1902 Encyclopedia > Franz Peter Schubert

Franz Peter Schubert
Austrian composer

FRANZ PETER SCHUBERT (1797-1828), composer of vocal and instrumental music, was born at Vienna 31st January 1797. for the foundation of his general education he was indebted to his father, a schoolmaster in the Leopoldstadt; but the beauty of his voice attracted so much attention that in 1808 he was received into the choir of the imperial chapel, and during the five years which followed he was taught to sing and to play the violin in the choristers’ school called the "Convict." No attempt seems to have been made to teach him composition, but, through the kind intervention of an older chorister, he was supplied with music-paper, and thenceforward he wrote incessantly, as his fancy dictated, without any help whatever, always carefully signing and dating his MSS., which extend back as far as 1810. When his voice broke in 1813 Schubert left the "Convict," and, to avoid the conscription, taught for three years in his father’s school. This, however, in nowise damped his zeal for composition. Even at this early period his invention was inexhaustible and the rapidity of his pen almost incredible. In 1815 he composed 2 symphonies, 5 operas, and no less than 137 songs (67 of which have been published), besides a multitude of other important pieces. Yet so little was his genius appreciated that when in 1816 he applied for an appointment at a Government music school, with a salary equal to about twenty guineas a year, he was rejected as "imperfectly qualified."

In 1818 Count Johann Eszterhazy secured the services of Schubert as resident teacher of music to his daughters, for one of whom the young composer has been supposed -- on very insufficient authority -- to have entertained a romantic, and of course utterly hopeless, affection. The appointment was of great importance to him, for he was poor, almost to starvation; yet it led to no permanent improvement in his prospects: in fact his life was one long bitter disappointment from beginning to end. He wrote on, year after year, producing music of indescribable beauty in such enormous quantities that but for the dated MSS. we should refuse to believe the accounts transmitted to us by his biographers. He wrote because, when his genius inspired him with an idea, he could not refrain. Yet he scarcely ever looked at his compositions after they were finished, and very rarely heard any of them performed. Very little of his dramatic music was given to the world. Two little operettas -- Die Zwillingbrüder and Die Zauberharfe -- barely escaped failure in 1820; and the beautiful incidental music to Madame von Chezy’s Rosamunde survived but two representations in 1823. Of his greater operas not one was placed upon the stage during his lifetime. With his songs he was more fortunate. Many of them were published, and their fresh bright melodies were irresistible. They were produced by hundreds, and with a rapidity bordering upon the miraculous. Among the MMS. seven or eight may be found dated on the same day; yet even in these he never repeated himself: every one was the result of a new inspiration, committed to paper at the moment of conception, laid aside immediately afterwards, and so completely forgotten that he has been known to ask who was the composer of one of his own Lieder not very long after he had composed it. And his wonderful facility of production led to no unworthy form of treatment. The original MS. Of Hark, Hark, the Lark was written at a "beer-garden," on the back of a bill of fare, the moment after the composer had read the words for the first time; and there are strong reasons for believing that Who is Sylvia? -- one of the most perfectly finished songs on record -- and Come, thou Monarch of the Vine, were produced on the same occasion. But the success of the songs did not make Schubert a prosperous man. All his life long he suffered from grinding poverty. Though he received an actual commission to write his greatest dramatic work, Fierabras, for the court theatre at Vienna, it was rejected in 1824 for the weakness of its libretto. Once, and once only, a chance seemed open to him. He was accepted in 1826 as a candidate for the vacant post of conductor to the court theatre, and requested to compose some music as a test of his powers. At the rehearsal the part he had designed for the prima donna was found too trying for her voice, and he was requested to alter it. "I will after nothing," said Schubert; and his refusal to listen to reason cost him the coveted appointment.

Schubert’s ten symphonies not one made its mark during his lifetime; yet the stamp of genius is upon these as plainly as upon his songs. It is true that in works of large dimensions genius loses half its power if unsupported by learning; and Schubert was not learned enough to turn his inspirations to the best account. His ideas came so quickly that the knowledge he possessed was not sufficient to enable him to arrange them in that perfect order which forms the chief charm of the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven. And the same element of weakness is discernible in his sonatas and other long pieces of chamber music. But these are all true works of genius, precious and imperishable.

It was not to be wondered at the under his heavy trials Schubert’s health failed rapidly. After recovering from more than one serious attack of illness, he was seized with a sudden access of delirium while at supper on 13th October 1828; and on 19th November he died, leaving behind him a few clothes and other possessions, which were officially valued a sixty-three Vienna florins (= £2. 10s.). His grave at the Ortsifriedhof, bought by the scanty savings of his brother Ferdinand, lies within a few feet of that of Beethoven.

Schubert’s works, now (1886) in course of publication in a complete series by Messrs Breitkopf & Härtel of Leipsic [Leipzig], include 18 dramatic pieces, 8 sacred compositions, 19 symphonies, 24 pianoforte sonatas, a vast collection of songs, of which 457 are already published, and a multitude of other works which are too numerous to mention.

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