Homage à Schubert

The Mass No. 1 in F Major by Franz Schubert — the sunny suite we heard performed at Stephansdom on Pentecost Sunday — is attached to a charming story of the composer’s beginnings. Schubert made his debut as a composer conducting the work — it was far from his first composition — in his neighbourhood church in a Vienna suburb. It was October 16, 1814, the church’s centenary.

Liechtenthal Church interior lo

Liechtenthal Church, Vienna, interior. Borrowed from Historical Sites of Schubert on the In Mozart’s Footsteps website. Photographer unknown. It was “Schubert’s childhood church, just a couple of blocks from his birth house and ‘Schubert Garage’ house [family home 1801-18]. His parents were married here, and the great composer was baptized here. Schubert was organist here for ten years, and this is where two of his masses were premiered.”

His sweetheart sang the soprano part. His music teacher, Antonio Salieri — not at all the sinister figure depicted in the film Amadeus — congratulated him on an auspicious debut.

The guy was seventeen years old.

portrait (?) age 17 lo

Portrait of a young man (perhaps an early portrait of Franz Schubert) by Josef Abel (1764–1818). Oil on canvas, circa 1814. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. On WikiMedia Commons.

When I became interested in classical music, age 11 or 12, it was an LP of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony that first drew me in. Here was musical grandeur; ravishing sweeps of melody; thrilling pulsing harmonics.

The next wonder was the Symphony in C Major, the Great. The German composer Robert Schumann praised to the skies its spacious unfolding. In college I just about wore out my Angel LP of Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra playing it.

At length I came to the C-Major Quintet for Strings, Schubert’s last completed work of the sonata form. He composed it in the shadow of approaching death, unaware how near, two months away, his end was. The string quintet enlarges on the pathos expressed in Beethoven’s late quartets, if that is possible, evidence the  incomparable second theme beginning at 2:00 in the playing linked above, a 1952 recording with Isaac Stern and Pablo Casals.

Franz Schubert is for me the quintessential Viennese composer, born in Vienna 1797, died there 1828. His creative run of twenty years, amid a circle of talented, passionate friends, makes me think, incongruously, of the famous lines at the beginning of the American Beat novel On the Road:

… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes «Awww!»  

On the Road by Jack Kerouac (Viking Press, 1957), Chapter 1. On the Genius website.

Burn, burn, burn … in the most astonishing run of creativity, Franz Schubert burned himself up. And for that, he remains forever the youthful Great Soul (links to Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise blog).

portrait 1825 lo

Portrait of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder (1796–1880). Watercolor, 1825.
Location unknown. With  Franz Schubert: A rémkirály, posted on A romantika weblog.

A local boy working in the shadows of the Viennese giants — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven — Schubert was alive when they were, or shortly after, and I imagine he absorbed the musical zeitgeist through his very pores.

Klimt Schubert at the Piano loSchubert at the Piano II by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), oil on canvas, 200 cm. by 150 cm./ 79 in. by 59 in., 1899 sopraporte [over-door] installation, the music room of Dumba Palace, Vienna, commission for industrialist and Schubert dévoté Nikolaus von Dumba. Stored in Schloss Immerdorf 1943 and believed lost in its destruction by retreating German S.S. officers in April 1945. On Fine Art Archive website.

“The Two Gustavs: Klimt, Mahler, and Vienna’s Golden Decade 1897-1907″ by Allessandra Comini in Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections, edited by Renée Price (New York: Neue Gallery Museum for German and Austrian Art, 2007?), pp. 36-40. ¶ “Destroyed in WWII: Klimt’s ‘Schubert at the Piano’ (1899)” by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, Association for Research in Crimes against Art (ARCA) blog editor-in-chief, June 14, 2012. ¶ “Dazzling demons. The stars of Britain’s first major Klimt show will be his glittering portraits. But his darker, lost works – destroyed by the Nazis – started a revolution in 20th-century art, says Jonathan Jones.” In The Guardian, May 7, 2008.

How long a shadow does Schubert’s oeuvre cast?

¶ More than six hundred songs — he was The King of Song … invented the epic song cycle …

¶ Seven symphonies — two of the very best …

¶ A large body of solo piano music, including twenty-one sonatas for piano …

¶ Quite a bit of musical drama — operas, operettas, melodramas …

¶ A respectable body of sacred music — six large masses; various settings, but really, two words: Ave Maria

¶ A large and most impressive body of chamber music — The Trout Quintet! The Death and the Maiden String Quartet! The towering G-Major String Quartet D. 887!

Devotees of the String Quintet in C major still buzz over its existential significance and musical merit, as with this, the notation for the work in its entirety on the International Music Score Library Project website:

The Quintet was to be Schubert’s last completed work. In mid-October of 1828 — just a few weeks after having completed the Quintet — Schubert’s appetite disappeared. Weakened by tertiary syphilis and the toxic, mercury-based medications he was taking for the syphilis, Schubert took to his bed with a high, persistent fever, almost certainly caused by a bacterial typhoid infection. Schubert died at three o’clock in the afternoon on November 19, 1828. The String Quintet in C Major — scored for two violins, a viola, and two ‘cellos — is among the handful of greatest chamber works ever composed. (That is not an opinion; that is a fact.)

International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP). Petrucci Music Library. “String Quintet, D. 956 (Schubert, Franz).” Emphasis added.

Similar conviction is evident on the gravestone of violinist John Saunders (1868-1919) in West Norwood Cemetery, London, England. On it is inscribed six bars of the String Quintet — that second theme cited above …


John Saunders’s headstone, by Bob Flanagan, Friends of West Norwood Cemetery, London — many thanks for taking the picture expressly for this article! Intertwined with the Schubert melody are  the concluding lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

By “so long lives this, and this …” the poet meant, I think, the poem. It is a thought similar to Horace’s Ode that begins Exegi monumentum aere perennius (I have built a monument more lasting than bronze). In the context of a gravestone so inscribed, wouldn’t “this” mean Schubert’s music? Alas! ’tis not entirely clear — “this” could be a clumsy reference to the gravestone itself. The last two lines of the sonnet just don’t stand on their own. You really have to know the rest — the famous first line, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?  and the equally famous darling buds of May. 

The telling line 9 of the sonnet, But thy eternal summer shall not fade, could have been written on Schubert’s gravestone.

While in the domain of chamber music, here’s an arresting tale. Schubert’s secret ambition was to match Beethoven, the king of music in Vienna. Although they shared the air of the city for some twenty-six years, they may never have met — a curious possibility that may have been a matter of pride. Schubert’s pride, Christopher Gibbs speculates in The Life of Schubert (Cambridge University Press, 2000), may have compelled him to avoid meeting Beethoven because he was unwilling or unable to do the necessary kow-towing to the reigning king. Be that as it may, Schubert was one of thirty-six appointed torch-bearers for Beethoven’s funeral procession through Vienna, attended by as many as thirty thousand on March 29, 1827. According to this second-hand account, Beethoven was in turn involved in the drama of Schubert’s last days in November 1828:

Franz Schubert wanted very much to hear the master’s C sharp minor Quartet (Op. 131, composed in the spring of 1826, that is a year before Beethoven’s death). Messrs. Holz, Karl Gross and Baron König played it for him, Doleschalek, the piano teacher, being the only other person present. Schubert was sent into such transports of delight and enthusiasm and was so overcome that they all feared for him. A slight indisposition, from which he had been suffering and … had not completely recovered, grew enormously worse, developed into typhoid fever and in five days Schubert was dead. The C sharp minor Quartet was the last music that he heard! …

Schubert: Memoirs by His Friends, collected and edited by Otto Erich Deutsch. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1958, p. 299: “Ludwig Nohl, quoting Karl Holz (1858).”

Was his a case of death by string quartet?

Burn, burn, burn … The brighter the fire burns, the sooner it is out. That Schubert managed to overcome the fear of death is palpably evident in the Great C Major Symphony, The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross suggested in an article  during the bicentenary year of Schubert’s birth. The symphony’s “exhilarating and frightening” finale puts “wild” and “innocence” together:

We call it the Ninth, but Schubert probably considered it his First—the first “grand symphony,” worthy of Beethoven’s mantle. Sketched during an 1825 trip through the Austrian Alps, it seems to document the overcoming of morbidity, of all Romantic fascination with death. The force of the effort is both exhilarating and frightening. In the finale, the composer returns to a scene of innocence—a huge rustic dance, heralded by fanfares. By the end the ceremony borders on violence: the note C is repeatedly slammed down in the bass regions of the orchestra while a wild sequence of chords pivots around it. For all the world, it sounds like the stamp of a foot of a man reaching for the stars.

Great Soul by Alex Ross, in The New Yorker, February 3, 1997, pp. 70-78 (paywall).

When he died on November 19, 1828, many of  Schubert’s one thousand works remained unpublished, unknown. The Great Symphony, discovered and advanced by Robert Schumann, was first performed by an orchestra in Leipzig conducted by Felix Mendelssohn in 1839; the String Quintet first performed in 1850; the Unfinished Symphony in 1865.

Ehemaliges Grab von Franz Schubert (Former grave of Franz Schube

Ehemaliges Grab von Franz Schubert (Former grave of Franz Schubert). Photo by HeinzLW, 15 August 2010. WikiMedia Commons.

The inscription on Schubert’s tombstone reads in part:


Franz Grillparzer’s inscription on Schubert’s first tomb in the Währinger Friedhof, Vienna, 1830. Quoted in “Schubert in 1828” on the Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 37 website.



Streams of great music have come to light, found enduring places in the classical repertoire and in multitude hearts and minds and, as Schubert’s star continued to rise, fulfilled — and then some — those “far fairer hopes” that his friends supposed were dashed by his early death.

The Schubert Reader: A Life of Franz Schubert in Letters and Documents by Otto Erich Deutsch (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1947). ¶ The Cambridge Companion to Schubert, edited by Christopher H. Gibbs (Cambridge University Press, 1997). ¶ The Life of Schubert by Christopher H. Gibbs (Cambridge, 2000).

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