The 100 most Influential Musicians Of All Time – Franz Schubert
(b. Jan. 31, 1797, Himmelpfortgrund, near Vienna [Austria]—d. Nov. 19, 1828, Vienna)
Franz Peter Schubert was an Austrian composer who bridged the worlds of Classical and Romantic music. Although especially noted for his songs (lieder) and chamber music, he also wrote symphonies, masses, and piano works.
Early Life and Career
Schubert’s father was a schoolmaster, and his mother was in domestic service at the time of her marriage. Franz was their fourth surviving son, and he had a younger sister.
The family was musical and cultivated string quartet playing in the home; Franz played the viola. He received the foun- dations of his musical education from his father and his brother Ignaz. In 1808 he won a scholarship that earned him a place in the imperial court chapel choir and an edu- cation at the Stadtkonvikt, the principal boarding school for commoners in Vienna, where his tutors included the composer Antonio Salieri, then at the height of his fame.
Schubert played the violin in the students’ orchestra and was quickly promoted to leader and sometime conductor. Schubert’s earliest works included a long Fantasia for Piano Duet, a song, several orchestral overtures, various pieces of chamber music, and three string quartets. An unﬁnished operetta on a text by August von Kotzebue, Der Spiegelritter (The Looking-glass Knight), also belongs to those years. Eventually Schubert’s work came to the notice of Salieri; when his voice broke in 1812 and he left the college, he continued his studies privately with Salieri for at least another three years. During this time he entered a teachers’ training college in Vienna and in 1814 became assistant in his father’s school. Rejected for military service because of his short stature, he continued as a schoolmaster until 1818.
The numerous compositions he wrote between 1813 and 1815 are remarkable for their style, originality, and imagination. Besides ﬁve string quartets, there were three full-scale masses and three symphonies. His ﬁrst full-length opera, Des Teufels Lustschloss (The Devil’s Palace of Desire), was ﬁnished while he was at the training college. But at this period song composition was his chief interest. On Oct. 19, 1814, he ﬁrst set to music a poem by Goethe, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”), from Faust; it was his 30th song, and in this masterpiece he created the German lied (art song). The following year brought the composition of more than 140 songs.
The many unﬁnished fragments and sketches of songs left by Schubert provide some insight into the working of his creative mind. The primary stimulus was melodic; the words of a poem engendered a tune. Harmony (chordal structure of a composition) and modulation (change of key) were then suggested by the contours of the melody. But the external details of the poet’s scene—natural, domestic, or mythical—prompted such wonderfully graphic images in the accompaniments as the spinning wheel, the ripple of water, or the “shimmering robe” of spring. These features were fully present in the songs of 1815. During that year Schubert also was preoccupied with a number of ill-fated operas.
In 1816 Schubert took a leave of absence from his duties as school headmaster, and during his teaching hiatus he met the baritone Johann Michael Vogl. As a result of this meeting, Vogl’s singing of Schubert’s songs became the rage of the Viennese drawing rooms. But this period of freedom did not last, and in the autumn of 1817 Schubert returned to his teaching duties. The leave, however, had been particularly fruitful. Songs of this period include “Ganymed,” “Der Wanderer,” and the Harper’s Songs from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister. There were two more symphonies: No. 4 in C Minor, which Schubert himself named the Tragic (1816), and the popular No. 5 in B-ﬂat Major (1816). A fourth mass, in C major, was composed in 1816. The year 1817 is notable for the beginning of his masterly series of piano sonatas. Six were composed while staying at the home of life-long friend Franz von Schober, the ﬁnest being No. 7 in E-ﬂat Major and No. 11 in B Major.
Schubert’s years of schoolmastering ended in the sum- mer of 1818. He had found the position frustrating, and in the spring of that year he had produced only one substantial work, the Symphony No. 6 in C Major. In the meantime his reputation was growing, however, and the ﬁrst public performance of one of his works, the Italian Overture in C Major, took place on March 1, 1818, in Vienna. In June he took up the post of music master to the two daughters of Johann, Count Esterházy, in the family’s summer residence at Zseliz, Hung. In the summer months Schubert com- pleted the piano duets Variations on a French Song in E minor and the Sonata in B-ﬂat Major, sets of dances, songs,
and the Deutsche Trauermesse (German Requiem).
On his return to Vienna he composed the operetta Die Zwillingsbrüder (The Twin Brothers), but the production of the work was postponed, and in June 1819 Schubert and Vogl set off for a protracted holiday in the singer’s native district of upper Austria. There he composed the ﬁrst of his widely known instrumental compositions, the Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 664, and the celebrated Trout Quintet for piano and strings. The close of 1819 saw him engrossed in songs to poems by his friend Johann Mayrhofer and by Goethe, who inspired “Prometheus.”
In June 1820 Die Zwillingsbrüder was performed with moderate success in Vienna, Vogl doubling in the parts of the twin brothers. It was followed by the performance of inci- dental music for the play Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp), given in August of the same year. The melodious overture became famous as the Rosamunde overture. At the close of the year 1820, Schubert composed the Quartettsatz (Quartet- Movement) in C Minor, heralding the great string quartets of the middle 1820s, and another popular piece, the motet for female voices on the text of Psalm XXIII. In December 1820 he began the choral setting of Goethe’s Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (Song of the Spirits over the Water) for male-voice octet with accompaniment for bass strings, D. 714, completed in February 1821.
During September and October 1821 Schubert worked on the three-act opera, Alfonso und Estrell. It was com- pleted in February 1822 but was never performed. In July 1822, he produced the document called Mein Traum (“My Dream”), describing a quarrel between a music-loving youth and his father. The autumn of 1822 saw the begin-ning of the Symphony in B Minor (Unﬁnished). In November of the same year Schubert composed a piano fantasia and completed the Mass in A-ﬂat Major.
At the close of 1822 Schubert contracted a venereal disease, and the following year was one of illness and retirement. He continued to write almost incessantly. In February 1823 he wrote the Piano Sonata in A Minor, and in April he made another attempt to gain success in Viennese theatres with the one-act operetta Die Verschworenen (The Conspirators), the title being changed later to Der häusliche Krieg (Domestic Warfare). The famous work of the year, however, was the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (“The Fair Maid of the Mill”), representing the epitome of Schubert’s lyrical art. Schubert spent part of the summer in the hospital and probably started work—while still a patient—on his most ambitious opera, Fierrabras. The year 1823 closed with Schubert’s composition of the music for the play Rosamunde, performed at Vienna in December.
Schubert was ill, penniless, and plagued by a sense of failure early in 1824. Yet during this time he composed three masterly chamber works: the String Quartet in A Minor, a second string quartet in D Minor containing variations on his song Der Tod und das Mädchen, and the Octet in F Major for strings and wind instruments. In desperate need of money, he returned in the summer to his teaching post with the Esterházy family and in May 1824 went again to Zseliz. Once more his health and spirits revived. The period was marked by some piano duets, the Piano Sonata in C Major (Grand Duo), the Variations on an Original Theme in A-ﬂat Major, and the Divertissement à la hongroise (Hungarian Divertissement).
During these years his songs were frequently performed.
Publication proceeded rapidly, and his ﬁnancial position, though still strained, was at any rate eased. This is the period of the Lady of the Lake songs, including the once popular but later neglected Ave Maria. Instrumental compositions are the piano sonatas in A Minor and in D Major, the latter composed at Badgastein. He sketched a symphony during the summer holiday, in all probability the beginnings of the Symphony in C Major (Great), com- pleted in 1828.
The resignation of Salieri as imperial Kapellmeister (musical director) in 1824 had led to the promotion of his deputy, Josef Eybler. In 1826 Schubert applied for the vacant post of deputy Kapellmeister, but in spite of strong support by several inﬂuential people he was unsuccessful. From then until his death two years later he seems to have let matters drift. Neither by application for professional posts nor submission of operatic work did he seek to establish himself.
The songs of 1826 include the settings of Shakespeare’s “Hark! Hark! the Lark!” and “Who is Silvia?” Three ﬁne instrumental works of this summer and autumn are the last: String Quartet in G Major, the Piano Sonata in G Major, and the beginning of the Piano Trio in B Flat Major. In 1827 he composed the ﬁrst 12 songs of the cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey). Beethoven’s death in 1827 undoubtedly had a profound effect on Schubert, for there is no denying that a more profound, more intellectual quality akin to that in Beethoven’s music appears in his last instrumental works, especially the Piano Trio in E-ﬂat Major (1827) and the Piano Sonata in C Minor (1828). In September 1827 Schubert spent a short holiday in Graz. On his return he composed the Piano Trio in E-ﬂat Major and resumed work on Part II of the Winterreise. This is the period of his piano solos, the
Impromptus and Moments musicaux.
A succession of masterpieces marks the last year of his life. Early in the year he composed the greatest of his piano duets, the Fantasy in F Minor. The Great Symphony was concluded in March, as was also the cantata Miriams Siegesgesang (Miriam’s Victory Song). In June he worked at his sixth mass—in E-ﬂat Major. A return to songwriting in August produced the series published together as the Schwanengesang (Swan Song). In September and early October the succession was concluded by the last three piano sonatas, in C Minor, A Major, and B-ﬂat Major, and the great String Quintet in C Major—the swan song of the Classical era in music.
The only public concert Schubert gave took place on March 26, 1828. It was both artistically and ﬁnancially a success, and the impecunious composer was at last able to buy himself a piano. At the end of August he moved into lodgings with his brother Ferdinand. Schubert’s health, broken by the illness of 1823, had deteriorated, and his ceaseless work had exhausted him. In October he devel- oped typhoid fever, and his last days were spent in the company of his brother and several close friends.