An Unfinished Life
Contrasts mark the life of Franz Schubert. Rich in talent. Rich in friends. Always short of money. Short on recognition. A prolific composer, he gave just one public concert of his works. Yet he played at so many private parties that the events had their own name: Schubertiaden. Contrasts mark his reputation, too. In life, the young Austrian never found fame, though he was admired for his many vocal songs. Today, he’s judged as one of the greats—especially for his instrumental works.
Why do the facts of Schubert’s life seem so different from his potential? Things might have turned out differently, perhaps, if he hadn’t died at just 31. Or had a less humble family background. An aspiring composer was expected to perform his own work, but Schubert’s father lacked the money to give his gifted son an extensive musical education. Instead, young Franz had to teach for several years in the school that his father led. Once he embarked on a music career, he found publishers unwilling to take a chance on an unknown musician. In class-conscious Vienna, royal patronage offered a means to a reputation—and a steady income—but Schubert preferred to spend his time composing.
For all these disadvantages, Schubert achieved much thanks to amazing talent, tireless work, and loyal friends. The grandson of a peasant, Schubert grew up in a musical family, playing string quartets with his father and brother. At school, his friends pushed him to show his compositions to his teacher, the composer Antonio Salieri. Salieri in turn helped by teaching him privately for several years. Schubert composed feverishly even while working full time for his father: In less than two years he wrote numerous quartets, masses, and symphonies, as well as hundreds of art songs, or lieder. Among these works for voice and piano is the lullaby “Wiegenlied,” which Suzuki adapted for inclusion in Book 4.
Schubert’s songs showed his genius for melodies that perfectly capture the spirit of the poems they use as lyrics. Here his friends helped again, hosting gatherings where people could hear this new type of music. When he finally left teaching, in 1818, Schubert’s friends fed and housed him, promoted his work, and made influential connections in Viennese society. More songs followed (more than 500 in all), as well as solo piano music. These works found success in the private parties of the wealthy. The world of opera and public concerts, though, long stayed frustratingly closed to Schubert. Poverty, too, was a drain, as were periods of serious illness.
In his last years, Schubert turned more to instrumental music. His skill as a songwriter showed here, too, in his gift for hauntingly lyrical melodies. Little of it was published during his life, but such works as his Symphony no. 9 or String Quartet no. 14 (“Death and the Maiden”) are loved today as masterpieces of their genre, groundbreaking in their use of harmony, and important as bridges from the Classical era to the Romantic.
© Andrew Campbell