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Schubert, Franz
1797 - 1828

Franz Schubert 
Biography by writer and vocal coach Gordon Stewart

“The state should keep me – I came into the world to do nothing but write music.”
Schubert's words, according to his close friend, and unofficial, voluntary, secretary, Josef Hüttenbrenner. It’s the sort of remark which may have been polished up before it was put down paper some thirty years after Schubert’s death, but it rings absolutely true. Schubert’s life was music, and little else besides. Or at least as far as he let other people know. Dramatic things happened about him, but didn’t seem to happen to him. He lived through the years when Napoleon’s armies were in Vienna, and was in the city when the Congress of Vienna began in 1814 to redraw the frontiers and mind-set of Europe. His mature years were spent under the repressive rule that came into effect under the hand of the Emperor Franz I, sharpened up by his chancellor Klemens von Metternich, who made sure that what the Emperor wanted happened, and that there would be no danger of a recurrence of anything like a French-type Revolution.

The Schubert family was a new Viennese family – his father moved to Vienna from Moldavia, well to the east of Vienna, and part of what is now Romania (more or less), and his mother was first generation Viennese; her father had come to Vienna from Silesia, on the border between the present day Czech Republic and Poland, to make his fortune. To what extent Schubert had Slavic genes is an interesting question, but Vienna, at the centre of a large European Empire, was always a melting pot of ethnic groups, and Viennese culture distilled its own brew from that. .

When the Vienna Encyclopedia in 1833 wrote its entry for Schubert some five years after his death, it noted that he “composed treasured marches, variations, trios and songs”. By then a hundred or so of compositions had been published – about a tenth of the number of individual pieces, and much less than that of the volume of what he wrote. His genius had been recognised by only a handful of people in his lifetime – mostly by those who knew him personally – and that only in part. It’s only in the years since that the world has got to grips with his legacy. .

Franz was also the name of the composer's father. He was a schoolmaster, hard-working, seeking to improve the school which he directed. He married Elisabeth Vietz in 1785. They had fourteen children, of whom only five survived infancy. Franz Peter Schubert was the fourth of those. He was born on January 31st 1797. The family was musical in a general way, which meant rather a lot in Vienna in those days: they could raise a string quartet amongst themselves, and sing in several parts. Franz’s voice was good enough to get him a place in the choir of the Imperial Chapel, directed then by Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri. Salieri, now inevitably and unhappily associated in the public mind with Mozart, was an important composer and musician in his own right. Like many other Italian musicians, he made his career outside Italy, spending most of his life at the Viennese Court. He took up teaching after he gave up his operatic career; and among his pupils were Beethoven and Liszt. .

A place at the Imperial and Royal Seminary – the Konvikt – went with the place in the choir, and there young Franz had the chance of a good education, as it was seen in those days. Latin was the basis of what was learnt in schools, and lessons were often taught in Latin. The boys were given a good grounding in the educational beliefs of the time, founded as they were on the Enlightenment ideals of thought, caring, self-improvement, and (importantly) a role for art in the world. German literature, though, played a small part in the educational pattern, and Goethe, already recognised as one of the great artists, was not part of the syllabus. Given its connection with the Imperial Chapel choir, music was an important part of the curriculum, and Schubert played the violin in the school orchestra. He made good friends who became a stabilising core throughout his life. .

He started composing early and wrote prodigiously. By the age of fourteen, he had already written songs and piano duets, an overture, and had begun his first opera. .

His treble voice gave up in 1812, but he continued at the Konvikt, beginning serious lessons with Salieri. What he learnt from Salieri is hard to assess. Salieri had knowledge beyond the confines of Italian opera – the operas he wrote for Paris show that. But he didn’t think the German language was fit for lyrical works, and at the end of his life Schubert was to feel that he was deficient in the skills of counterpoint, presumably because he hadn’t been taught it before. But the importance of a vocal line, not just for songs, and of drama in music were his to impart. .

In the same year, his mother died. In due course (the next year) his father married again. Schubert's devotion to his mother seems not to have affected his relationship with his stepmother, which seems to have been happy enough, because in after years he often lived in the family house. At school, although the authorities recognised his musical talents, it began to be clear that he would have to improve his non-musical work if he wanted to stay on. He opted for music and left. .

He had to earn a living, and so, in 1814, he took what we would call a teacher's training course (it lasted six months), and began to teach in his father's school. Reports were that he didn’t enjoy the company of small children, and took advantage of the prevailing attitude to corporal punishment. .

Society was in a state of change. Despite the efforts of the Congress of Vienna to turn back the clock, what we would call middle-class values had taken over, virtually, from the aristocratic values which had been shaken up by the French Revolution and were receding as education became more widely available. In this period of Biedermeier, domesticity was an important factor. In Austria it no doubt combined with the stringent censorship to prevent much in the way of exciting literature and visual art, but it embraced Beethoven (though it didn’t produce him) and Schubert. .

In the Schubert household music-making grew to such an extent that, with a little external help, Schubert's early symphonies could be played as he wrote them. At the age of 17, he discovered the poetry of Goethe. On the 19th of October, 1814, he composed Gretchen am Spinnrade, to words from Faust. Its 120 bars show a unity of poetry and music, voice and keyboard which is now recognised as a new landmark in German song. The number of compositions grew, (two symphonies, four operas, two masses), and more friendships developed – he met Franz von Schober, a year older, talented, rich and wild, who probably had a bad effect on him, and Johann Mayrhofer, a poet, whose influence on his artistic life was hugely important. .

He applied for a teaching post in 1816 to try to get some sort of regular income – he seems to have had it in mind to marry Therese Grob, a girl for whom he wrote songs and the soprano part in his first Mass. He failed to get it. The marriage didn’t happen either. He gave up the idea of teaching and moved into the Schober house. A few months later he moved back home. His domestic arrangements were always subject to a certain lack of continuity. .

Josef von Spaun, an old friend from school, tried to get some of Schubert's songs published. The proposal was to publish the songs poet by poet, and to dedicate the first volume to Goethe. It would have given the enterprise a lift if Goethe had answered the letter putting request. He didn’t. .

Friends were a highly important factor in Schubert's life. They made great efforts to publicise him, found him work, got commissions for him, and put him up. Some provided poems for his songs. Michael Vogl, a retired opera singer, not only became a principal performer of his songs, but gave him advice (which Schubert considered carefully, and sometimes took). Johann Mayrhofer shared a room with him, and supplied him with the texts for forty-seven songs until he dropped out of his life in 1824. He was a man of taste, with a fine working knowledge of the Classics, and he educated Schubert, in a way. His poetry often took classical themes, giving them a highly Romantic and often melancholy slant. Longing for happiness which is invariably elsewhere is a recurring strain, and one which found its echo in Schubert. He was the poet of the first Schubert' song to appear in print, Erlafsee, in 1817. .

Getting his music known was a slow business, and Schubert showed no particular talent for promoting himself – his lack of a public persona, of a stage personality, didn’t help. Getting his music published was even slower. His Fifth symphony, which appears regularly in present day programmes, wasn't available published until the 1880s. That was by and large to be the pattern. Writing the music was more important than getting it performed. And the music kept flowing – of the thousand pieces, near enough, that he wrote, half of them were done by his twentieth birthday. But the most significant ones, apart from some of the songs, were still to come. .

Meanwhile he tried to get into the opera theatres. There was no doubt that the only certain way to success as a composer was to write opera. The drawback was that the reigning champion of opera was Rossini, and it was Italian opera that drew the audiences. Nevertheless there were chances for German opera – German opera in the style of the Magic Flute and Fidelio – spoken dialogue with musical numbers of more or less significance. Over the years Schubert's twenty or so works for the theatre (not all completed) were, apart from two, like that. Most were written without a commission; others were commissioned, and then dropped. Claudine von Villa Bella, a Singspiel with words by Goethe, was begun in 1815, completed, but never performed. Its fate was somehow typical – the first act still exists, the manuscript of the other two was burnt by servants – to keep themselves warm. In other cases the music exists, but the words surrounding the musical numbers have gone. Three operas – plays with music, really – got on to the stage, and two did respectably well. The third was Rosamunde, more of a play than anything else, and it didn’t get to a second night. .

In August 1818, he went back to the schoolhouse. His father got a promotion, and the family was able to move to more spacious accommodation. There were performances of his Overtures in the Italian style, the first in D and the second in C, the first of his instrumental pieces to be played in public. His song Erlafsee appeared in print as a supplement to another, non-musical, publication. .

The Slovak branch of the Esterhazy family, which formerly employed Josef Haydn, took Schubert to Zseliz in Hungary, where his holiday job was to be tutor to the two young countesses, Marie and Karoline (aged fifteen and twelve). He lived with the servants, taught the girls, and was generally the musician about the place. He enjoyed it at first, writing more of the piano duets which became one of the mainstays of his publications. But he ended up feeling isolated and lonely, and went back to Vienna early to share a third floor room with Johann Mayrhofer. For two years. .

The first of his chamber music masterpieces resulted from a holiday near Linz in 1819. His host was a fine amateur cellist, and wanted a quintet to go with another by Hummel, and may even have suggested using the song to be used as a basis for variations in the fourth movement. What he got was the Trout Quintet. .

There were some theatrical ventures: Michael Vogl got him a commission to write music for a farce; Die Zwillingsbrüder for the Kärnterthor Theatre. When it was produced in June 1820, it had a rowdy first night for some reason – presumably nothing to do with politically incorrect overtones in the plot, which was about mistaken identity caused by the look-alike twins. In spite of the “too serious music”, of which the critics complained, it ran for six performances. Die Zauberharfe, later the same year, helped bring in some money with eight performances. These are good figures for the times. .

There were political problems, though, in Vienna, for his circle. Any gathering of young, apparently liberal-minded people was at risk. In February in the same year, Schubert was among those arrested at the lodgings of an old school friend, Johannes Senn. Senn was put in gaol for 14 months and then deported to the Tyrol. Schubert got a few bruises, that was all. But his name was on the books. .

It made no difference to his career, either way. He was becoming known by performances of his works, especially his songs, in private concerts, and by private publication of some of them – the Erlkönig was printed as his opus 1, and sold well. By the end of 1821, twenty songs had been published. .

Someone found him employment as a coach at the court theatre, but he didn’t take kindly to regular hours, and it didn’t last. By contrast, his own private hours were organised. Every morning from nine to two he wrote music, “as if transfigured”, according to his friend von Spaun. However that may be, this regime must be the reason he could produce such an extraordinary amount of music. His evenings were much less disciplined. But in January 1821, things became slightly more formalised, when a group of his friends met for a musical party, playing, singing and drinking, but focused on Schubert. It provided the formula for more occasions, the Schubertiads, where many of the family-sized pieces were performed. The friends became ardent advocates, and after Schubert's death, created the substance of the myth that hangs around his name, giving him the cuddly, easy-going, gemütlich image which found its final form in a novel and an operetta (Lilac Time – Das Dreimädlhaus) in the early years of the twentieth century. .

Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, a huge success in Berlin, came to Vienna in a truncated version. Weber came to conduct the proper version in 1821, Schubert and he made contact. It was a relationship which began in admiration, but did not outlive the first night, two years later, of Weber's Vienna opera, Euryanthe, which Schubert found unsatisfactory. And said so. There is some unsubstantiated, but quite plausible, suggestion that Schubert met Beethoven in his last days, and that Beethoven said of him “he has the divine spark.”. The story also suggests that Schubert was stuck for words on the occasion. It seems likely. .

He continued to reach out in the direction of opera, though how much feeling he had for the theatre is questionable. His Alfonso and Estrella, a through-composed opera, was rejected by the opera house as being short on drama – it had to wait for its first performance until 1854. He ran into money problems in spite of earning reasonable sums from his publications now that they had started to appear, though his friends thought the terms he negotiated (if he negotiated them at all) were not good. Schubert spent money freely and generously when he had it. .

1822 was the year of the Unfinished Symphony – unfinished for a number of possible reasons, the most likely being that he found it unfinishable. In June the following year he dropped out of public life for a time, almost certainly because of the first unavoidable symptoms of the illness which was to bedevil him for the rest of his life. The treatment for syphilis – mercury injections – was not successful, and in itself created other problems. 1823 saw his best opera, Das häusliche Krieg (the “domestic war” seemed a safer title to the censor than the original “Conspirators”, for obvious reasons). But it found no theatre, and wasn't performed for almost forty years. Another opera, Fierabras, was dropped, possibly because of the tide running against German opera after Weber's Euryanthe had been cast on the shore after only two performances. Rosamunde, a singularly unlikely play by Helmina von Chézy, who had also written the libretto of Weber's opera, disappeared after one night. Schubert's music disappeared too, but happily was discovered in 1867. .

But 1823 produced his first, and great, song-cycle, Die schöne Müllerin. Piano music, the octet, two quartets and the beginning of work on his great C major symphony came from this short period of two years, notwithstanding his illness. “Unhappiness must be the lot of every sensible person in a miserable world”, he said, and seems to have believed it. When he visited the Esterhazys again the following year, it was as a friend of the family. He returned to his family home in Vienna, possibly to a hospital. Schubertiads took place; he sent them his music but didn’t always go himself. He spent some time in Upper Austria with Vogl, getting some health back, and happy to know that people there loved his music. The work on the symphony was completed in 1826. .

The money he earned from composing was useful, but not enough, and he applied for the post of vice Kapellmeister at the Court Chapel, a job he did not get. He failed to interest publishers in Leipzig. The completed C major symphony was dedicated to the Philharmonic, of which he was now a council member – the following year they played it through, and put it aside because of the difficulties involved in rehearsing it. It fell out of view until Robert Schumann found it ten years later. .

He again addressed the issue of writing an opera, in 1827, but the plot was turned down by the censor, and he got no further than a few sketches. The song cycle, Die Winterreise, was finished, and is surely worth any number of operas. He composed it in two parts, disconcerting the friends who found it much too dark – probably too real in the way it penetrated into details of tragic sadness and depression. He began increasingly to absent himself from social occasions. .

Things seemed finally to be moving in his favour in 1828: there were enquiries from publishers, and a great success of a concert at the Philharmonic Society in March. His health, though, continued to give cause for concern, in spite of moving to his brother's house in a healthier part of Vienna. It is bitterly ironic that this last year of his life was incredibly rich in music – like a doorway into a new world. None of it seems to have been written for any other reason than for the sake of writing it. “I came into the world to do nothing but write music” was totally justified, it seems. The fourteen songs published after his death as his Swan song, Schwanengesang, include new, almost uncomfortably perceptive, views of the human condition. The three final piano sonatas have a voice and a certainty which belongs to him, not to a mere heir of the Viennese sonata--till-now. The String Quintet is one of the most profound and complete pieces of music ever written, a masterpiece in both intimacy and size of conception. It’s tempting to see these pieces as a Farewell to the World. They certainly are a legacy. .

In October, he successfully undertook a walk of fifty miles to visit Haydn's grave. He even began a course of lessons in counterpoint, in which he seems always to have thought himself deficient. But he was too ill to attend more than the first one, and a month later he was obliged to take to his bed. He died on November 19th. Not of syphilis, but most likely of typhoid, made more virulent because of his general condition. .

His reputation has grown since his death. Only about a half of the thousand works he wrote in his lifetime (some short, it’s true) were published before he died. They included almost none of his major instrumental works. .

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