Composer. A giant of 19th century music, he was the foremost creator of lieder (German art songs) and produced masterpieces in a wide variety of forms. Although he died at the age of 31, he left a more substantial body of work than many composers who lived fuller lives. Franz Peter Schubert was born in Himmelpfortgrund, near Vienna, Austria. His father was a schoolteacher and amateur musician who encouraged his prodigious musical gifts. In 1808 he joined the choir of the Imperial Court Chapel (forerunner of the Vienna Boys Choir) and won a scholarship to the Imperial and Royal City College, where he received an excellent education. He studied piano, violin, and organ, and from 1810 was privately tutored in composition by Antonio Salieri. The college had a fine student orchestra and Schubert soon became its concertmaster and assistant conductor. He also began writing music - so much so that he lamented he couldn't afford to buy the quantities of music paper he needed. Friends provided it for him. In 1813 Schubert's family insisted he leave the college to train as a teacher, and by the following autumn he was an assistant at his father's school. He resented the time this job took away from composing but his productivity was unstoppable. In 1815 alone he wrote two symphonies, two masses, four stage works, a string quartet, numerous dances for piano, and 150 songs, including the Goethe setting that first made his name, "Der Erlkönig" ("The Elf King"). For fun Schubert and his friends held domestic concerts devoted to his music, gatherings that came to be known as "Schubertiads". Through these he made useful contacts and the circle expanded to include such distinguished figures as baritone singer Johann Michael Vogl, playwrights Franz Grillparzer and Eduard von Bauernfeld, painter Moritz von Schwind, and composer Franz Lachner. The wealthy young dilettante Franz von Schober was the friend Schubert felt closest to; he provided the poem for the song "An die Musik" ("To Music", 1817) and the libretto for his only grand opera, "Alfonso and Estrella" (completed in 1822). It was largely at Schober's prompting that Schubert quit teaching in 1818 for an uncertain life as a freelance musician in Vienna. It is also believed he led the composer into dissolute habits. Schubert almost certainly contracted syphilis in late 1822 and his remaining six years were darkened by bouts of illness and depression. During that period he matured astonishingly as a composer, spurred on by admirers and his love for the music of Beethoven, who he revered. (He was a torchbearer at Beethoven's funeral in March 1827). His reputation as a songwriter gradually spread to other parts of Austria and he was elected to the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society for the Friends of Music), though wide recognition eluded him to the end. An all-Schubert public concert in March 1828, the only one in his lifetime, was scarcely covered by the local press. That autumn his health deteriorated and he went to live with his brother Ferdinand in a Viennese suburb. From November 11 he was confined to bed with what was later diagnosed as typhoid; one of the attending physicians was a specialist in venereal diseases. He died on November 19, turning his face to the wall with the words, "Here, here is my end". In the delirium of his final moments, Schubert, believing he had been buried alive, asked if he was lying next to Beethoven. Ferdinand interpreted this rambling as a last request and on November 21 Schubert was buried in Vienna's Währinger Friedhof as close to his idol as was possible - four graves to Beethoven's left. The cemetery was closed in the 1870s and on September 22, 1888, the remains of Schubert and Beethoven were exhumed and transferred to the new Zentralfriedhof in Vienna. The Währinger Friedhof was demolished in the 1890's but the original graves of the two composers were preserved as a gesture of respect. The memorials are still there; the site is now called Schubert Park. Schubert was a tragic example of a genius so devoted to his art that he was unable to adapt to the practical realities of the world. "The state should keep me, I was born to do nothing but compose", he once grumbled. After leaving his father's school he never held a steady job and relied on the generosity of friends (with whom he often lived) and occasional patronage and commissions. The few avenues to fame and fortune for a musician of his era were beyond him. He was not a virtuoso pianist or violinist; his operas failed or were rejected by producers. Publishers only wanted his songs and piano dances, and paid him poorly for them. Yet he preserved a tough-minded faith in his abilities. Grillparzer's 1830 epitaph for Schubert - "Here the art of music has entombed a rich treasure, but even fairer hopes" - has been much criticized, but in fairness even Schubert's intimates didn't know the extent of his accomplishments. Of his 1000 compositions fewer than 100 opuses were published before his death, and for much of the 1800s he was celebrated only for his lieder. Ferdinand Schubert worked hard to further his brother's legacy, notably in 1838, when he revealed to Robert Schumann a treasure trove of unknown manuscripts, including that of the "Great" C Major Symphony. The symphony was premiered the following year by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig, but other major works had to wait decades for performance. This began to change with the successful 1865 premiere of his "Unfinished" Symphony in B minor, 43 years after it was written, by which time his influence had stealthily pervaded the German romantic movement and beyond. The great development of lieder began with him. Schumann (who called Schubert "Beethoven's first-born") acknowledged his debt, as did Brahms, while his original use of instrumental forms paved the way for the symphonic superstructures of Bruckner and Mahler. Liszt transcribed several of the songs for piano; Berlioz arranged "Der Erlkönig" for orchestra. The first attempt at a complete edition of Schubert was published between 1884 and 1897, and in the 20th Century no one did more to raise Schubert's standing than musicologist Otto E. Deutsch. Schubert's mature instrumental music shows him for the striving, innovative artist he really was. The "Unfinished" B minor Symphony holds a central place in his output, and not only by virtue of its popularity. By age 20 he had written six symphonies influenced by Mozart and Haydn, among them the "Tragic" (1816) and the "Little" C major (1818), before the overwhelming impact of Beethoven made itself felt. "After him, who can do anything?" he exclaimed, and the problem of finding a new approach occupied him through several false starts in the early 1820s. He abandoned three symphonies in the sketch stage before hitting on a solution with the B minor. Instead of working out themes in the Beethovian classical manner, Schubert built his movements through melodic and harmonic development, allowing the lyrical element to predominate. Why he halted its composition in 1822 after two movements (and sketches for a third) is one of music's tantalizing mysteries, but it was nevertheless a personal breakthrough. He would realize his ambitions for "a grand symphony" with the "Great" C Major, written between 1825 and 1826 and possibly revised in 1828 for a performance that did not take place. The almost heroic confidence of its themes, its grandeur and rhythmic vitality have since made it a repertory warhorse. Schubert's important chamber and keyboard works include the popular "Trout" Quintet for piano and strings (1820), the unfinished "Quartettsatz" (1820), the "Wanderer Fantasy" (1822), Impromptus (c.1827), "Moments Musicaux" (1828), and Fantasy in F minor (1828) for piano, the "Grand Duo" Sonata for piano duet (1824), the Octet in F (1824), the String Quartets Nos. 14 ("Death and the Maiden", 1824) and 15 (1826), two Piano Trios (1827, 1828), and the extraordinary three late Piano Sonatas and Quintet in C for strings (all 1828). For the stage Schubert turned out three operas, five singspiels, and incidental music for two dramas; only the Overture and ballet music for the play "Rosamunde" (1823) are heard today. His lack of success in this sphere is usually attributed to the bad texts. In any kind of word-setting Schubert had to be deeply engaged by the material to do his best, and the ridiculous plots and cardboard characters permissible under Austrian censorship offered little to motivate him in that direction. There is a similar dearth of inspiration in his sacred music, though the reasons may be more intriguing. Schubert's brother Ignaz was a freethinker, and there are strong suggestions in the composer's correspondence that he felt the same way. He went so far as to omit from the Credo of all his masses the words "Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam" ("And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church"). There are fine moments in the unfinished oratorio "Lazarus" (1820) and his Mass No. 6 (1828), though nothing that stirs the soul like his secular "Ave Maria". If Schubert went through an identity crisis finding his voice in instrumental forms - and never really found it in the theatre or church - there were no such difficulties with his more than 600 songs. At 17 he produced his first masterpiece, "Gretchen am Spinnrade" ("Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel"), and from there he single-handedly defined the German lied as an art form. He wasn't merely one of the greatest melodists who ever lived; he was acutely sensitive to the texts and his lyricism encompassed the gamut of emotions in the vocal lines, the apt illustrative and atmospheric touches in the piano accompaniments. The poets he set ranged from Goethe, Schiller, Klopstock and Heine to friends who dabbled in verse, such as Johann Mayrhofer and Schober. The best known of his songs include "Heidenröslein" ("Rose on the Heath", 1814), "Der Wanderer" (1816), "Der Tod und das Mädchen" ("Death and the Maiden", 1817), "Ganymed" (1817), "Die Forelle" ("The Trout", 1817), "Prometheus" (1819), "Du bist die Ruh" ("You are Stillness and Peace", 1823), "An Sylvia" ("Who is Sylvia?", 1826), and the aforementioned "Ave Maria" (Schubert's title: "Ellens Gesang III", 1826). With "Die schöne Müllerin" ("The Lovely Mill Girl", 1824) and "Die Winterreise" ("Winter Journey", 1827), set to poem sequences by Wilhelm Müller, Schubert invented the song cycle as we know it. Both deal with love and its loss, but while "Die schöne Müllerin" is a colorful folk narrative, "Die Winterreise" is a stark psychological tragedy. The pure human drama of Müller's verse fired Schubert's imagination in ways his opera librettos never did and the cycles remain unsurpassed in the genre. The posthumous "Schwanengesang" ("Swan Song", 1829), a collection of his last lieder, is not a real cycle; it consists of 14 settings of Rellstab, Heine, and Seidl. The title was added by the publisher. Outstanding among them are "Die Stadt" ("The City") and "Der Doppelgänger" ("The Double"). Had Schubert written only songs, his place among the greats of Western music would be assured.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards