Franz Peter Schubert’s Life

franz-schubertFranz Peter Schubert was born at Lichtenthal (near Vienna), January 31, 1797, and died in Vienna, November 19, 1828.

In the beginning of this series of articles I remarked that my purpose was not only to find out the reasons for the success, but also of the temporary failure of great musicians. From the study of every individual, from every quality which rendered him attractive or unwelcome to society, from his success or failure we can always derive some lesson either as a model to imitate or as a warning “how not to do things.”

In the case of Franz Schubert I shall endeavor to discover what was the cause of the astonishing lack of recognition from which he had to suffer while living. He was not the victim of opposition or prejudice or envy, but simply of being ignored. His life was that of an obscure individual who gained a scanty livelihood, first as a schoolmaster and afterward as a musician, and who occupied his spare time with compositions of all kinds which publishers looked upon with indifference. Schubert was considered only as a negligible quantity.

Anton Schindler (the biographer of Beethoven), who, in the last years of his life, was among Schubert’s most intimate friends, was of the opinion that the cause of the obscurity in which Schubert’s transcending talent remained was to be found in a certain obstinacy, a certain inflexibility which made him deaf to well-meant and practical advice from his best friends. He was too informal in his manners, too indifferent to social intercourse. In addition to that, his appearance was far from captivating. He was short and stooped a little, had curly hair and a puffy face, bushy eyebrows, big round spectacles and a stumpy nose.

Schubert is perhaps the single instance of a great artist whose outer life had no affinity or connection with art. His career was simple and uneventful, so out of all proportion with the works which he created like a heaven-sent genius, that we must at last turn to them mainly if we would form any estimate of the golden treasures concealed in the min of Schubert’s heart and spirit.

It was just his commonplace existence which obscured Schubert’s greatness from the world.

Schubert’s Convivial Tastes

He was also somewhat indifferent to the charms of the fair sex, nor, as frequently happens with those gifted with a vivid temperamental fancy, was Schubert a victim to excessive passion. It may be that his aspect and his manner did not meet the sympathy of noble women. He had rather plain tastes. He loved to be in company with a few merry fellows, and spend with them hours and hours at the wine shop. He liked  good wine. In spite of the protestations of friends anxious about his health he refused to think the potations with water, and not having a strong head it happened that he would occasionally overshoot the mark and then become boisterous and violent, or when the wine had completely overpowered him, sink off to a corner, where not a syllable could be got from him.

There is no exception to the testimony given on this point by all those persons who had plenty of opportunity to observe him on such occasions.

One is disposed to attribute to a frequent indulgence in wine the cause of the pain and rushes of blood to the head to which Schubert was subject in the last years of his short life; and even the illness to which he so quickly succumbed may, at least in part, be ascribed to his fondness for strong liquors.

No wonder that the rough, unpolished shell did not disclose at once the precious pearl it concealed.

Even Beethoven, living in Vienna at the same time with Schubert, had not heard of him until Schubert was twenty-five years old and had already composed hundreds of his immortal songs, symphonies, concertos and operas. Not till 1822 did Schubert think of presenting in person to the master he honored so highly his Variations on a French Song. Beethoven, then in his fifty-second year and suffering from deafness, expressed the wish that Schubert should write the answer to his questions. But Schubert, out of sheer nervousness, felt as if his hands were tied and fettered. Some remarks of Beethoven uttered on an inaccuracy in the harmonies of his variations disconcerted Schubert the more, and the result was that never, until Beethoven lay dying, did Schubert see him again, as he had not the courage to repeat what had been a nerve-racking experience. Beethoven, on the contrary, after the interview, was most favorably impressed with Schubert, and commenced to study the young composer’s works with keen interest. Especially, as Schindler states, Iphigenie, Gransen der Menschheit, Allmacht, Junge Nonne, Viola and the Mullerlieder impressed him deeply.

Evidently besides genius, pertinacity and industry, something else is needed to pave the way to success. Seclusion and want of manners may prove a serious hindrance to recognition, as in the case of Schubert.

Schubert’s Early Education

The Schuberts were natives of Zuckmantel, in Austrian Silesia. Franz Schubert, the father of the composer, held an appointment as the schoolmaster of Lichtenthal. His first wife was a cook, by whom he had fourteen children. Only five of the fourteen survived, Franz being the fourth, born 1797 at Lichtenthal. At the earliest age he manifested a decided predilection for music. It was evident that nature had endowed him for a musician rather than for a schoolmaster. When he was seven years old he made friends with an apprentice who often took him to a pianoforte warehouse, where little Franz had the opportunity of practicing on the instrument. At eight his father commenced to teach him the violin, and then sent him for singing lessons to Michael Holzer, the parish choirmaster, who soon found out that whenever he wished to teach the boy anything new he had already mastered it. “Consequently,” he said, “I cannot be said to have given him any lessons at all. I merely regarded him with dumb astonishment.” Schubert showed altogether extraordinary precocity in music, although he had not the opportunity to display it to a crowd of admirers. In 1808 he was appointed to the Imperial Chapel, a position which included the right to admission in the “Stadtconvict.” It appears that his garb and shape were so unprepossessing that the sompetitors jokingly called him “the miller’s son.” but Salieri, the conductor of the choir, quickly recognized young Schubert’s ability and gave him the preference. He was soon made leader of the school orchestra. Here he became acquainted with the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He was enraptured with poetically imaginative works like the G Minor Symphony of Mozart, which he declared was like the song of angels.

Schubert during his student days was chronically short of pocket money and wrote to his brother Ferdinand: “You know by experience that a fellow would like at times a roll and an apple or two, especially if, after a frugal dinner, he has to wait for a meagre supper for eight hours and a half. The few groschen that I receive from my father are always gone to the devil the first day and what am I to do afterwards? ‘Those who hope will not be confounded’ says the Bible, and I firmly believe it. Suppose, for instance, you send me a couple of kreutzer (about a cent) a month? I don’t think you would notice the difference in your own purse and I should live quite content and happy in my cloister. St. Matthew says also that ‘whosoever has two coats shall give one to the poor.’ In the meantime I trust you will lend your ear to the voice crying to you incessantly to remember your brother Franz.”

Schubert’s Music Paper

One more serious result of his impecuniosity was the impossibility of purchasing music paper for the compositions which now commenced to flow in rapid succession, but this want was supplied by the generosity of one of his older schoolmates, Joseph Spaun, who early recognized his genius. 1810 he wrote a piece for pianoforte, to which he gave the curious title of Corpse Fantasie. 1811 he wrote a quintet overture, a quartet, a fantasia for piano and his first songs, which drew the attention of Salieri to the boy’s talent, and he was handed over to Rucizka for harmony lessons. The experience of this teacher was similar to that of Holzer: “He has learned everything,” said Rucizka, “and God has been his teacher!.”

Afterwards Schubert enjoyed the personal instruction of Salieri for many years. Salieri was the most eminent of Italian musicians resident in Vienna. He was a man of great ability, and Schubert derived much benefit from him. Particularly his love for sweet melodies, shown in all his compositions, was undoubtedly fostered by the Italian maestro. Characteristic of the chauvinistic tendencies of German historians is the fact that they consider the wonderful and rapid advancement made by Schubert under the leadership of this distinguished musician not as a logical consequence of his tuition, but as ensuing in spite of the same. Although a composer of genius (he wrote 40 operas, among which Armida, Semiramide and Les Danaides ought to be specially mentioned) and an eminent conductor, the mere fact that Salieri was an Italian was enough in the eyes of these prejudiced critics to deprive him of the credit of having contributed to the musical education of Franz Schubert. That latter, however, entertained the most affectionate feelings and sincere gratitude towards his teachers, as proved by a Jubilee Cantata he wrote in honor of Salieri. During the same year (1816) Schubert wrote his most famous songs.

The Family Quartet

On holidays his instrumental chamber music was played at hom eby the family quartet composed of Ferdinand first violin, Ignaz second, Franz viola, and the father violincello. Franz’s quick ear detected the most trifling blunders. He rebuked his brothers, but would ignore the mistakes of his father or timorously call his attention to them, saying: “Is not something wrong here, sir?”

Schubert left the “Stadtconvict” 1813, his residence there having lasted five years. The pecuniary circumstances of his father forbade the possibility of Schubert’s devoting himself exclusively to music, and his only immediate chance was to assist in his father’s school. For three years he settled down to an existence of unspeakable weariness, teaching the children of the poorer classes of Vienna the alphabet and the rudiments of arithmetic; but in spite of such wearisome activity these years were the most prolific of his life, for it was then that he wrote some of his most important works.

A remarkable fact in Schubert’s life is that he formed intimate friendship only with congenial persons of his own sex, while he had scanty and mostly commonplace experiences with the fairer part of humanity.

1814 he composed the opera Der Teufel’s Lustschloss whose plot was even more outrageous than that of Mozart’s Zauberflote without having the hidden symbolism contained in Schikaneder’s story. It deals with enchanted castles, monsters, deeds of daring and all the paraphernalia of fairy romanticism. For a serious opera it was utterly unsuitable. It was never performed.

Amazing as his rate of production had been in previous years, all former efforts were eclipsed in 1815. Half a dozen dramatic works, two masses, two symphonies, a quantity of church and chamber music and nearly one hundred and fifty songs form the stupendous catalogue of works conceived and finished within the space of twelve short months! In the whole history of music we can find no parallel to this inexhaustible fertility. It is certain that it was absolutely no trouble for Schubert to compose. The subject once chosen, the ideas to express it came naturally and superabundantly. Unlike Mozart he did not carefully perfect his works before writing them down. Handel, Bach and Haydn wrote with extreme rapidity but none of them exhibited the degree of fecundity of Schubert at the age of eighteen. Spina has a M.S. of seven songs all composed October 15, 1815, and on the 19th four more were written. Among the many songs of this period, those which breathe the spirit of Schubert most truly are the Erlkonig and the Wanderer. The Earl King has a history. One afternoon Schubert was in his room and happening to take up a volume of Goethe’s poems, read the Earl King with intense excitement. The howling wind and the terrors of the forest became stern realities to the inspired youth who instantly dashed down that wonderful tone picture in the presence of a friend who had entered the room. Vogl, the singer, sang it and produced a great sensation. Jean Paul on his death bed requested that he might once more hear the Earl King. This song was the first of Schubert’s compositions that appeared in print, and this happened in the year of his death, thirteen years after the ballad was composed. The publishers for years refused to have it, even as a gift, and probably would never have given the small trifle they did give for it had they not known of the demand for the copies Dr. Sounleitner engraved at his own expense and which were published in commission in 1821.

Schubert’s Aversion to Teaching

1818 Count Esterhazy, a Hungarian nobleman, offered Schubert the post of music master in his family. Schubert did not care for teaching, in fact had an aversion to it, but the two gulden a lesson, wintering in town, and other advantages induced him to waive his objections, to accept the count’s offer, and to accompany him to Zelesy. Soon after entering into the family he felt a growing passion for Caroline Esterhazy, the count’s youngest daughter. The pretty features, the sweet voice, and careful piano accompaniment of the girl of eleven charmed the young genius, but she did not return his love and could do no more than admire his music. Yet she once coquettishly reproached Schubert for not having dedicated any piece of music to her. “What’s the use,” replied the poor fellow, “when everything I do is dedicated to you.” To the last day of his life it is said he entertained the same feelings towards her but they were not always hopeless and unreciprocated.

Of Schubert’s sixteen operas and operettas, very few if any, are know today. Song was the life long object of this true tone poet; for it he strove and above all he succeeded. Many may know him by other music but the world at large knows him more by those inspiring melodies which express all emotions appertaining to hum nature – love and hatred, joy and sorrow, hope and despair. His six hundred songs form a unique and precious bequest to music.

Efforts were made from time to time after Schubert’s death to arrange for the production of his opera, “Alfonso and Estrella,” but they were unsuccessful until 1854, when it was brought out at Weimar with the co-operation of Franz Liszt. The Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik thus criticises the opera: “Unfortunately the poetical, large-hearted composer found himself in company with a thoroughly prosy librettist, and for this reason Schubert’s opera will have no vitality. The meagre way in which the subject is handled, destitute of any kind of interest, offering no exciting situation, no good dramatic effects, must necessarily have a tame, depressing effect on the audience, not to mention the lyrical effusions which are immoderately dragged out.” These last are the peculiar features of the opera (which one could correctly designate a song opera), the consequence is that Schubert, with his pure vein of melody, must have felt a constant sense of restraint and he did not get beyond the simplest phrases and forms of his Lieder. The inevitable result was a kind of suicidal monotony which even the lyric genius of Schubert could not entirely dispel.

Schubert was not a virtuoso in the modern sense of the word, but he accompanied his own songs beautifully, keeping the time very strictly, and (in spite of his short, thick fingers), he could play the most difficult of his sonatas, except the Fantasia op. 15, which he never could master. On one occasion, whilst attempting it at a private party and sticking fast in the final movement, he jumped up from the chair, exclaiming: “Only the devil himself could play this stuff!”

Schubert’s Diary

The best way of gaining an insight to the special likings and idiosyncrasies of a great man is afforded by the study of his diaries and private correspondence. Now whether Schubert was averse to letter writing there is no evidence to show, but the one great charm we find in the study of the lives of other great musicians is denied to us in the instance of Schubert. Also only small portions of his diaries remain. Alois Fuchs in his “Schubertiana” relates: “Some years ago I found accidentally at an autograph dealer’s in Vienna the fragment of one of Schubert’s diaries in his own hand writing, but several of the pages were wanting. On my asking the reason of this the wretched owner of the relics replied that he had for a long space of time been in the habit of distributing single pages of the manuscript to hunters of Schubert relics or autograph collectors. Having expressed my indignation at this vandalism, I took care to save what was left. The leaves refer to four days only and run as follows: ‘June 13, 1816 – This day will haunt me for the rest of my life as a bright, clear and lovely one. Gently and as from a distance the magic tones of Mozart’s music sound in my ears. With what alternate force and tenderness, with what masterly power did Schlesinger’s playing (Schlesinger was an excellent violinist) of that music impress it deep, deep in my heart. Thus do these sweet impressions passing into our souls work beneficiently on our inmost being, and no time, no change of circumstances can obliterate them. In the darkness of the life they show a clear beautiful distance, from which we gather confidence and hope. O Mozart, immortal Mozart! how may and what countless images of a brighter and better world hast thou stamped in our souls!'”

Schubert has left behind works in every style; in songs he is superior to every other composer, while in other branches he is not equally unique. His “Sixth” Symphony (1819), his “Seventh” (1828) and his E-flat Mass (1828) are the most conspicuous works besides his songs.

The failure of so many hopes – more particularly in respect of the performance of his operas in the theatre – straitened circumstances and constant bodily ailments tended to make Schubert serious and depressed, a state of mind which later gave way to a phase of deep dejection bordering on absolute despair. On November 11, 1828, Schubert’s increasing weakness compelled him to keep to his bed. During his illness – nervous fever – which lasted only nine days, he suffered from mental wandering. He died on the 19th of November, aged thirty-one years. A portrait bust marks his grave, and on the pediment beneath it is the following epitaph: “Music buried here a rich treasure, But still more glorious hopes.”

Here are a few aphorisms by Schubert and anecdotes of him:

Take men as they are, not as they ought to be.     Town politeness is a powerful hindrance to men’s integrity in dealing with one another. The greatest misery of hte wise men and the greatest happiness of the fool are based on conventionalism.

Schubert, when his teacher Salieri told him that he was competent to write an opera, stayed away from his lessons for a couple of weeks and then begged the astonished master to examine the entire score of Des Teufels Lustschloss, which he placed before him.

Schubert had given the singer Vogl some of his songs. Vogl examined them at his home and found among them one that pleased him particularly and had it transposed to suit his voice. About a fortnight elapsed and both friends were enjoying music together, when Vogl, without saying a word further, placed the song in the transposers’ handwriting upon the piano. When Schubert heard the composition he called out: “Hm! pretty good song! Whose is it then?” He did not recognize his own work, which made Vogl speculate upon whether Schubert composed in a state of somnambulism, or trance, without free will on the part of the composer.

Schubert’s Unfortunate Surroundings

Resuming we find the following salient traits in Schubert’s life:

Lack of conventional deportment and an unsightly appearance were stumbling blocks in Schubert’s artistic career.

His absurd over modesty. Even dealing personally with publishers he was reserved and timid to a degree that he failed to reap the full harvest of his labor.

Intemperate indulging in frequent and strong libations, which shortened his life. Those we could call the “Secrets of His Failures,” the delay of fame during his lifetime.

On the other hand, the eminently artistic surroundings in his early youth, first in his own family and then at the “Stadtconvict” under Salieri’s leadership, gave Schubert a solid foundation on which he could build his wonderful musical powers.

Altogether we have in Schubert a rare instance of an immortal tone poet, who lived under the most unfavorable circumstances and was fully recognized only after his death.