Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1964
Schubert has been my favorite composer forever, starting with 10" 78RPM disks narrated by José Ferrer. Not many details of that narrative were accurate, but what did I know? I was, and still am, imprinted with Schubert.
I have always played a great deal of chamber music, and played and conduced his orchestral works, but I knew only a small fraction of Schubert’s roughly 650 songs.
Nor was I unusual among my friends. None of them really felt they knew Schubert in any true biographical sense.
Nearly 30 years ago by chance I spent two weeks kicking around Europe with no agenda. Although I speak a number of languages, I was seriously eager not to be lonely, and the two best routes were: delve into Schubert and, separately, try to imagine my (American) mother’s early medical and psychoanalytic training in Vienna.
I had read everything I could find about Schubert, but found nothing new or particularly helpful. What I found was very sketchy, and I had to agree with Schubert’s friend Eduard von Bauernfeld that there was so little factually documented about Schubert that only a kind of ‘poetical’ biography of the man would be possible.
Yet don’t we all feel that Schubert’s music suggests anything but a hidden person? What was going on?
So I started with the songs, from the very first ones he wrote, from autograph manuscripts when possible and from the most recent authoritative edition in any case.
What I discovered nearly at once, and which to my knowledge had not been noted previously, was an amazing mapping—Schubert seemed to be telling us his own life’s story through his music, intelligible to anyone with the inclination and suitable ears.
Schubert even said to his schoolmates that he often wrote down his feelings and thoughts in music, and further that his father must not know how much time he devoted to music.
I felt that this was a task that I was destined to undertake, without resigning my professorship (in mathematics!), but more than 650 songs, more than 1,000 works? This would be no casual commitment.
I started with his very first songs: Leichenfantasie—which concerns an aged father, tottering on his crutch, following a small coffin containing a youth. They talk, and the boy says, in effect, “you are killing me.” (Was Schubert feeling dead since his father forbade his true calling?) Hagars Klage is song about a dying child (Ishmael = Schubert) with text distortions to make the poem fit the Schubert household. Salve Regina (1813), his first work after his mother’s death, contains a literal quote of “Voi che Sapete” from Mozart’s opera Così fan Tutte (“you who know what love is…”), while Der Jüngling am Bache (“Don’t ask me why I mourn”) is an especially poignant song of beautiful, but sad, floating.
He also provided several early string quartets for the family to play, some gently mocking his father’s musical rigidity and limitations as a cellist, and a whole handful of sappy songs about his father’s impending remarriage (less than a year after his mother died.)
A few months before his father remaried, Schubert flunked out of school and moved home, to be close to his mother’s musical spirit, which had unquestionably been his musical inspiration, even though he probably knew that such a move would mean teaching in his father’s school (an activity he hated.)
Schubert was commissioned to write a Mass, his first, for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the local church (one of the few in Vienna to be allowed to have “live music” as part of their service.) His soprano soloist was an old family friend, Therese Grob. Everyone, including Salieri was deeply impressed by the 17 year old Schubert’s gift and accomplishment.
This relationship with Therese unleashed a whole tidal wave of songs, more than 150 in the space of a year or two, ‘inspired’ by her, starting with Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) in which Schubert puts himself in the desperate heart of Gretchen as Faust abandons her. Gretchen (Schubert) says he would gladly die if only Faust (Therese) would let her (him) kiss him (her) as she (he) would like. This is the first example, perhaps, of Schubert’s extraordinary ability to put himself in the heart of another, with gender not being critical.
The relationship with Therese was hardly an idyllic romance, however, which ended only because he would be unable to support her, as biographers have nearly all stated. The first indication that he felt ambivalently towards her came in Das Mädchen aus der Fremde, which describes how this new relationship left him feeling—a girl from afar who turns every heart and then disappears (emotionally) as rapidly as she came. There are other songs of thinly disguised revenge, at her (and at his father for remarrying so impulsively, a subject Schubert mocked in many forms in his songs.) His confusion, or lack of stability, will coincide throughout his life with his writing masses, and indeed, his utterly beautiful second mass in G dates from March, 1815. The Credo, especially, could hardly be more comforting.
Then in August of 1816 he met the individual who would be the most charismatic and influential person in his adult life, Franz von Schober, the man who probably was later responsible for Schubert’s contracting syphilis. The famous songs Heidenröslein and Erlkönig, among others, are thinly disguised songs of the dangers of playful intimacy and the terrible conflict Schober represented (Schober would soon urge Schubert to leave his familial home and enter a life of free living and following him above all others.) In the latter song the message is that this danger, invisible to all, would prove lethal.
It has been said that if he had only written Gretchen or Erlkönig we would still all know him.
When Schober left Vienna on family business the tension in Schubert’s life vanishes, as one can hear—his utterly tension-free 5th Symphony and the beloved and reverentially relaxed song Litanei are the proof.
However when Schober returned and did tease Schubert out of the family house in November 1816, his music darkens palpably, he writes a song of parents missing their child, Mutter geht durch ihre Kämmern, of a trip to Hell (Fahrt zum Hades), the famous Death and the Maiden (Der Tod und das Mädchen) among others. But at whatever cost, he had begun to follow Schober, lived in his mother’s house now, while he gradually dribbled away his mother’s fortune.
A counter-current of partial salvation began in March of 1817, when Schubert met the famous opera singer, Johann Michael Vogl. Vogl liked Schubert’s songs and, together, they could became the principal advocates of his music, to a degree unknown in Vienna. Schubert wrote to his father later that the two of them performed as one, and that was something utterly new for their audiences. Even such figures as Hummel were seen to weep at Schubert song evenings.
But his conflict continued, and, together with Schober and their circle, formed the so-called “Nonsense Society” which published a journal, knew members by pseudonyms, etc.
Schober went to France to succor his brother Axel, and Schubert vacated his rooms to make room for Axel to return, and he moved home to teach once again. He wrote a touching song of farewell to a friend, Abschied von einem Freunde, and other unsettled, cooler works.
To help Schubert out of his depression, an influential friend arranged for him to spend the summer of 1818 in Zseliz, as tutor for the two daughters of the Esterházy family at their summer castle. One of the daughters, Caroline, somewhat retarded, became the inspiration for a number of Schubert’s works for piano four hands.
Upon his return, he shared lodgings with Johann Mayrhofer, a somewhat depressive poet, for more than two years until the end of 1820. Some of the works of this period are very dark indeed, including a third setting of Der Jüngling am Bache. The earlier settings were entirely different and are sad, but not depressively dark as this one is. In fact one of the most telling musical indications of Schubert’s life come from multiple settings of the same poem in different circumstances.
A break from the combination of Mayrhofer and the circle came in summer (3 months!) of 1819 when he went to Steyr with his singer Vogl who had family there. The setting was idyllic, and, for example, for his host, an amateur cellist, Schubert wrote the Trout Quintet! The variations movement is based on his song of the same name from a couple of years earlier, whose text is not really idyllic (he catches the fish by stirring up the mud in the river so the fish cannot see the hook) but you would never know this from the Quintet, which is irresistible.
But we see his cycle again, with operatic disappointments, in depressive songs and his beginning work on the Ab Mass in late 1819, his familiar anchor.
But in 1820 Schubert’s living grew wilder. The police even broke up a peaceful gathering of the friends, and the radical friend Senn was arrested and exiled. Schubert may even have spent a night in jail. There was no vacation in Steyr this year, and the year ended with the extremely agitated Quartettsatz whose lyrical moments, beautiful as they are, cannot stave off the wild, demonic darkness. Schubert breaks with Mayrhofer and lives lives on his own for the first time. Exactly how wild his living became is not well documented, but he wrote no music for six months, an utterly unparalleled gap for Schubert.
As an antidote, the circle of friends, men and women, went to Atzenbrugg in July for a few days of music, games, and general revelry. There are wonderful drawings of the fun they enjoyed there. The gloom seemed to lift, with the writing of Frühlingsglaube (belief that spring will come) testifying to this turn, although beautiful as this song is, the text says that now everything must change, not that it does change. The wish, the emotion, as always is in the music.
But the hopeful tint would not last. His old “sweetheart” (for better and worse) married a “master baker” and the songs now include Der Einsame (The Lonely One).
Schubert lived alone until 9/21. His friends tried to help with his depression, and the notion of a Schubertiad was born, an informal house concert in Vienna consisting of works by Schubert and generally nobody else. At times there would be multiple Schubertiaden on the same evening in Vienna!
His songs in this year were among his most beloved: the Suleika songs especially, but also some of the most estranged, as in the Mignon songs, which he would set more than once in the rest of his (brief) life. His works began to be published and there were public performances of his works, one “charity concert” that established his fame throughout Vienna, but it is not clear that this was an entirely happy turn of events for out composer, whose intensely private group of friends formed his social core.
Nonetheless, he spent a huge amount of time on operas, none of which were successful and few were ever produced (even now). Schubert knew that the opera would be the route to public fame and success, but many of his operas are largely a succession of Lieder, and they seem to try, in a thin disguise, to work out his life’s conflicts, naturally without success, as he knew of no resolution.
In 1821 there was another gathering at Atzenbrugg again. Schubert and Schober also went to St. Pölten (it is said they were “reconciled” but without elaboration—one must read between the lines here) to write the opera Alfonso and Estrella during an intense few weeks.
1822 was a fateful year, and his lowest. He set poems by the dark, persecuted homosexual poet Platen about love betrayed, and wrote Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) about a dwarf who attends a queen, but throttles her on shipboard rather than deliver her to her betrothed. There was another Atzenbrugg outing, and we have an extant dream of his from July about extreme, repeated discord with his father, and final joining him around the bier of a maiden. In fact, the dream has been analogized to the “Unfinished” Symphony which he wrote in October of 1822, and which has always seemed to me the most autobiographical of his many personal works, and, frankly, unfinished and essentially “hidden away” with a friend because it revealed too much. The first movement seems all about the rigidity and punishments and lack of understanding on his father’s part and then, after some magical event, which probably gave him syphilis, the second movement is the most angelic, restful and comforting and heralds an entirely different period for Schubert characterized by peace—the struggles are over.
In the same period when he finished the symphony, he finished the Ab Mass, his conflicts having been taken care of, as well as his huge, somewhat awkward, “Wanderer” Fantasy for piano.
Schubert moved home by the end of 1822 and spent some time in the hospital in 1823, where he began writing Die schöne Müllerin. In this magnificent song cycle, the protagonist actually dies (for the first time in Schubert’s work.) And in other ways he includes or references death beautifully in his works. An extended vacation with Vogl in Steyr gave him true peace. The next year, 1824, he wrote two of his three great last quartets, incorporating songs of personal death, including the Death and the Maiden quartet. Two of the last quartets end in Tarantellas, a dance form thought to rid the body of the spider’s venom.
He went to the Esterházy palace for the summer again in Zseliz but had to return early because he didn’t feel well, as the dread disease took its terrible course. The next year, 1825 found him alone again, but went to Steyr once more and wrote from Gmunden and Gastein of his plans to write a “grand symphony”—for many decades this was thought to refer to a “lost” symphony, sought by Sir George Gove and Sir Arthur Sullivan.
But it was the same as the “Great” C major, written out in 1826 and at least announced to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, though the parts were not copied until the middle of the next year and the score as it now exists in their library contains a whole section on paper that was not available until late in 1827, complete with direct quotes from Beethoven’s 9th symphony.
Beethoven had died in March of 1827, and Schubert had idolized him, but it is unavoidable to think that Schubert seems to import Beethoven into his own writing. Schubert altered his style accordingly, and, it seems to me, felt himself to be the continuation of Beethoven’s musical spirit in a very real sense. Beethoven put on a concert of his own music, for example, on March 21 of 1826 and Schubert did the same, at first scheduled for the anniversary of Beethoven’s concert, but changed to memorialize (and allow to live on?) Beethoven himself on the anniversary of Beethoven’s death, March 26, 1828.
There is an apocryphal tale of Schubert on his deathbed claiming that his family was not all there, in particular Beethoven. In this light, the story is not really apocryphal but delusional in a prophetic way. Schubert’s composing in 1827–8 is a staggering legacy, including the Cello Quintet, the last three piano sonatas, the Eb piano trio, the Mass in Eb, and his monumental song cycle, Winterreise.
He left incredible works unfinished as well, including a D major symphony, D. 936A, whose slow movement is searingly beautiful. The completion of this work by Peter Gülke and his recording of it is incandescent. It will leave you beyond tears.
People have speculated what Schubert would have done had he lived beyond the age of 31. But for me, I feel that he has given us himself, and I feel utterly sated.