Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Franz Schubert

Born 31st January 1797, Franz Peter Schubert was an Austrian composer who bridged the worlds of the late Classical and early Romantic eras. Despite his short lifetime, Schubert left behind a vast body of work which included more than 600 secular vocal works, seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music and a large body of piano and chamber music. He was particularly noted for the melody and harmony in his songs (lieder) and chamber music.  

Franz was their fourth surviving son of Franz Theodor Schubert, schoolmaster, and Elisabeth Vietz who was in domestic service at the time of her marriage. The family was musical and cultivated string quartet playing in the home, the boy Franz playing the viola. He showed a gift for music from an early age, with his father gave him his first violin lessons and his elder brother gave him piano lessons, continuing later with organ playing and music theory under the instruction of the parish church organist. However Schubert soon exceeded their abilities. In 1808 aged 11 he won a scholarship that earned him a place in the imperial court chapel choir and an education at the Stadtkonvikt, the principal boarding school for commoners in Vienna, where his tutors were Wenzel Ruzicka, the imperial court organist, and, later, the composer Antonio Salieri, then at the height of his fame. There he became acquainted with the orchestral music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Schubert played the violin in the students’ orchestra, was quickly promoted to leader, and in Ruzicka’s absence conducted. He also attended choir practice and, with his fellow pupils, cultivated chamber music and piano playing. 

Schubert left the Stadtkonvikt at the end of 1813, returning home where he began studying to become a schoolteacher. He continued his studies in composition with Antonio Salieri and still composed prolifically. The first public performance of one of his works, the Italian Overture in C Major, took place on March 1, 1818, in Vienna. This boosted his pubic reputation and in June he left the city to take up the post of music master to the two daughters of Johann, Count Esterházy, in the family’s summer residence at Zseliz, Hungary. 

Initially Schubert struggled to publish his own works, but with support from friends his song “Erlkönig” ("Elf King") was offered gonna subscription basis. This proved very successful and in Vienna the popularity of Schubert’s songs and dance music became so great that concert parties were entirely devoted to them. These parties, called Schubertiaden, were given in the homes of wealthy merchants and civil servants, but the wider worlds of opera and public concerts still eluded him.   

In 1821, Schubert was admitted to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde as a performing member, which helped establish his name among the Viennese citizenry. He gave a concert of his own works to critical acclaim in March 1828, the only time he did so in his career. He died eight months later at the age of 31, the cause officially attributed to typhoid fever, but believed by some historians to be syphilis. 

Appreciation of Schubert's music while he was alive was limited to a relatively small circle of admirers in Vienna, but interest in his work increased greatly in the decades following his death. Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms and other 19th-century composers discovered and championed his works. Today, Schubert is ranked among the greatest composers of Western classical music and his music continues to be popular.  

Schubert truly stands between the worlds of Classical and Romantic music. One of the last of the great Classical composers, his music is emotional and poetic in the style of the Romantic era. It is nevertheless a product of the formal mould of the Classical school and Schubert belongs to the age of Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart than to that of Schumann, Chopin, and Wagner.

Schubert's Mass in G is a personal favourite, and we recorded Schubert's "Holy, Holy, Holy" virtually during lockdown last year with our choir (below). I also have fond memories of my youngest son as a treble recording "Ave Maria" a few years back, then aged 11. 

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