Franz Schubert the Bridging Figure in the History of Classical Music

  June 19, 2021   Read time 4 min
Franz Schubert the Bridging Figure in the History of Classical Music
Franz Schubert (b. Jan. 31, 1797, Himmelpfortgrund, near Vienna [Austria]—d. Nov. 19, 1828, Vienna) Franz Peter Schubert was an Austrian composer who bridged the worlds of Classical and Romantic music. Although especially noted for his songs (lieder) and chamber music, he also wrote symphonies, masses, and piano works.

Schubert’s father was a schoolmaster, and his mother was in domestic service at the time of her marriage. Franz was their fourth surviving son, and he had a younger sister. The family was musical and cultivated string quartet playing in the home; Franz played the viola. He received the foundations of his musical education from his father and his brother Ignaz. In 1808 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 included the composer Antonio Salieri, then at the height of his fame. Schubert played the violin in the students’ orchestra and was quickly promoted to leader and sometime conductor. Schubert’s earliest works included a long Fantasia for Piano Duet, a song, several orchestral overtures, various pieces of chamber music, and three string quartets. An unfinished operetta on a text by August von Kotzebue, Der Spiegelritter (The Looking-glass Knight), also belongs to those years. Eventually Schubert’s work came to the notice of Salieri; when his voice broke in 1812 and he left the college, he continued his studies privately with Salieri for at least another three years. During this time he entered a teachers’ training college in Vienna and in 1814 became assistant in his father’s school. Rejected for military service because of his short stature, he continued as a schoolmaster until 1818.

The numerous compositions he wrote between 1813 and 1815 are remarkable for their style, originality, and imagination. Besides five string quartets, there were three full-scale masses and three symphonies. His first full-length opera, Des Teufels Lustschloss (The Devil’s Palace of Desire), was finished while he was at the training college. But at this period song composition was his chief interest. On Oct. 19, 1814, he first set to music a poem by Goethe, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel”), from Faust; it was his 30th song, and in this masterpiece he created the German lied (art song). The following year brought the composition of more than 140 songs.

The many unfinished fragments and sketches of songs left by Schubert provide some insight into the working of his creative mind. The primary stimulus was melodic; the words of a poem engendered a tune. Harmony (chordal structure of a composition) and modulation (change of key) were then suggested by the contours of the melody. But the external details of the poet’s scene—natural, domestic, or mythical—prompted such wonderfully graphic images in the accompaniments as the spinning wheel, the ripple of water, or the “shimmering robe” of spring. These features were fully present in the songs of 1815. During that year Schubert also was preoccupied with a number of ill-fated operas.

In 1816 Schubert took a leave of absence from his duties as school headmaster, and during his teaching hiatus he met the baritone Johann Michael Vogl. As a result of this meeting, Vogl’s singing of Schubert’s songs became the rage of the Viennese drawing rooms. But this period of freedom did not last, and in the autumn of 1817 Schubert returned to his teaching duties. The leave, however, had been particularly fruitful. Songs of this period include “Ganymed,” “Der Wanderer,” and the Harper’s Songs from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister. There were two more symphonies: No. 4 in C Minor, which Schubert himself named the Tragic (1816), and the popular No. 5 in B-flat Major (1816). A fourth mass, in C major, was composed in 1816. The year 1817 is notable for the beginning of his masterly series of piano sonatas. Six were composed while staying at the home of life-long friend Franz von Schober, the finest being No. 7 in E-flat Major and No. 11 in B Major.

Schubert’s years of schoolmastering ended in the summer of 1818. He had found the position frustrating, and in the spring of that year he had produced only one substantial work, the Symphony No. 6 in C Major. In the meantime his reputation was growing, however, and the first public performance of one of his works, the Italian Overture in C Major, took place on March 1, 1818, in Vienna. In June he took up the post of music master to the two daughters of Johann, Count Esterházy, in the family’s summer residence at Zseliz, Hung. In the summer months Schubert completed the piano duets Variations on a French Song in E minor and the Sonata in B-flat Major, sets of dances, songs, and the Deutsche Trauermesse (German Requiem).

Write your comment