Schubert’s life seems to follow, tragically, the cliché of the Romantic artist: a suffering composer who languishes in obscurity, his genius only appreciated after his untimely death. While Schubert did enjoy the respect of a close circle of friends, his music was not widely received during his lifetime. Though we study him in our Romantic module, Schubert does not fit neatly into the Romantic period. Like Beethoven, Schubert is a transitional figure. Some of his music—particularly his earlier instrumental compositions—tends toward a more classical approach. However, the melodic and harmonic innovation in his art songs and later instrumental works sit more firmly in the Romantic tradition. Because his art songs are so clearly Romantic in their inception, and because art songs make up the majority of his compositions, we study him as part of the Romantic era.
Franz Peter Schubert (31 January 1797 – 19 November 1828) was an Austrian composer.
Schubert died at 31 but was extremely prolific during his lifetime. His output consists of over six hundred secular vocal works (mainly Lieder), seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music and a large body of chamber and piano music. Appreciation of his music while he was alive was limited to a relatively small circle of admirers in Vienna, but interest in his work increased significantly 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 the late Classical era and early Romantic era and is one of the most frequently performed composers of the early nineteenth century.
Schubert was remarkably prolific, writing over 1,500 works in his short career. The largest number of these are songs for solo voice and piano (over 600). He also composed a considerable number of secular works for two or more voices, namely part songs, choruses and cantatas. He completed eight orchestral overtures and seven complete symphonies, in addition to fragments of six others. While he composed no concertos, he did write three concertante works for violin and orchestra. There is a large body of music for solo piano, including fourteen complete sonatas, numerous miscellaneous works and many short dances. There is also a relatively large set of works for piano duet. There are over fifty chamber works, including some fragmentary works. His sacred output includes seven masses, one oratorio and one requiem, among other mass movements and numerous smaller compositions. He completed only eleven of his twenty stage works.
Style and Reception
In July 1947 the 20th-century composer Ernst Krenek discussed Schubert’s style, abashedly admitting that he had at first “shared the wide-spread opinion that Schubert was a lucky inventor of pleasing tunes … lacking the dramatic power and searching intelligence which distinguished such ‘real’ masters as J.S. Bach or Beethoven.” Krenek wrote that he reached a completely different assessment after close study of Schubert’s pieces at the urging of friend and fellow composer Eduard Erdmann. Krenek pointed to the piano sonatas as giving “ample evidence that [Schubert] was much more than an easy-going tune-smith who did not know, and did not care, about the craft of composition.” Each sonata then in print, according to Krenek, exhibited “a great wealth of technical finesse” and revealed Schubert as “far from satisfied with pouring his charming ideas into conventional molds; on the contrary he was a thinking artist with a keen appetite for experimentation.”
That “appetite for experimentation” manifests itself repeatedly in Schubert’s output in a wide variety of forms and genres, including opera, liturgical music, chamber and solo piano music, and symphonic works. Perhaps most familiarly, his adventurousness manifests itself as a notably original sense of modulation, as in the second movement of the String Quintet (D 956), where he modulates from E major, through F minor, to reach the tonic key of E major. It also appears in unusual choices of instrumentation, as in the Sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano (D 821), or the unconventional scoring of the Trout Quintet (D 667).
While he was clearly influenced by the Classical sonata forms of Beethoven and Mozart (his early works, among them notably the 5th Symphony, are particularly Mozartean), his formal structures and his developments tend to give the impression more of melodic development than of harmonic drama. This combination of Classical form and long-breathed Romantic melody sometimes lends them a discursive style: his Great C majorSymphony was described by Robert Schumann as running to “heavenly lengths.” His harmonic innovations include movements in which the first section ends in the key of the subdominant rather than the dominant (as in the last movement of the Trout Quintet). Schubert’s practice here was a forerunner of the common Romantic technique of relaxing, rather than raising, tension in the middle of a movement, with final resolution postponed to the very end.
Please listen to Sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano, D 821 performed by Hans Goldstein (cello) and Clinton Adams (piano)
I. Allegro Moderato
II. Adagio and III. Allegretto
It was in the genre of the Lied, however, that Schubert made his most indelible mark. Leon Plantinga remarks, “In his more than six hundred Lieder he explored and expanded the potentialities of the genre as no composer before him.” Prior to Schubert’s influence, Lieder tended toward a strophic, syllabic treatment of text, evoking the folksong qualities engendered by the stirrings ofRomantic nationalism. Among Schubert’s treatments of the poetry of Goethe, his settings of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (D 118) and “Der Erlkönig” (D 328) are particularly striking for their dramatic content, forward-looking uses of harmony, and their use of eloquent pictorial keyboard figurations, such as the depiction of the spinning wheel and treadle in the piano in “Gretchen” and the furious and ceaseless gallop in “Erlkönig.” He composed music using the poems of a myriad of poets, with Goethe, Mayrhofer and Schiller being the top three most frequent, and others like Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Rückert and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff among many others. Also of particular note are his two song cycles on the poems of Wilhelm Müller, “Die schöne Müllerin” and “Winterreise,” which helped to establish the genre and its potential for musical, poetic, and almost operatic dramatic narrative. His last song cycle published in 1828 after his death, “Schwanengesang,” is also an innovative contribution to German lieder literature, as it features poems by different poets, namely Ludwig Rellstab, Heine, and Johann Gabriel Seidl. The Wiener Theaterzeitung, writing about “Winterreise” at the time, commented that it was a work that “none can sing or hear without being deeply moved.” Antonín Dvořák wrote in 1894 that Schubert, whom he considered one of the truly great composers, was clearly influential on shorter works, especially Lieder and shorter piano works: “The tendency of the romantic school has been toward short forms, and although Weber helped to show the way, to Schubert belongs the chief credit of originating the short models of piano forte pieces which the romantic school has preferably cultivated. […] Schubert created a new epoch with the Lied. […] All other songwriters have followed in his footsteps.”
Schubert’s compositional style progressed rapidly throughout his short life. A feeling of regret for the loss of potential masterpieces caused by his early death at age 31 was expressed in the epitaph on his large tombstone written by his friend the poet Franz Grillparzer: “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hopes.” Some have disagreed with this early view, arguing that Schubert in his lifetime did produce enough masterpieces not to be limited to the image of an unfulfilled promise. This is in particular the opinion of pianists, including Alfred Brendel, who dryly billed the Grillparzer epitaph as “inappropriate.”
Schubert’s chamber music continues to be popular. In a poll, the results of which were announced in October 2008, the ABC in Australia found that Schubert’s chamber works dominated the field, with the Trout Quintet coming first, followed by two of his other works.
The New York Times music critic, Anthony Tommasini, who ranked Schubert as the fourth greatest composer, wrote of him:
You have to love the guy, who died at 31, ill, impoverished and neglected except by a circle of friends who were in awe of his genius. For his hundreds of songs alone – including the haunting cycle “Winterreise,” which will never release its tenacious hold on singers and audiences – Schubert is central to our concert life…. Schubert’s first few symphonies may be works in progress. But the Unfinished and especially the Great C major Symphony are astonishing. The latter one paves the way for Bruckner and prefigures Mahler.
If you’d like in a deeper understanding of the life experiences of Franz Schubert, you can read the entirety of the Wikipedia article on him from which this has been drawn.