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Franz Schubert
Franz Schubert.

Franz Peter Schubert (31 January 1797, Vienna – 19 November 1828, Vienna) was an Austrian composer. Although he died at the age of 31, he composed over one thousand pieces of music. There were other great composers who lived and worked in Vienna: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but Schubert is the only one who was born in Vienna. He was the last great composer of the Classical music period, and one of the first of the Romantic period.

Early years

Wien Geburtshaus Franz Schubert
The house in which Schubert was born, today Nussdorfer Strasse 54

Schubert’s father was a schoolteacher. Twelve children were born into the family, but only four of them lived to become adults. Schubert's father tried to persuade his sons to help at the school when they grew up. As a boy, the young Franz learned the violin, piano, organ, singing and harmony. He soon became very good at them all. His teachers were all amazed at how quickly he learned. He was also very good at other subjects in school.

In the holidays he played string quartets with his two brothers and his father. He wrote his first string quartets for them to play. By the age of 16 he had composed a lot of music, including his first symphony. His mother died. His father soon remarried. His stepmother was very kind to him and often lent him money. He had one strange thumb on his right hand.

Rising fame

By the age of 17, Schubert was teaching at his father’s school. He had been rejected by the army because he was too short (shorter than five feet) and his sight was very poor. He still had composition lessons from Antonio Salieri. He often went to the opera where he heard some of the finest music of the time. He liked reading. One of his favourite books was Goethe’s Faust. He wrote a song called "Gretchen am Spinnrade". It is a very famous song. Another song which soon made him famous in all Europe was "Erlkönig". When it was first published another composer whose name was also Franz Schubert, thought that somebody had published a song in his name because the music publishers sent it to him for correction. He sent a very angry letter back saying he had not composed that rubbish.

Adulthood

It was difficult to find enough time to compose because he was a teacher. A man called Schober persuaded Schubert to give up teaching so that he could spend all his time composing. Soon he had become well known in all the drawing-rooms in Vienna where he met famous people, many of them musicians. These meetings were called “Schubertiads” because they played and sung his music. He wrote so many wonderful pieces that it seems strange that the music publishers did not want to publish them. They were only interested in publishing works written by performers, but were not very interested in people like Schubert who just composed. For a time he became music teacher for the two princesses of Count Johann Esterházy, but then he returned to Vienna to live with the Schober family. During the last few years of his life Schubert was ill. He had to leave the Schober’s house and find his own rooms. He was often desperately poor and composed in bed to keep warm.

Although Beethoven and Schubert lived in the same town they only met once, although they knew one another’s music. Schubert visited Beethoven on 19 March 1827. Beethoven was dying. Schubert was one of the torch-bearers at his funeral. A year and a half later Schubert, too, had died. He asked to be buried near Beethoven. Their graves were just three places apart.

His music

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Franz Schubert Memorial by Carl Kundmann in Vienna's Stadtpark
Schubert Haus00
Interior of museum at Schubert's birthplace, Vienna, 1914

Schubert was remarkably prolific, writing over 1,500 works in his short career.

Schubert’s songs are among the greatest ever written. They are all settings of German poems. German art songs are called Lieder (pronounced “leader”), and Schubert made his Lieder very special by making the piano accompaniments describe the action of the songs in many different ways. If you try to sing them in a translation it is difficult to make it sound good. It is best to hear them in German and to have a translation so that you understand what is being sung. Some of the last songs he wrote make up a cycle called “Die Winterreise” (“The Winter Journey”). The songs are usually sung by a male singer (tenor, baritone or bass).

Schubert wrote a great deal of chamber music. Among his most famous pieces are several string quartets, a string quintet (for 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos) and the “Trout” quintet (for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass). There are sonatas and sonatinas for violin and piano, and a sonata for an instrument called the “arpeggione” which was used for about ten years after it was invented and then it was forgotten. The sonata is normally played on a cello or a viola nowadays. There is lots of piano music including sonatas, impromptus and also piano duet music. Schubert wrote eight famous impromptus.

Schubert wrote nine symphonies. The last one is known as the “Great” symphony in C major. The eighth is called the “Unfinished”. There are only two movements instead of the usual four. A lot of people still argue about why he left it unfinished. Some people even think that he completed it and that the last two movements are either lost, or are now known as movements from a piano duet. We shall probably never know for certain.

Most of his life he was supported by his friends who gave him manuscript paper when he could not afford it. Many of his greatest works only became widely known in the 1860s, long after his death. The house in Vienna where Schubert was born is now a museum which people can visit.

Recognition

A feeling of regret for the loss of potential masterpieces caused by Schubert's early death at age 31 was expressed in the epitaph on his large tombstone written by Grillparzer: "Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hopes."

Schubert Denkmal Stadtpark Wien
The Schubert Denkmal

Schubert's chamber music continues to be popular.

The New York Times' chief 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...

Commemorations

In 1897, the 100th anniversary of Schubert's birth was marked in the musical world by festivals and performances dedicated to his music. In Vienna, there were ten days of concerts, and the Emperor Franz Joseph gave a speech recognising Schubert as the creator of the art song, and one of Austria's favourite sons. Karlsruhe saw the first production of his opera Fierrabras.

In 1928, Schubert Week was held in Europe and the United States to mark the centenary of the composer's death. Works by Schubert were performed in churches, in concert halls, and on radio stations. A competition, with top prize money of $10,000 and sponsorship by the Columbia Phonograph Company, was held for "original symphonic works presented as an apotheosis of the lyrical genius of Schubert, and dedicated to his memory". The winning entry was Kurt Atterberg's sixth symphony.

In film and television

Schubert has featured as a character in several films including Schubert's Dream of Spring (1931), Gently My Songs Entreat (1933), Serenade (1940), The Great Awakening (1941), It's Only Love (1947), Franz Schubert (1953), Das Dreimäderlhaus (1958), and Mit meinen heißen Tränen (1986). Schubert's music has also been featured in numerous post-silent era films, including Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940), which features Ave Maria (D. 839); and the biographical film Carrington (1995), which features the second movement of the String Quintet in C major (D. 956), as well as the English version of The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1989), which features Serenade and Auf dem Wasser zu singen (D. 774).

Schubert's String Quartet No. 15 in G is featured prominently in the Woody Allen film Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). The Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 (Trout Quintet) is featured in the 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows by Guy Ritchie. The music of the String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, "Death and the Maiden", is often used to accompany documentaries or films, notably the 1994 film of that name by Roman Polanski. The second movement from the Piano Trio No. 2 in E-Flat Major, Op. 100/D.929, was featured in Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film Barry Lyndon.

Schubert's life was covered in the documentary Franz Peter Schubert: The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow by Christopher Nupen (1994), and in the documentary Schubert – The Wanderer by András Schiff and Mischa Scorer (1997), both produced for the BBC. "Great Performances," "Now Hear This: The Schubert Generation Series," hosted by Scott Yoo, explored commentary and performances by contemporary musician admirers.

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See also

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