The Real Schubert 1797 – 1828

Schubert’s Period

Austria, forever the bridge between occidental and oriental civilization, has been the land traversed by so many of the great composers, that it is hallowed to all musicians. Possibly the most dramatic period of the land of Schubert was that when Francis II, Emperor of Germany, King of Hungary, King of Bohemia and later, by his own defeats, Emperor Francis I of Austria, ruled of the country.


At this time the borders of the country were turned into continual battlefields. The emperor was afflicted with constant sorrows. The fate of his aunt, Marie Antoinette, wife of that feeblest of monarchs, Louis XVI, was hardly more tragic than that of the emperor’s own daughter Maria Louisa. When the fair Maria became the compulsory bride of the unrelenting Napoleon, her father never realized that he would shortly be obliged to become the military opponent of his son-in-law. The death of L’Aiglon, the duc de Reichstadt, the pathetic offspring of that unfortunate union, drew the curtain upon one of the great tragedies of the early nineteenth century. All these events naturally affected the emotional lives of the people who had harbored a Beethoven, produced a Haydn, a Mozart and a Schubert. The wonderful part of it all is that the pomp and circumstance, the brilliant Viennese splendor of Francis, buried under his crushing downfall at Austerlitz, is now securely sealed in the unsparing mausoleums of history, while the living art of poor, paupered Schubert makes new victories every day.

Schubert’s Ancestry

Schubert’s father, Franz Schubert, was a Moravian of peasant parentage. He was a man of fine moral character and no small capacity. Through the influence of his brother he studied with the view of becoming a teacher, and from 1786 to 1817 he was the parish school master in the school of the Twelve Holy Helpers in the Lichtenthal district of Vienna. About 1873 he married Elizabeth Vitz, a domestic servant, then employed as a cook in a Viennese family. She became the mother of fourteen children, one of whom was the immortal Franz. After her death in 1812, Schubert’s father married Anna Klayenbok, who became the mother of five children, one of whom, “Father Hermann,” was a noted priest. Of Franz’ real brothers, Ignaz (thirteen years his senior), and Ferdinand (three years his senior), both became highly respected school teachers. Both of the sons, like the father, were musical and had a part in Schubert’s training. Ferdinand was more musical than Ignaz; that is, he devoted more time to musical composition, producing among other things, two requiems.

Schubert’s Birthplace

In the “Courtyard of Heaven,” in old Vienna, there stood a plain two-story building in which Franz Peter Schubert was born, January 31st, 1797. Later the Viennese changed the name of the street from Himmelpfortgrund to Himmelspfortgasse (the road to the gate of Heaven). The only suggestion of the sublime that surrounds the prosiac old district now is that which the beloved genius of Schubert brought to it. The brilliance and wealth, the architectural and civic splendor of the heart of the Austrian metropolis is strangely contrasted with the uninviting groups of houses located only a few blocks away. However, the environs of the city are adorned with so many building of historical importance in music that their plainness is forgotten because of the memories that surround them.

Schubert’s Early Training

In his early years Franz’s leading teachers were his father and his brothers, Ignaz and Ferdinand. Next he came under the tuition of Michael Holzer, the parish choirmaster, who taught him theory, piano, violin, singing and organ. The boy soon outstripped the instruction of both his brothers and his teacher. When he was eleven his sweet soprano voice secured him the place of leading soprano soloist in the Lichtenthal choir. His occasional violin solos during the services and the little compositions he produced at home aroused wide attention and he became a student in the school provided for the education of the Imperial choristers in the Royal Chapel. This school was known as a Convict. There, under the somewhat irregular direction of Falieri, Eybler and Korner, the little musician continued his musical education. There was a boys’ orchestra which could play some of the symphonic works of Haydn, Mozart, Cherubini, and even some of those of the great Beethoven, the iconoclast of that day. The leader of the orchestra was a boy named Spaun, who formed a close friendship for Schubert and was able to help him in many ways. Indeed, he was the first to discover that Schubert was hampered in his prolific juvenile output of musical compositions by lack of means to secure enough paper to accommodate his notes. Spaun provided the paper and won the little Schubert’s everlasting gratitude.

Schubert’s First Compositions

Later, Franz became the first violin in the orchestra, and this, together with his practice at home in quartets with his musical family, gave him splendid opportunities for becoming acquainted with the best music of his time. At the Convict he also received instruction in history, poetry, drawing, Italian, French, writing, geography and mathematics, but his interest in music outweighed his interest in his general studies, and his musical powers were so manifest that the school authorities made little attempt to remedy this neglect.

His first work of more than passing importance was a piano Fantasia for four hands. It covered thirty-two pages of finely written manuscript, had over a dozen movements and bore the date of 1810. The next two juvenile compositions indicate a rather morbid tendency, since the first was a lengthy vocal work for piano and voice, entitled Hagar’s Lament Over Her Dying Son, and the next, a song entitled Corpse Fantasia, set to words of Schiller. These were followed by another work which bore no less a title than the Father Murderer (Der Vatermorder). Schubert left the Convict in 1813 after five years of deprivation, difficult for the students in this age to understand. The general impression of all those who have reviewed his life with more or less critical care is that his technical musical instruction was neglected by thoroughly well-meaning teachers who construed his capacity and evidences of ability as indications of a kind of natural craftsmanship that did not demand outside instruction. This was altogether regrettable, since with a better technic it is probable that many of Schubert’s discarded works could have been preserved by the master.


Schubert as a Young Man

One could not live in the Vienna of Schubert’s day without becoming saturated with music. Schubert’s favorite composer at the time was Mozart, what countless apostrophied thus, “Mozart, O Mozart, what countless consolatory images of a bright, better world hast thou stamped on our souls.”

After having been threatened with conscription in the army no less than three times Schubert managed to evade military service by entering his fathers’ school as a teacher. Here the great master of the future spent three years teaching children in the lowest grade. Withal, he made a systematic regular teacher and complained little of what many others might have found extremely distasteful.

When not yet eighteen Schubert wrote his Mass in F. This work while not comparable with some of his later compositions was an exceptional example of musical precocity which Sir George Grove ranks with Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. In 1814 he wrote an opera comique entitled Des Teufels Lustschloss. This work was never produced. Schubert was now commencing to compose with the remarkable rapidity that amazed all who knew him. He worked regularly many hours each day and as soon as one composition was finished he would fly to the next before the ink was dry upon the first. Melodic inventiveness never seemed to forsake him, although he often failed to identify his own compositions after they had been written. Doubtless, the world has never known a more pronounced instance of genuine inspiration–this is the production of art works without conscious effort or the employment of mechanical contrivances of style to eke out feeble ideas. Schubert was a treasure house of tonal thoughts. His greatest difficulty was that of getting them down upon paper quick enough to make way for the next.

A Friend in Need

Again, a friend came to the help of Schubert in the person of Franz von Schober, who actually hunted Schubert out in the home of his father and insisted that he abandon his school work and take up a residence with his friend in Vienna where he might have leisure for composing. Apparently, Schubert was for the time being supported by the generosity of his friend. This brought Schubert into a new world–the world of art, literature, philosophy and gaiety–the Vienna of society, light, and poetic progress. Schubert, however, showed his peasant origin by his inability to affect the superficialities of this more or less artificial life. Stimulating as it was to him–he was so modest, so retiring that he remained apart as an observer rather than treading upon the stage as an actor. He had a high regard for his real friends and made confidants of them, but he was too true to himself to toady to others for his personal gain. Von Schober introduced him to the famous tenor, Mischel Vogl, who was in a position to advance Schubert’s art-work by singing his songs and by introducing him to influential people.

The Romance of “The Erlking”

Although Schubert was still a very young man when he wrote The Erlking, he had already written numerous excellent compositions. It was The Erlking, however, that brought his works to the wider attention of the musical public. The Erlking was written in 1815 in its original form. Schubert was then eighteen years of age. Spaun, Schubert’s friend in the Convict, found the composer in his room one winter day reading Goethe’s famous poem with intense excitement. The melody was written as fast as his fingers would fly, although more time was taken in filling in the accompaniment. It was sung on the same evening at the Convict school, and was not received with great enthusiasm because it evaded too many of the conventional rules that the preceptors in that institution had laid down. The song was given many private hearings among Schubert’s friends. All publishers, however, refused to have anything to do with it, and with Schubert’s other manuscripts, principally because the pianoforte accompaniments were “too difficult.” Accordingly Schubert’s friends undertook the matter of having copies of The Elk King engraved at their own expense. One hundred copies were subscribed for.

The song was first sung in public January 25th, 1821. Schubert played the accompaniments in person and the singer was Gymnich. It was sung again on March 25th of the same year by Vogl. It made a pronounced impression, and, indeed, led to the publication of a set of Erl King Valses rigidly denounced by Schubert and long since forgotten. Schubert was now gradually acquiring an unsought but highly necessary fame. Publishers solicited his songs and other compositions, but at the same time strove to induce him to write trifling pieces, solely with a view to their commercial possibilities.


Schubert’s Fecundity

Vogl, Mayrhofer (a poet of sombre trend) and von Schober were ever ready to help the needy Schubert, who, like a wonderful plant, preferred to keep on blossoming and blossoming without thought of providing for himself. Indeed, all that was needed to induce Schubert to write a song was the presence of an inspiring poetical thought. Once a friend met Schubert in a summer garden and loaned him a copy of a translation of Shakespeare’s works. Schubert opened to Hark, Hark the Lark, and exclaimed that a wonderful melody had come into his head. The friend hastily scratched out a few staves upon the back of the bill or fare and Schubert wrote than and there one of his loveliest songs. this anecdote is related by Schubert’s intimate friend, Doppler, who was present at the time.


Schubert at the Esterhazy’s

In 1818 Schubert went to the home of the famous Esterhazy family in Zselesz. He taught all of the children, and, in fact, became kind of a musical attache of the house. His monthly income was about forty dollars, but as he had his living in quarters finer than anything he had ever known, the opportunity was looked upon an exceedingly rare. It is assumed, however, that he preferred the friendship of his old circle of admirers in Vienna despite the dilapidated room of his friend Mayrhofer with its worn-out piano, fallen ceiling, shabby furniture, etc.

Schubert’s Dramatic Works

Seven of Schubert’s seventeen dramatic works were performed, but none of them now survive in popular favor as pieces for the stage. Nine of the works were of a lighter order and fall in the class of operetta song-play or even farce (such as Die Zwilingsbruder.) The music to Madame von Chezy’s Rosamunde, however, is extremely fine and had the libretto been in any way comparable with it, the work might have remained on the boards to this day. The play was a tiresome spectacle, and though it met with favor at its first performance it dropped out of existence almost immediately. In fact, the manuscripts were tied up and laid aside as unimportant until rediscovered forty-four hears later by Sir George Grove and Sir Arthur Sullivan while they were in Vienna. Practically all of Schubert’s librettos were worthless, and this accounts in a measure for the failure of his works to obtain longer theatrical life.

Success and Failure

In 1824 Schubert spent another summer at the country home of the Esterhazy’s. He needed the rest and quiet of the trees and hills as he was wholly disheartened by the rejection of his two operas. Alfonzo and Estrella and Fierrabraz, both of which suffered from inferior librettos. Some of his biographers insist that at this time he courted the attention of his pupil, Caroline Esterhazy, but when we remember the great social chasm between the peasant-born composer and the count’s daughter, it seems hardly probably. The winter of 1825 was spent among his old friends in Vienna, and the following summer, in company with Vogl, he toured the Austrian highlands, reaching as far as Salzburg and Linz. At this time he set parts of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, including the gorgeously beautiful Ave Maria. The visit to upper Austria was a truly delightful one, since the mater’s music had become very popular and the gentry of the country vied with each other for the privilege of entertaining him.

In 1826 and 1827 no event of great importance to Schubert occurred other than the regular and increasing popularity of his works. In 1827 Schubert paid two very dramatic visits to the dying Beethoven, who, after ignoring Schubert’s works all his life, suddenly awoke to their importance upon his deathbed, and declared that “Schubert has my soul.” Schubert was one of the torchbearers at Beethoven’s funeral. In 1827 he also made a visit to the Pachler family in Graz, Austria (Styria), and immensely enjoyed the liberty afforded him by freedom from care.


Schubert’s Last Year

Schubert’s last year was one of the most productive. He had no premonition of death, and although he worked throughout the whole year as though each precious moment was his last, he enjoyed every minute hugely. He was made a member of the important Music Society of Vienna and enlarged his circle of acquaintances. Despite the fact that he wrote with great rapidity and that his compositions were frequently accepted, he was paid trifling sums for most of them and his improvident method of living kept him on the doorstep of poverty most of the time. Toward the end of 1828 Schubert’s friends noticed that his health was failing, and attributed it to overwork or lack of the proper nourishment. In one of his last letters he begs his friend Schober for another work of James Fennimore Cooper to read, stating that he had read The Spy, The Pilot and The Pioneers. He took to his bed in the early part of November, and it soon became evident that his complaint was the deadly typhus fever. Toward the last hour he was in a delirium, imagining that he was already dead. Shortly, he whispered, “Here, here is my end!” and breathed his last.

His death occurred November 19, 1828. His brother Ferdinand had been faithful to the last. His father, who was still living and teaching, was prostrated with grief. Dredded liek a hermit, after the manner of the times and crowned with laurel, he lay in his eternal peace. Can you see a little group of students clad in red cloaks bearing the body of the great man, garlanded with flowers, to his last resting place beside Beethoven in the little Garden of Peace?

Most pitiful of all is the inventory of the earthly belongings of the man who gave so much beauty to the world. A few clothes, some worn-out furniture and a heap of old manuscripts, worth in all not more than ten or twelve dollars. On the monument above his grave is the notable epitaph by the poet Grillparzer:

Music has buried here in rich treasure,
But far more beautiful hopes.

Schubert’s Appearance and Personality

Schubert was very short in stature, his actual height being less than five feet and one inch. This made him appear somewhat insignificant, and many were disappointed when they saw him for the first time. His body was stocky and his fingers thick and short. His head was round and crowned with thick black hair. His eyes, invariably shielded by spectacles, were large and impressive while his nose was small and stumpy. In fact, his tightly curled hair and facial peculiarities are said to have given him the “appearance of a negro.” Franz Lachner, one of his friends, declared that Schubert was so unprepossessing in appearance that he looked “just like a cabman.”

Generous, big-hearted, noble in his ideals, unsophisticated, devoid of meanness and simple in the ways of the world, Schubert’s personality was as charming as it was naive. Even toward the end of his short life when fame was rapidly crowding upon him he gave little thought to the distinctions which his mastery brought him. His only object in life was apparently to create more and more music.

Schubert as a Composer

Schubert was undoubtedly one of the most prolific composers who ever lived. He literally poured himself out in melody. But, like most creative artists who express themselves indiscriminately, he did not always produce masterpieces or even near masterpieces. In his moments of highest inspiration, however, he is unsurpassed. A full and complete list of all the music he ever wrote is impossible because many of his manuscripts were lost. He is known, nevertheless, to have composed 18 dramatic works (including Alfonso and Estrella, Fierabras, Rosamunde, etc); 7 masses, an oratorio (the Song of Miriam) and other church music; cantatas and songs, 603 known songs (many others probably lost); 10 symphonies, of which No. 8 (the Unfinished) and No. 10 (the C major) are regarded as second only to symphonies of Beethoven; 7 overtures, a violin concerto in D; the well-known Octet for strings, horn, bassoon and clarinet, two quintets, twenty string quartets, 2 piano trios, 2 string trios, and other pieces for piano and violin; 20 sonatas, 4 impromptus, 6 Moments Musicales, marches, waltzes, fantasias, etc., for piano solo, and similar compositions for four hands. It will be seen that he touched practically every branch of musical composition, and he enriched everything he touched. The world of music will never cease speculating on what Schubert might have produced had his mind been more disciplined by the usages of musical composition, and on whether his free, untrammeled genius would have soared so high if he had received a fine musical training. Schubert was music incarnate.

A Schubert Program

  1. Piano Duet, Military March, Opus 51, No. Grade 3

  2. Piano Solo, Impromptu, Opus 90, No. 2 Grade 6

  3. Vocal Solo, Morning Greeting Grade 3

  4. Violin Solo, Rosamund Air (arranged by Frederic Franklin) Grade 4

  5. Piano solo, Erl King (arranged by Heller) Grade 5

  6. Vocal Solo, Hark, Hark the Lark Grade 4

  7. Chorus, God of Mercy (arranged by Bracket) Grade 3

  8. Piano Solo, Moment Musicale, Opus 94, No. 3 Grade 4

  9. Vocal Solo, Who is Sylvia? Grade 4

  10. Piano Solo, Serenade (arranged by Stephen Heller) Grade 4

  11. Piano Duet, Marche Heroique, Opus 27, No. 1 Grade 3

Books about Schubert

When it is remembered that Schubert led a very quiet and retiring life it is somewhat surprising to note the number of books that have been written about him and his works. Many of the best works upon Schubert are in German, and recently a very exhaustive biographical study of him has been published in that language. Of the works in English the best-known are the excellent biography in the Grove Dictionary, written by Sir George Grove himself; Schubert, by H. F. Frost; Schubert, by L. G. Heinze; Schubert’s Songs, by A. J Bache; Schubert, by Edmanstoune Duncan.