Thursday, May 30, 2013

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Growing up (1797-1813)
Franz Schubert was born on January 31, 1797, in Vienna. His father taught him the violin, one brother the keyboard, and he played the viola in the family string quartet. He wrote his first music for this group.

When Franz was seven, Antonio Salieri discovered his beautiful voice. Antonio enabled him to become a choirboy at the imperial chapel and to attend the state school of music beginning in 1808. There his studies included the music of Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. A friend bought him the paper he couldn't afford but needed to write his compositions on. While at music school, Franz composed a variety of chamber music, liturgical music, and even his first symphony.

Writing music while teaching elementary school (1813-1818)
In 1813 he left music school, attended a school for teachers, then, in 1814, started teaching the youngest students at his father’s school. There he and his pupils endured two dull and frustrating years because his heart remained in writing music. Antonio Salieri, impressed by him, continued to give him private lessons in music theory until 1817.

He wrote his first successful romantic song, "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel," inspired by his reading of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. In 1815 alone Franz wrote over 140 other romantic songs (lieder) in addition to liturgical and orchestral music. During his lifetime he would compose over 600 romantic songs with over 50 of them based on the poetry of Goethe. In 1816 a friend of Franz sent 30 of his songs based on Goethe’s poetry to the poet in Wiemar. Goethe returned them without comment.

In 1816 he applied for work as music director in another city but didn't get it. Rather than continue teaching for another academic year, he went to live in the household of a friend. This allowed him to write music all day, including one of his most famous songs, "The Trouth," and his Symphony No. 5. While working on that symphony, he praised Mozart in his diary as “immortal.”

Early in 1817 Franz met Johann Michael Vogl, one of Vienna’s most successful operatic singers. The two admired one another. Franz wrote dozens of songs for Vogl to perform while Vogl publicly promoted his friend’s compositions. The two were quite the pair together. Vogl was tall and a commanding presence. Franz was not quite 5 feet (1.5 m) short and nicknamed “Little Mushroom” by his friends.

In the fall of 1817 Franz reluctantly returned to teaching with his father. In the winter of 1818 leaders of the important Music Association of Vienna turned down his application for membership.

Working as a composer (1818-1828)
Happily, once the school year ended, Franz found work at one of the summer homes of the fabulously wealthy Esterházy family. Pleasant surroundings, good pay, and a light workload allowed him to continue writing music, including March Militaire No. 1. Once autumn came and the Esterházy family returned to Vienna, Franz continued to teach their children while writing, always writing, music.

In 1820 Viennese police suspected Franz and four friends of having revolutionary sympathies and arrested them. Franz and others were released while one friend was sent to prison for a year and then banned from Vienna. Nevertheless he saw two of his operas publicly performed in Vienna that summer even though both failed financially. At least Vogl’s performance of Franz’s “The Elf King” in 1821, again with words by Goethe, proved to be a financial and critical success.

In 1822 Franz wrote some music, dedicated it to Ludwig van Beethoven whom he wildly admired, and then relished the opportunity of visiting with him. Franz also completed the first two movements of what became known as his “Unfinished” Symphony No.8. No one knows why he never wrote the third movement. (It was first performed only in 1865.) Finally, that year Franz discovered he had syphilis. He moved back home with his father, spent time in the hospital, and fell into a deep depression. While he continued to compose, he never recovered his earlier optimism.

During a relaxing summer holiday in the country in 1825, Franz created a set of songs based on a German translation of Walter Scott’s romantic hymn, “The Lady of the Lake.” One of these songs, called “Ellen’s Third Song,” sets to music a prayer by Ellen to the Virgin Mary. The music was later used by others for the traditional Roman Catholic prayer to Mary and called “Ave Maria.” Franz himself was agnostic.

In 1826 he completed his last “Great” symphony. It also was never performed in his lifetime.

In 1827 Beethoven died. Franz got to visit with him again shortly before his death and carried one of the torches in his funeral procession. He continued to compose while suffering headaches, dizziness, nausea, and changes in mood.

On March 26, 1828, the first concert dedicated solely to Franz’s music sold out. Soon even short walks exhausted him but he continued to compose. Franz wrote the six Moments musicaux at various times during the 1820s but the last in 1828. He died at the home of his brother Ferdinand on November 19, 1828. In fulfillment of his request, he was buried next to Beethoven.

At the time of his death, much of Franz’s music remained unknown, unfamiliar, or unpublished. In 1838 composer and music critic Robert Schumann found a manuscript of Franz’s “Great” symphony and returned to Leipzig with it. There it was performed for the first time by the Leipzig orchestra under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn. Franz Liszt also revived interest in Franz’s compositions by arranging for piano and playing many of his songs over a period of decades beginning in the 1830s. George Grove, famous for his Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, did the most to preserve neglected manuscripts of Franz’s music.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.