Franz Peter Schubert was born in 1797 in Vienna, the city where Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven rose to greatness before him. Like Mozart, Schubert was a man of prodigious musical talent and prolific output whose life was tragically short and beset with financial difficulties and disappointments. Although only 31 when he died, Schubert displayed a maturity and depth of emotion in his music that many composers who lived much longer never achieved.
In 1813, having been taught piano and violin by his brother and his father, the former Imperial Chapel choirboy Schubert began to train as a teacher. During training he composed three symphonies, three masses, chamber music, nearly 150 Lieder (German songs), four short operas and many short piano pieces.
Schubert has been called a 'Romantic Classicist' since he faithfully used forms and harmonic language from the Classical tradition of Mozart and Haydn. He composed nine symphonies, 22 piano sonatas, 35 chamber works, six masses and 17 operas, all in recognisable Classical forms. But his greatest legacy is the 600 Lieder which exquisitely embody the poems he set (often on Romantic themes such as nature, the supernatural and love) using beautiful melodies and richly inventive piano accompaniments.
Schubert was a very private man who rarely performed in public, preferring to premiere compositions at musical evenings in private drawing-rooms, or 'Schubertiads' as these gatherings became known. He gradually acquired a wide circle of like-minded, musically literate acquaintances and friends who championed his music. Schubert's supreme gift was his ability to write sublimely beautiful melodies that embody a whole range of emotions, from deep melancholy to great joy. This melodic gift is evident in all of Schubert's compositions, but is distilled in his Lieder. Although his greatest outpouring of Lieder was between 1813 and 1818 he wrote songs throughout his life. Schubert re-used his immensely popular song The Trout with its vivid depiction of the bubbling brook and the darting fish as the fourth movement (a set of variations) of his lively piano quintet of 1818. By this time his musical circle had grown to include poets, dramatists, painters and singers, and he finally had some songs published after a long period of indifference from publishers.
Schubert wrote nine symphonies in all: the early ones are rarely heard nowadays, but the fourth, fifth, eighth and ninth remain popular, though the eighth (1822) remained unfinished. There has never been a satisfactory explanation for this, and just two movements form the entire work. Both movements are full of mystery and pathos with dark sinister melodies played on hushed lower strings. Perhaps this reflects his state of mind as in 1822 Schubert contracted syphilis. At the time the disease was little understood and from then until his death five years later, he suffered from a variety of unpleasant symptoms and similarly unpleasant treatments!
After 1822 Schubert returned to his family home after many happy years lodging with friends. He was very ill and his song-cycle The Fair Maid of the Mill (1823) contains a lot of poetry on themes of despair and resignation – typical Romantic themes, but surely reflecting his personal state. On a lighter note, he wrote incidental music for the play Rosamunde that year. The play sank into obscurity but Schubert's incidental music remained popular.
By 1825 the Schubertiads, which had dwindled somewhat, came to prominence again. Although by now very ill, Schubert composed his large-scale ninth symphony (although he never heard it performed) and more piano music was published. He wrote extensively for the instrument, including 22 sonatas, but his many shorter piano pieces or 'miniatures' contain some of his best-known music. Pieces such as the Moments Musicaux, Impromptus, Scherzos and Waltzes were all first enjoyed at Schubertiads, as were his piano duets, of which the Marche Militaire is an enduring example.
Schubert composed the eight Impromptus and the six Moments Musicaux in 1827 and these pieces are to the piano what the Lied was to the voice. Each evokes a particular mood and demonstrates different aspects of writing for the piano, providing a benchmark for subsequent composers. Other compositions from the end of his life, including the song-cycle Winterreise (A Winter's Journey), are full of rejection, loneliness, and misery.
In 1828 Schubert finally gave a public concert for the Vienna Philharmonic Society. He continued to compose, including the masterpieces that are the String Quintet in C and his final Piano Sonata in B flat. These include some of Schubert's darkest music. He died on 19th November, and his gravestone bears the epitaph 'The Art of Music here entombs a rich possession but even finer hopes.'
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