Music with Ease > Classical Music > Franz Schubert
Master of the Lied
Schubert, too, wrote for silence; half his work
Lay like a frozen Rhine till summers came
That warmed the grass above him. Even so
His music lives now with a mighty youth.
-- George Eliot
Liszt called Schubert "the most poetical musician that ever was." Schumann was equally complimentary. He said that "Schuberts pencil was dipped in moonbeams and in the flame of the sun." Further, that "Schubert has tones for the most delicate shades of feeling, thoughts, even accidents and occurrences of life. Manifold though the passions and acts of men may be, manifold is Schuberts music. That which his eye sees, his hand touches, becomes transformed to music." These tributes are the more significant that musicians are so seldom complimentary to each other.
The tributes are not exaggerated either. And that makes us think the more how pitiful it is that Schubert, like Mozart, should have such a pathetic biography. "My music," he once said, "is the product of my genius and my poverty, and that which I have written in my greatest distress is what the world seems to like the best." Alas! that is too often the case. As the poet has said, "the anguish of the singer makes the beauty of the strain." No doubt if Schubert had ordered his life more regularly, if he had not been the incorrigible Bohemian that he was, he would have fared better in every way. But in that case might not have had all that glorious music from him.
It is not without meaning that he is put into this book after Beethoven. When Schubert was in his teens, he sighed and said: "Who can do anything after Beethoven?" Beethoven is usually spoken of as Schuberts contemporary, but he was Schuberts senior by twenty-seven years. Beethoven had achieved fame before Schubert began to compose at all. It would have been no wonder, then, if a mere lad, however gifted, had felt somewhat despairing, especially as he lived in the same town with the great master, and was always hearing his praises sounded. But to Schubert Beethoven really acted as a stimulus. A sight of him at a concert seems to have made a great and lasting impression on the younger man, who not long after dedicated a set of pianoforte variations to his hero. It is said that, shy as he was, he took this piece to Beethovens lodgings, hoping for an interview, but whether he saw Beethoven at that time is uncertain. We know at any rate that during Beethovens last illness a collection of Schuberts songs was placed in his hands, and that Beethoven, after examining them, exclaimed: "Truly, Schubert possesses the divine fire. Some day he will make a noise in the world." When Beethovens death was just at hand, Schubert stood with others for a long while round his bed. The invalid was told the names of his visitors, and made feeble signs to them with his hands. Of Schubert he said: "Franz has my soul." At this Schubert left the room overcome with emotion, for his veneration of Beethoven amounted to something like worship. Then, at the funeral, Schubert was one of the thirty-eight torchbearers who stood around the grave. After the interment, he adjourned with friends to a tavern, where he filled two glasses of wine, drinking the first to the memory of Beethoven, and the second to t he memory of him who should soonest follow Beethoven to the grave. "Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate," says the poet. It was to the departure of his own spirit, little as he can have suspected it, that Schubert thus drank, for in less than two years he was laid in that same cemetery with Beethoven, the two separated by only three graves.
It is almost superfluous to say that Franz Schubert came of a lowly stock, for genius seldom flowers in high places. His grandfather was a Moravian peasant, and his father was an assistant in a village school when he married at nineteen. He married a cook, as the fathers of Haydn and Beethoven had done. There were fourteen children of the marriage, but nine of them died, leaving four sons and one daughter. The sons all became teachers, like their father, and the daughter married a teacher.
Franz Schubert, the fourth son who survived, was born on January 31, 1797. His father was then parish schoolmaster at Lichtenthal, a suburb of Vienna. He was a poor man, and could give his boy nothing more than a good education. "When Franz was five years old," he wrote, "I prepared him for elementary instruction, and at six I sent him to school. He was always the first among his fellow-students." Franz showed the ruling passion very early, and his father was able to help him here too. He ground him in the elements of music and taught him the violin so well that at eight he could take his part in easy duets.
But Franz Schubert was one of those rare and lucky individuals who seem to attain without any effort what costs others much toil and trouble. No instructor could keep pace with him. Holzer, the parish choirmaster, to whom he was sent for singing lessons, declared many times, with tears in his eyes, that he never before had such a pupil. When he prepared to teach him anything, he found that he had already mastered it. "He has harmony in his little finger," he said. "I cannot claim to have given him any lessons. I simply talked with him and looked at him in silent amazement." One of his brothers started to teach him the piano, and was himself outstripped within a month. All the same, Schubert was never a good pianist, any more than Wagner. His short, stubby fingers were not made for great dexterity on the keyboard. He once attempted to play his own Fantaisie (Op.15) to some friends. After breaking down twice, he jumped from the piano in a towering rage, exclaiming: "The devil himself couldnt play such stuff." When he did play, however, he played with wonderful expression-made the piano sing like a bird, as some one said.
There could be only one future for such a boy. He had a lovely treble voice, and so gained an easy entry into the parish church choir, where, at the age of eleven, he was both solo singer and solo violin. Then, in 1808, his father got him a place in the choir school of the Imperial Chapel, where he received a general as well as a musical education. The other boy candidates seeing the fat, awkward little fellow, in his light-grey homespun suit, took him for a millers son and made fun of him. But they repented of their impertinence when the examiners called him up, and his clear pure voice rang out in the well-known tunes.
Schuberts musical opportunities were now immensely improved. There was a small orchestra in the choir school, and by its performances he gradually became acquainted with the works of the great masters. At the very first practice he attracted the notice of the leader, Von Spaun. Spaun heard behind him a violin being played with unusual distinction, and on turning round saw a little chap in spectacles. The two had a talk at the end of the rehearsal. "I sometimes compose music, but I cannot afford to buy paper; do you think you could help me?" said Schubert to Spaun. Spaun brought him some paper next day, and promised him more. He little thought what he was letting himself in for. At this time, and indeed all through his brief career, Schuberts consumption of music paper was something perfectly phenomenal.
Just now he badly needed other things besides music paper. A boys school was not a paradise in those days, even if the uniform was decorated with gold lace. The youths were poorly fed, and Schubert had a hearty appetite, with no money to supplement the school fare. It is pathetically amusing to read his plaints. Look, for instance, at the following letter to his brother Ferdinand: "You know by experience that a fellow would like at times a roll and an apple or two, especially if, after a frugal dinner, he has to wait for a meager supper for eight hours and a half. The few groschen that I receive from my father are always gone to the devil the first day, and what am I to do afterwards? Those who hope will not be confounded, says the Bible, and I firmly believe it. Suppose, for instance, you send me a couple of kreutzer a month; I dont think you would notice the difference in your own purse, and I should live quite content and happy in my cloister. St. Matthew says also that, Whosoever hath two coats shall give one to the poor. In the meantime I trust you will lend your ear to the voice crying to you incessantly to remember your poor brother Franz, who loves and confides in you." Let us hope that Ferdinand, who was a good fellow, gave him what he asked for.
If Schubert was suffering physical hunger, he was at least getting his musical hunger fairly appeased. Very soon school concert programmers were being made up almost entirely of his works. Recital of his music were frequently given in his home, too, for brothers and father all played. His ear was quick to detect an error, and he would say, with a modest smile: "Herr Vater, you must be making a mistake there." He was sent for harmony lessons to a musician named Rucziszka. But here again the old story was repeated. Rucziszka soon discovered that his pupil knew more than himself. "God has been his teacher," he said. Then he went to Salieri, an Italian musician who conducted the Imperial choir. Salieri had been intimate with Mozart, and was falsely accused of poisoning him. Schubert continued his lessons with Salieri for a long time. But Salieri, too, was astounded at his natural cleverness. "Schubert can do everything," he exclaimed. "He is a genius. He composes songs, masses, operas, string quartets, in fact anything you like." And so he did.
At the choir school he neglected his general education altogether in favour of music. His voice broke in 1813, and then, refusing an offer of further instruction in the higher branches of learning, he left the school, and faced the world, a youth of sixteen, with an income to make for himself. Music was not to be thought of as a profession just yet, for Schubert wanted to be a composer, and publishers would not pay for works by an untried hand. So Schubert went back to his fathers house and became his fathers assistant -- another Schubert schoolmaster. Perhaps in taking this course he desired to escape service in the army, from which the teaching profession was exempt. In any case, three years of school work sufficed for Schubert. He performed his duties regularly and conscientiously, but the drudgery was unspeakably irksome to him. He was a nervous, irritable teacher, and dull or obstinate children suffered severely at his hands. Even for teaching music he was not suited by either temperament or training, but at least he did not break up the chairs as Beethoven did or, like Chopin, when things went wrong, start up and ask if a dog had been barking.
Circumstances like those we have been considering would not seem highly favourable for the fertilising of musical inspiration. But it is a fact that as a composer Schubert was an prolific when he was toiling away in his fathers school as at any period of his life. It was then that he wrote some of his finest songs, and there were also dramatic works, masses, symphonies, and miscellaneous pieces in sufficient number to have served as the lifework of any ordinary artist. It was now that he composed the song which first made his name famous -- the "Erl King." Schubert had a perfect passion for German poetry, and set Schiller and Goethe with a prodigality truly marvellous. Somebody once said of him that if he had lived longer he would have set the whole of German literature to music.
The story of the "Erl King" is worth telling. Seated one afternoon in his little room, Schubert found himself deep in the study of a volume of Goethe. He came to the "Erl King," and as he read, every line of the words seemed to flow into strange unearthly music. The rushing sound of the wind and the terrors of the enchanted forest were instantly changed for him into realities, and seizing a pen he dashed down the song, as we have it now, in less time than an expert would take to make a "fair" copy of it. And here is as fitting a place as any other to say that Schubert was prodigiously quick at composition. Handel, Bach Mozart, and Haydn wrote with extreme rapidity, but nothing like Schubert. His ideas flowed faster than he could set them down. He had to read a poem only once or twice and its appropriate musical expression came to him without further effort. The biographers cite his record for 1815 in illustration. That year he wrote half a dozen dramatic works, two masses, two symphonies, a quantity of church and chamber music, and nearly 150 songs. In one day alone he composed seven songs. Think of the mere labour of transferring all that to music paper. No wonder Schubert sometimes failed to recognise his own work. There is a story about a vocalist who once tried over a Schubert song in the composers presence. "Hm! pretty good song; who wrote it?" he asked. And he wrote anywhere, too. Thus, he wrote his beautiful morning song, "Hark! hark! The lark," on the back of a bill of fare, amid all the stir and clatter of a Viennese outdoor restaurant.
The "Erl King" was sung for the first time in public in February 1819. Schubert had been trying to get a publisher for it, but the publishers would not look at it. The accompaniment was too difficult, they said, and the composer was almost unknown. At length the song was printed by subscription and published on commission. A hundred copies were subscribed for beforehand, and in nine months 800 copies were sold.
This success proved the "entering wedge" for Schubert. Publishers now began to have some faith in the composer. He went on writing, and several of his songs sold well had he been wise, he might now have laid in a little fortune for himself. But he foolishly parted with his compositions for the most trivial sums. He gave one publisher over seventy songs, including "The Wanderer," for 800 florins, and the firm, between 1822 and 1861, realised over 2700 florins from "The Wanderer" alone. Some of the glorious songs in the "Winterreise," composed in 1826, were actually thrown away for less than a shilling apiece. In 1828 he got only thirty florins for a piano quintet, and only twenty-one florins for his splendid Trio in E flat.
There is a well-known anecdote bearing on this Mozart-like helplessness and carelessness in business matters. One of Schuberts boon companions was Franz Lachner, afterwards music director at the Court of Munich. Lachner took advantage of a fine summer morning to ask Schubert to join a party of friends who were going to make a trip into the country. Schubert wished very much to accept, but having no money, had to refuse. Lachner being also hard up, it made the case very embarrassing. So Schubert gave Lachnere a portfolio of manuscript songs, asking him to sell them; for, he added, he had been so often to the publisher that he dared not go again. The publisher proved very angry, exclaiming, "More of Schuberts stuff!" and stating very seriously that no one would buy Schuberts songs. Finally, however, he gave way, and bought all the manuscripts for five florins! Very happy, the two friends went on their trip, and finding a spinet at the inn at which they stopped, Schubert improvised some more songs, of which he received the inspiration on the road. This was Franz Schubert all over.
But we must get back to our narrative. We are to consider Schubert liberated from school drudgery. This he owed directly to a young Swede of some means, Franz von Schober, who invited Schubert to come and live with him, and pursue his art freely and uninterruptedly. Schober was the best and most useful patron he ever had. How happy he felt himself now may be gathered from a letter he addressed to his brother Ignaz, who was chafing under his toils as a teacher. Ignaz wrote in reply: "You fortunate man! How you are to be envied! You live in a sweet golden freedom; can give your musical genius free rein; can express your thoughts as you please; are loved, admired, idolized, while the rest of us are devoted, like so many wretched beasts of burden, to all the brutalities of a pack of wild youth, and moreover, must be subservient to a thankless public, and under the thumb of a stupid priest."
Schober was able to introduce Schubert to several influential artists, who were likely to be of use to him in bringing his compositions before the world. Most notable among them was the baritone singer Vogl, who did much to popularise his lieder. Another helpful friend was the poet Mayrhofer, who wrote the words of several of his songs. Mayrhofer and Schubert lived together for two years, and it is the poet (who, by the way, became insane, and committed suicide) who tells us how they lived. "It was in a gloomy street. House and room had suffered from the tooth of time; the roof was somewhat sunken, the light cut off by a great building opposite; a played-out piano, a small book-case -- such was the room which, with the hours we spent there, can never pass from my memory."
Schubert was quite happy, even under these seemingly uncongenial conditions. Still, he was not making money; so when, in 1818, he was offered the post of music-master in the house of Court John Esterhazy, of the family whom Haydn had served, he eagerly accepted it. This meant a winter home in Vienna and a summer home in Hungary. But Schubert was a town man, and he liked being away from Vienna as little as Dr. Johnson liked being away from Fleet Street. However, he found compensations even in the country. Thus he writes of the household in which he is engaged: "The cook is rather jolly; the ladies-maid is thirty; the housemaid very pretty, often quite social; the nurse a good old soul; the butler my rival. The Count is rather rough; the Countess haughty, yet with a kind heart; the Countesses nice girls." The Countesses were his young pupils. It is said that he cherished a hidden passion for the youngest, Caroline, a girl of eleven when he first knew her.
Schubert was never a ladies man, and this is the only affair of the heart in which he was concerned. It is rather curious, considering that he had the poetic and imaginative qualities so profusely developed. But then he was so awkward and so shy; and, besides that, he was not personally attractive. His leading biographer says he was under the average height, round-backed and round-shouldered, with plump arms and hands. He had a round and puffy face, low forehead, thick lips, bushy eyebrows, and a short, turned-up nose. His eyes were fine, but they were hidden by spectacles, which he wore even in bed. What hope could such a man have of winning fair lady, and a Countess, too, no less? Of course Caroline Esterhazy could not marry a poor musician in any case. But it is clear that, as she grew up, she came to realise something of Schuberts feeling toward her. She once asked him why he did not dedicate one of his compositions to her. "What would be the use?" he said. "All that I do is dedicated to you." The old flame kept burning in his heart to the last, but Caroline Esterhazy soon forgot.
Schuberts connection with the Esterhazys continued intermittently for several years. His material needs were fairly satisfied; but his professional prospects somehow refused to brighten. True, his songs were making an impression; but he wanted to do bigger things -- operas, and symphonies, and the like-and mercenary managers and publishers would venture nothing unless assured of a substantial profit. Naturally jovial and optimistic, Schubert was not easily cast down, but ill-luck, combined with a monotonous existence, at length weighed on his spirits and hurt his health. "I feel myself the most unhappy, the most miserable man on earth," he writes; "a man whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing; whose enthusiasm for the beautiful threatens to vanish altogether." He declares that he goes to sleep every night, hoping never to waken again. In one letter he says: "Picture to yourself a man whose health can never be re-established, who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better; picture to yourself, I say, a man whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing, to whom the happiness of proffered love and friendship is but anguish, whose enthusiasm for the beautiful (an inspired feeling at least) threatens to vanish altogether, and then ask yourself if such a condition does not represent a miserable and unhappy man?" Beethoven used to write like that, too but though his condition was more pitiable, he bore his misfortunes with more dignity. He still retained faith in his art, and that sustained him.
Nothing occurred for a time to mark the course of Schuberts life beyond the appearance of fresh compositions. He made applications for several fixed appointments, but was always defeated. Even if he had been successful, it is doubtful if his inherent love of change, his independent spirit, and his free untutored manner would have allowed him to keep a routine post for any length of time. In any case, it mattered little now, for the end was approaching. The old experience was about to be repeated. Publishers were becoming more pleasant and encouraging, and money was coming in a little more freely. But it was too late.
In 1827 Beethoven died, and we have seen what was Schuberts part in that connection. One evening in the October of 1828, when supping with some friends at a tavern, he suddenly threw down his knife and fork, protesting that the food tasted like poison. His nerves had become overstrained, the constitution was undermined. They got him home, and he took to his bed, feeling, as he said, no actual pain, but great weakness and depression. Shortly after, he wrote to his kind friend Schober: "I am ill. I have neither eaten nor drunk anything for eleven days, and shift, weak and weary, from my chair to my bed and back again." This could not last. The illness assumed a graver form, and there was a consultation of doctors. "What is going to happen to me?" he plaintively asked his brother Ferdinand. Delirium set in. He imagined that Beethoven was in the room; then he imagined that his quarters were changed, and he was miserable because Beethoven was not there. Then, temporarily recovering his senses, he turned to the doctor and said, slowly and earnestly, "Here is my end." With that he shifted in bed, turning his face to the wall. And so, on the 19th of November 1828, this greatest of lyric geniuses went out into the Eternal Silence, dead at the early age of thirty-one.
What followed is almost too sad to tell. It is calculated that Schubert had never made more than £100 a year. At any rate, he died leaving not enough to pay the expenses of his funeral. His father and the rest of the family were poor too. It cost seventy florins to remove the body to Wahring cemetery -- "a large sum, a very large sum," said brother Ferdinand, "but very little for the honour of Franzs resting-place." Yes, the honour! But the official inventory of poor Schuberts possessions may be quoted as showing how Vienna and the world had repaid him for his priceless creations. Here it is: Three dress coats, three walking coats, ten pairs of trousers, nine waistcoats, one hat, five pairs of shoes, three pairs of boots, four shirts, nine neckties and pocket handkerchiefs, thirteen pairs of socks, one towel, one sheet, two bed cases, one mattress, one bolster, one quilt. At the end of the inventory was out" a quantity of old music" -- and the total value was set down at fifty shillings.
It is suggestive, as Mr. Joseph Bennet has said, to contrast this beggarly account with the honours since laid upon Schuberts tomb and hung around his memory. Looking at the large space now filled in the world by the man who died worth only fifty shillings, and with a fame that scarcely extended beyond Vienna, we see how small and insignificant a part of the real life of genius is that which we call life. And the moral of the whole is this:
We live in deeds, not years, in thoughts, not breaths,
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by hearts throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best!
Over Schuberts grave are inscribed the words: "Here lies buried a rich treasure, but still fairer hopes -- a sentiment only half true. As Schumann said, it was enough to make the first declaration without adding the second. For reason or other Schuberts remains were afterwards disturbed, the Musical Society having obtained permission to take up the bones of both masters -- Schubert and Beethoven -- to measure them, and phrenologists were called in to feel the bumps. The remains were afterwards with all honour carried through the streets of Vienna in pompous procession -- that poor man who could not afford 8d. to buy a dinner when he was alive -- buried with those of Beethoven and quite a constellation of great masters in the Central Cemetery.
Franz Schubert was the most lovable of men, and made heaps of friends in his own class. To outsiders his manner was shy and retiring, awkward almost to clownishness. He did not invite notice, and he received little. In reply to a ladys apology for neglect on one occasion, he said: "It is nothing, madame, I am used to it." However unattractive his exterior may have been, the spiritual and hidden part of the man was nobly and abundantly there was in him a total absence of jealousy; he had a sweet temper, was high-minded, and an enthusiastic worshipper of nature and the art which was sacred to him. He had something of the boyishness of Mozart, and indulged in many juvenile buffooneries. For instance, he would often "sing" the "Erl King" through a fine-toothed comb. There is a general impression that he drank to excess, but the world is too prone to exaggerate a failing of that kind. That Schubert was devoted to the beer jug there is no use denying. But he could never be called a drunkard. The weakness was entirely the result of his liking for genial society; and it cannot have been so pronounced after all, otherwise he could never, in his short life, have produced the enormous number of compositions that he did.
Assuming that he began writing when he was sixteen or seventeen, while he died at thirty-one: during that time he filled what now, in his complete, published works, make up forty-one folio volumes, including the extraordinary total of 605 songs. He wrote songs by the sheaf, as one would gather corn in harvest. But he spread himself over the whole range of his art -- operas, cantatas, masses, symphonies, quartets, chamber music of all kinds. Verily, as Schumann said, "he has done enough." He is, beyond all question, the most fertile and original melodist that every lived, and he is the first of the great song-writers in rank as well as in time. The German folk-song found in him its highest and finest ennoblement; through him, the genuine German native singer, came the ancient folk-song into life again, purified and transfigured by art.