaks, not, as in Beethoven, the grim tragedy of a man's sad war with fate. Similarly, in the famous slow movement of the quartet in D minor—the variations on the melody of "Death and the Maiden"—which is, as it were, a musical counterpart to the often pictured "Dance of Death," there is no suggestion of weird Holbeinesque horror. The attitude is rather that of the wide-eyed wonder of boyhood than the reasoned acquiescence and the serene fortitude of Beethoven and Mozart.

No musician was ever less of a teacher than Schubert. He lived in a world of his own apart from theories and dogmas, pouring forth the music that was in him at the dictate of his own genius. If the romantic movement touched him, he was probably unconscious of it, and it is difficult to believe that in any circumstances he would have written otherwise than he did. Weber's literary attitude to music was impossible to him. He was a child of nature, singing as the linnets sing. Save in the realm of song, in which his influence has been inestimable, he contributed nothing to musical development. He appears to have had little dramatic instinct, and all the attempts that have been made since his death to restore his operas to the stage have failed; nor do his masses and other Church works appear to contain the germs of immortality. He was a born lyricist, and had he written nothing but his songs, his claim to rank among the great musicians would still be secure.