Franz Peter Schubert

The rise of the Romantic school involves a greater freedom  in form, a fuller play of poetry and imagination, a general artistic evolution and independence in comparison with the formality of the Classic period. The struggle to establish these principles was long and obstinate, but the outcome was as inevitable as the victory won by Beethoven’s sonata and symphonic forms over the more primitive types of Haydn and Mozart. The first departures from the classic attitude were made by Schubert, whose influence has been permanent in the development of romanticism.

Schubert’s Early Life (1797-1816): Franz Peter Schubert was born in a suburb of Vienna, January 31, 1797. At an early age he had lessons on the violin from his father, who was a school teacher, and on the piano, from his elder brother. He so quickly outstripped both teachers that he was sent to Michael Holzer, choir-master of the parish, who taught him piano, organ, violin, singing and theory. In later years, Holzer disclaimed the value of his instruction, saying: “If I ever wished to teach him anything new, I found he had already mastered it.” After singing in the parish choir, he passed an examination for admission to the Imperial Convict or school for the Royal choristers. The training included general education as well as music; there was also an orchestra among the boys in which Schubert played the violin and sometimes conducted. There were privations connected with life at the Convict, the practice rooms were insufferably cold, and the food insufficient. In 1810, Schubert began to compose, dating his pieces care-fully, and the only check to his inspiration was the lack of music-paper, which he was too poor to buy. A generous friend made up the deficiency. In 1813, he left the Convict, although his general education was by no means complete, since he had neglected his studies on account of his increasing passion for composition. After leaving the Convict, Schubert taught elementary classes at his father’s school, but the drudgery became insupportable. An ardent friend and admirer, Franz von Schober, realizing that Schubert’s creative powers were greatly hampered by the conditions of his life, gave him a home. Already he had composed some of his most famous songs, including “The Erl-King.”

Later Years (1816-1828).-From 1816 on, Schubert appears to have lived in Schober’s apartments, except for two years shared with the poet Mayerhofer, and a period spent with a friend, Schwind. It is a mystery how Schubert man-aged to live, for he taught little, and his few publications could have brought him at best only small sums at irregular intervals. He had already failed to secure a position in a Government school of music, but in 1818 he passed the summer as music teacher to the household of Count Johann Esterhazy, in Zelescz, Hungary. The record of his life here-after is one of incessant composition, with few interruptions or facts of interest. In 1823, he showed Weber his eighth work for the stage : “Alfonso and Estrella.” The only advice he received was that “first operas, like first puppies, should be drowned.” The summer of 1824 was spent again with the Esterhazys and many characteristic compositions, such as the quartet in A minor, the “Hungarian Divertissement,” the piano sonata in B-flat, etc., date from this time. In 1826, Schubert failed to obtain either of two positions, which would have placed him above need, the second be-cause, like Beethoven, he refused to alter a trial aria to suit the voice of a capricious singer. Schubert was taken to see Beethoven during his last illness, in 1827. In 1828, he went to live with his brother Ferdinand in a new and damp house. His health, which had been troublesome before, now gave way, and he died of typhoid fever, November 28, 1828, in his thirty-second year.

Personal Traits and Habits of Work. :Schubert was short of stature, thickset and rather heavy in features. His face in repose was rather devoid of expression, but when interested in anything, his eyes glowed with enthusiasm and his whole appearance changed. His disposition was even and good-tempered, he was simple and trusting by nature, and could rarely be induced to put himself forward. Although receiving many favors from friends, his generosity often led him to give to others when he could ill spare it. He began composing early in the morning and worked uninterruptedly for several hours; he walked much in the after-noon or paid visits to friends, spending his evenings with congenial spirits at various taverns. Composing was the mainspring of his existence, and he often wrote down his ideas while in the midst of conversation with others. Thus he wrote his immortal “Serenade” on the back of a bill-off-are at a tavern; a piece for four-hands while waiting at a hospital for a friend, “and dinner missed in consequence”; a movement of a string quartet was begun about midnight and finished in the early morning. Although he set many poems by Goethe, Schiller and Heine, his inspiration was quite as effectively aroused by second-rate poems of his friends Mayerhofer, von Schober, or the artless poems of Müller. Schubert was shy and reserved in what might be called “good society” ; he preferred the company of con-genial friends in an humbler social station. He seems to have cared little for literature, and his love of poetry was limited to its availability as texts for songs. In early life he played the violin and the viola in a family string quartet. Schubert was no virtuoso on the piano, but he played exquisite accompaniments, and he read well at sight in spite of defective eyesight. His performance was marked by earnestness and attention to the inner sentiment of the music rather than by the superficial polish, of the mere pianist. It was said that n0 one could forget the effect of Schubert’s songs as performed by himself and his friend Vogl; the two seemed absolutely united, the ideal condition for the rendering of vocal works.

Schubert’s Compositions.—Schubert completed more than eleven hundred pieces in about eighteen years. Such fertility is unique in the history of composition, and is scarcely equalled even by Mozart, whose activity extended over nearly thirty years. Schubert’s powers of spontaneous invention have never been approached ; he composed generally ,without making sketches; he seldom revised, for his ideas came faster than he could write them down. It is impossible to enumerate all Schubert’s works, but the following comprise the most important : Nine symphonies, eleven works for the stage, six masses, over seventy part-songs, choruses, etc., for various combinations, twenty-four sonatas for piano, fantasies, overtures, variations, marches and dances for piano duet, impromptus, moments musicals, fantasies, variations and over two hundred dances for piano solo, two trios for piano and strings, a quintet for strings and piano, a string quintet and several string trios, twenty-four string quartets, besides about six hundred songs with piano accompaniment and occasionally with obligatos for other instruments. It is obvious that such fertility is not consistent with evenness of quality ; we must pick and choose to find the real Schubert. However, the *symphonies in C and B minor (“Unfinished”), the string quartets in D minor and G major, several sonatas for piano, the impromptus, moments musicals, the fantasy in C for piano, the Hungarian Divertissement, several marches and other compositions for four hands, many charming two-hand waltzes, and, finally, such song-cycles as the “Miller-Songs,” the “Winter Journey,” those called “Swan-Songs” by the publishers, as well as about thirty separate songs “The Erl-King,” “The Wanderer,” “To Sylvia,” “The Omnipotent,” “The Young Nun,” the “Serenade,” “Hark ! Hark ! the Lark,” “Sei mir gegrusst,” “Du bist die Ruh,” “Ave Maria,” “Litany,” and others, are the works of Schubert which will live. Schubert at his best entrances us by his wonderful flow of melody, his spontaneity, his symmetrical form, which, however, is sometimes diffuse. His chief qualities lie in the simple expressiveness of his music, a direct appeal to sincerity of emotion, and to the sense of the poetic. He began by imitating the form and style 0f Mozart and Beethoven ; but from his eighteenth year onward he developed an individuality entirely apart. Despite the virtues of his instrumental music, his great achievement was the creation of the German song, in which department he stands unrivalled in the inexhaustibility of his melody, the variety of mood which they display, the subtlety and harmonic beauty of his accompaniments, as well as art in creating vocal effects.

Schubert’s Influence on Music.—In abundance of resource, poetic feeling and true imagination, Schubert has brought new forces into music. His influence on romantic composers was widespread and deep. Schumann was a thorough admirer of Schubert. Schumann’s songs could hardly have come into existence but for those of Schubert, and the latter’s short pieces for piano were undoubtedly as potent an inspiration for his piano works. Brahms, too, had a real reverence for Schubert, that is plainly exhibited in his works. Despite the differences of their artistic individuality, there are traces of Schubert in the former’s songs as well as in some of his short piano pieces. Liszt’s partiality to Schubert was untiring in its zeal. He played his piano music, transcribed the “Hungarian Divertisse-ment,” arranged some of the marches for two hands and for orchestra; he made a version of the fantasy in C for piano and orchestra, which is still popular; and, finally (perhaps his greatest service to Schubert) he transcribed no less than fifty-seven of his songs for piano. In this form he created an interest in Schubert where the original versions were unknown, and did much to spread their renown. In spite of all shortcomings, Schubert’s genius was so remark-able, and his immediate effect upon the Romantic movement so apparent and his legacy to the musical world so imperishable that it is difficult not to agree with Sir George Grove when he wrote : “There has never been one like him and there never will be another.”


Grove.—Dictionary of Music and Musicians, article on Schubert.

Frost.—Life of Schubert.

Von Hellborn.—Life of Franz Schubert.

Dvorâk.—Franz Schubert. (Century Library of Music.)