Austria has a rich history of producing exceptional composers, and among them, Franz Schubert stands out as one of the most celebrated. He was a key figure in the early Romantic period, and Liszt even once described him as the “most poetic of composers.”
Schubert was incredibly prolific and wrote music in various genres. His compositions included symphonies, sonatas, chamber music, string quartets, and more. However, it is his vocal music that truly defines him in music history, especially his German-language songs known as “lieder.” These songs set a standard that remained unmatched for over a century.
Painting of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder, 1875
Franz Peter Schubert was born in 1797 in a Vienna suburb. Despite his towering musical achievements, Schubert himself stood at a diminutive five-foot-one (155 cm), earning him the nickname “Schwammerl” or “little mushroom” due to his short and somewhat stout figure.
His father, a modestly-paid elementary schoolteacher, recognized Schubert’s early musical aptitude and ensured he received piano, violin, and voice training. Remarkably, Schubert’s musical journey began to take shape at 13, as evidenced by his surviving compositions from that time.
At 17, Schubert conducted his first major public performance—Mass in F Major—composed in honor of the centennial celebration of a local parish church. The event was a great success, setting the stage for the musical brilliance that would define Schubert’s legacy.
The following year, Franz Schubert’s creative output flourished, giving birth to two additional symphonies and two of his earliest lieder compositions, namely, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Erlkönig.” It is, in fact, primarily attributed to Schubert that the German Lied gained prominence. Drawing inspiration from the wealth of late 18th-century lyric poetry and the blossoming development of the piano, Schubert masterfully set the works of literary giants like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to enchanting musical form, revealing the expressive possibilities of marrying poetry with music.
There is no such thing as happy music.
One of his noteworthy compositions, the famous Trout Quintet, was completed when Schubert was just 22 years old. This five-movement quintet showcased the harmonious interplay between the piano and stringed instruments.
ranz Schubert: Trout Quintet. Juhani Lagerspetz, Sini Simonen, Steven Dann, Franz Ortner, Michael Seifried.
In his 20s, Franz Schubert failed to secure permanent positions as a composer or conductor. Despite the challenges, he displayed an astonishing ability to compose prolifically, sometimes crafting as many as eight songs in a single day. Eventually, his dedication paid off, and he began to receive relatively good compensation for his work.
The rise of middle-class households hosting private musical gatherings also proved beneficial for Schubert. He became a sought-after guest at such events, captivating audiences with his musical talents. Additionally, Schubert himself hosted musical parties, known as “Schubertiades” or “Schubert evenings,” where his close friends would come together to enjoy the beauty of his music compositions.
In 1823, at the age of 26, Franz Schubert’s health began to decline, and he experienced the initial symptoms of illness, ultimately leading to his hospitalization for treatment (most likely of syphilis). Despite his health struggles, Schubert remained engaged in the Viennese musical scene. However, over the next five years, he battled intermittent episodes of sickness and fell deeper into periods of melancholy.
During this challenging time, Schubert managed to create his last significant orchestral work, the “Great” Symphony No. 9 in C major, which regrettably remained unperformed during his lifetime.
Tragically, Schubert passed away in November 1828, just a few months short of his 32nd birthday. Throughout his struggles, he never ceased to compose, leaving behind an astonishing musical legacy. His extensive body of work comprised over 1,200 compositions, including more than 600 songs, 9 symphonies, 15 string quartets, and numerous piano pieces.
Sadly, it was only after Schubert’s death that his true musical genius received the recognition it deserved. In 1838, Robert Schumann saw the score of Schubert’s 9th Symphony in Vienna. Impressed, he took a copy back to Leipzig, where Felix Mendelssohn conducted its first public performance. Since then, Schubert’s symphonies have become a staple in the repertoire of almost every great conductor in the 20th century.
Words of wisdom
“Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.” —Franz Schubert
“Do one thing every day that scares you.” ―Eleanor Roosevelt
“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” ―Bob Marley
“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” ―Victor hugo