On January 31, 1797, Franz Peter Schubert entered the world via his family’s one room apartment in the working class Lichtental district of Vienna. His parents, Franz Theodor and Elizabeth Schubert, did not know it right then but they had just produced Vienna’s newest musical genius in their youngest son. Of the fourteen infants Elizabeth bore, Franz was the fourth born of the five Schubert children who survived infancy. Franz Schubert had much in common with Mozart, whom he idolized. Both were simply born to be composers, being gifted and naturally prolific; doing anything else with their lives would have been a waste. In their lifetimes, both composers were underpaid and undervalued although the lasting popularity of their music over the past two centuries proved their worth. And both died while in their thirties.
The Schubert family had no wealth or worldly status, but neither were they destitute, whatever living in a one room apartment suggests now. At the close of the eighteenth century Vienna was a densely populated city where crowded living conditions were a fact of life; most of their neighbors were no better off. If anything, the Schubert’s were what passed for upwardly mobile for that time and place. Franz Theodor was a schoolmaster with a steady job and a local reputation as a good teacher. Enrollment at his school grew each year as did his annual salary. By 1801, he was able to buy a small two-story house in Lichtental. He taught classes on the ground floor, while the family moved into the upper story rooms.
An important musical development was going on during Schubert’s childhood; the development of the pianoforte, parent of the modern piano. Mozart and Beethoven composed for it often, contributing immensely to its popularity. Chopin and Liszt would have had significantly different careers without it. The piano would have tremendous impact on Schubert’s own life as a composer, as well. More and more families were purchasing pianos for their homes, Vienna being a city full of both professional and amateur musicians. The Schubert’s bought a pianoforte as soon as they had room for one.
Franz Schubert’s musical education began at around age five when took his first piano lessons from his eldest brother, Ignaz. The lessons ended within a few months because Franz was already the better pianist; Ignaz was only the first music teacher he would quickly outgrow. He was equally adept at his primary lessons at his father’s school. By age seven, his intelligence and musical ability inspired his father to take Franz to meet Antonio Salieri, the Emperor’s Court composer. Salieri’s average gifts as a composer were wholly eclipsed by those of his great contemporaries, but he still was a knowledgeable, skilled musician whose Court position commanded respect in Vienna. He was very impressed by the boy Schubert, and over the next decade, he taught Schubert an immense amount of practical musical and compositional theory. Of all his music teachers, it took Schubert the longest time to outgrow Salieri. Schubert started taking violin lessons from his father at about the same time, and choral singing, organ and counterpoint lessons from the choirmaster and organist at his family’s parish church, Michael Holzer.
By 1808, Franz had learned everything Holzer could teach him, so at Salieri’s recommendation, he entered a citywide audition to fill a vacancy in the Court chapel choir. The position also supplied a scholarship at the Stadkonvikt, the Imperial conservatory and school. Nobody was surprised when Schubert won. He was then eleven years old. He spent the next five years immersed in learning everything about music, from participation in choral and orchestral rehearsals to music theory and was exposed to the symphonic, operatic and chamber music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He had also made many musician friends among his fellow pupils. It was the best musical and practical education the developing composer could have had in Vienna. When his boy alto broke in 1813, Schubert left the Stadtkonvikt at age sixteen, ready to make his way in the world and meant to earn his living as a composer.
The Annus Mirabilis
Altough he started composing by 1810, 1815 is called the Annus Mirabilis or Miracle Year of Schubert’s life. In that year while discovering his power as a composer, he wrote his first symphony and half his second; a string quartet; nine works for solo piano; eight or nine sacred compositions for voices and orchestra, and his first 140 solo songs and wrote all of this while he had also accepted a teaching position at his father’s school to help support himself. This was not a man who took weekends off. His family and friends held frequent musical evenings which gave Schubert regular opportunities to hear his compositions performed almost before the ink on the score was dry. He was then eighteen years old.
In his lifetime, the only thing Schubert did not compose was a complete opera. He attended the opera regularly and made several attempts to write one, but none were ever completed or staged. Several operatic overtures survive in his body of work. But symphonies, chamber works, choral and sacred works, and solo piano pieces all flowed from his pen. The combination of his natural musical ability and thorough education allowed Schubert to rapidly compose music of amazingly consistent high quality.
For the most part, Schubert was carrying on the instrumental music traditions and existing compositional forms of the eighteenth century, and very ably. But his most lasting fame is for his contribution to art song literature, collectively referred to as lieder in German. A lieder song consists of a poem set to a melody for a solo voice with a piano accompaniment. They are intimate, meant to be performed in parlors or small recital halls. Schubert did not invent this form of song, but he might as well have; few people besides music historians remember the names of the lieder composers who preceded him. He definitely perfected it and made it his own. Unlike folk songs which may be sung by anyone, Schubert’s lieder demands the technique of a trained singer and a polished pianist. Accompanied by a piano, the singer does not have to sing at operatic volume, nor does the music demand a three to four octave range, but it does not mean the songs are easy to sing well. The demands are more subtle than an opera aria perhaps, but they provide enough variety and challenge to keep a singer busy for the duration of their career. After singing one of Schubert’s intensely emotional song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin or Winterreise, a lieder singer may feel as emotionally drained as if they had sung a complete opera.
The piano accompaniments to Schubert's lieder is no oom-pah-pah succession of chords; it contributes much to the song’s emotional mood and helps to complete the story. They are often technically challenging, especially in such songs as Gretchen am Spinnrade, Erlkönig, and Die Forelle. The accompanist is a full partner in the performance, but must never overshadow the singer. For his texts Schubert’s favorite poets were Goethe, Schiller, Heine and Rückert, but he was sometimes criticized for choosing indifferent poets and poems including the works of his poet friend, Franz von Schober. Schubert ignored all critics and used any poems he pleased for he needed a large supply. When you write 600 songs in a little over a decade, they can’t all have texts by Goethe.
Although he had a large circle of devoted friends, Schubert’s own love life was never satisfactory. He was short and plump, wore spectacles and was described as shy and gruff around women. His friends gave him the apt but unfortunate nickname of “Schwammerl” (Little Mushroom.) His personality was naturally pessimistic, if not depressed and grew more so later in his life. He was not unfeeling, and since syphilis was at least a contributing cause of his death, he was no celibate, either. His songs, and especially his song cycles are filled with powerful emotions, reflecting both the joy and despair of being in love, showing that Schubert understood the importance of it all very well. But marriage or any lasting romantic relationship eluded him. For all his gifts, Schubert was rarely able to support himself financially, let alone anyone else.
First on the program for this virtual recital will be Erlkönig, one of Goethe’s poems. (Text and translation here: http://recmusic.org/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=6382)
There are three distinct ‘voices’ in the song; the father, who hears nothing beyond what he expects while riding through the forest; the child, who grows increasingly frightened because he can hear the Erlkönig, best described as an unfriendly supernatural forest being. And of Erlkönig himself, speaking to the child, trying to persuade him to remain behind in the forest. Erlkönig’s persuasion begins as friendly coaxing and finishes as menacing. By the time the father and son reach home, the child is dead, evidently frightened to death. The piano part suggests the horse’s hooves, as the father and son ride quickly home. The singer is German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
The second song in this miniature recital will be Gretchen am Spinnrade, one of Schubert’s earliest songs, also set to a text by Goethe. (Text and translation here: http://classicalmusic.about.com/od/romanticperiod/qt/gretchenlyrics.htm)
Briefly recapped, Goethe’s Faust tells the story of a world-weary old scholar who sells his soul to the Devil for a second chance at youth. Mephistopheles helps Faust seduce Marguerite (Gretchen), and then forces him to desert her. The song is sung from her point of view as she sits at her spinning wheel, remembering Faust and longing for him to return. She’s not what you’d call a liberated woman. The piano part suggests the turning of the spinning wheel. The singer is the American soprano, Barbara Bonney.
After all this high emotion, the third song is by Schubert in a lighter frame of mind. The text is by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart. (Text and translation here: http://www.tomoko-yamamoto.com/multimedia/schubert/Die_Forelle.html) Despite what you may be thinking, not all German or Austrian surnames begin with S-c-h. The inspiration for Die Forelle (The Trout) came about when Schubert was on a country outing with friends one day by a trout stream. It is a light-hearted song--unless of course, you happen to be a trout. The accompaniment suggests rapidly running water. The singer is English tenor, Ian Bostridge.
The final song will be Du Bist Die Ruh, (You are the Peace) with a text by Friedrich Rückert. The text and translation may be found here: http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=18177
Of all these songs this one fits most closely into Robin Sneed’s Love Letter open call theme. It is a declaration of love, and the music is simply beautiful and has long been one of my favorites. The singer is Austrian mezzo-soprano, Angelika Kirschlager.
Franz Schubert died in Vienna on November 19, 1828. It may have been from syphilis, which he first contracted in 1822; or it might have been mercury poisoning, since mercury was considered a cure for syphilis at the time. He was then thirty-one years old.