Thursday, October 15, 2015

Introduction to Franz Schubert

The fourth on the list of the New York Times' list of the 10 greatest composers is Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) and, tragically, he died the youngest of all. Not a child prodigy as Mozart was, who composed from the age of five, Schubert did not write anything of any significance until he was seventeen. Including that year, he only had fifteen productive years as he died at thirty-one. But in those brief years he composed more music than composers who lived much longer. By the age of nineteen he had composed six operas, five symphonies, sixteen string quartets, dozens of dances for piano and hundreds of songs. Here are two masterpieces dating from his seventeenth year:

The singer is Kiri Te Kanawa and the text is from Goethe's Faust. Here is Der Erlk├Ânig, another setting of a text by Goethe. The singer is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

That a seventeen-year old could have composed either of those songs is almost beyond belief. But this was just the beginning. Schubert began to have serious health problems from 1822, when he was just twenty-five. But this is also when his major works began to appear. The "Unfinished" Symphony, two movements that were never added to, the "Wanderer" Fantasy for piano and the Mass in A flat major are among them.

Schubert's short life has almost no dramatic biographic features. If you dropped by to see him, he would greet you politely and go right back to writing! This is not surprising: his life was lived in music. By the time of his death he had written 998 pieces of music. That number conceals more than it reveals as a whole set of songs, such as Die Winterreise, or an opera, or a whole symphony or string quintet, each of these multi-movement pieces are counted as one work in the catalog. As one biographer said, this represents "an outburst of composition without parallel in the history of music."

During his lifetime almost none of his major works were known. The one concert devoted entirely to his music, on March 26, 1828, was completely overshadowed that week by the Viennese debut of the violin virtuoso Paganini, who got all the publicity. The last two of Schubert's symphonies were not even performed until long after his death, in the 1850s and 60s. The "Unfinished" was not even published until 1867!

In the last year of his life, desperately ill, he managed to write more masterpieces than other composers manage in their whole lives: the last three piano sonatas, Die Winterreise, the "Great" C major Symphony, the two piano trios, the Mass in E flat major, the C major String Quintet, the F minor Fantasie for piano duet, the Schwanengesang song collection--the list goes on!

Schubert is a difficult composer to fully understand as he lies in and is responsible for one of the great transitions in music history: from 18th century classicism to 19th century romanticism. You can easily make the argument that it is Schubert's approach to harmony and melody that was the most important influence on 19th century composers.

I want to take a few posts and explore some of Schubert's music. Let's start here: in his 19th year, in a little over a month, he wrote his Symphony No. 5 in B flat major. The model is Mozart and to an 18th century clarity and grace Schubert adds the occasional quirky minor inflection and a Schubertian warmth. The performers are Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.


Anonymous said...

I'm a regular visitor to your blog.I enjoyed your highly informative discussions on the music of Shostakovich,a composer i like very much.So i very keenly look forward to your posts on Schubert's music.Schubert is one of my favorite composers,so thank you.

Bryan Townsend said...

My pleasure, John. And thanks for being a regular reader.