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Classical Composers A-Z: Franz Peter Schubert

Peter Wintersgill tells something of the life of Franz Peter Schubert, the man who some consider to have been the greatest of all composers.

Vienna January 31st, 1797.

Franz, schoolmaster and amateur cellist.

Elizabeth, a former cook, the only non-musical member of the family.

Fourth of five surviving children, three elder brothers, Ignaz, Ferdinand and Karl, and younger sister Maria Teresa.

Was taught violin by his father, the piano by brother Ignaz (13 years older) and soon outstripped them both. By the age of six he could play the violin, viola and piano, soon became the family star. Formed a string quartet at home, playing the viola, his two brothers playing the violins and their father the cello.

Had tuition from Michael Holzer, the local organist, who taught him the organ, singing and harmony. At 11 he joined the choir school of the Imperial Chapel (like Haydn) which supplied the choirboys to St. Stephen's Cathedral, where he was taught by Salieri, who also taught Beethoven.

His ability was soon recognised and he soon became leader of the school orchestra, and later deputy conductor. He also repaired and re-tuned the instruments. He was already composing at this stage: Fantasia in G (piano duet), six minuets for wind, and a song, Hagar's Klage. In 1812 his voice broke, he wrote his first opera, and his mother died. In 1813 he wrote his First Symphony, six string quartets and another opera, The Devil's Pleasance.

Early Adult Life
His father remarried the next year. His stepmother Anna became a great friend. He had to earn his living, so started teaching at his father's school, teaching music and general subjects, while continuing to compose. He did not teach to avoid military service, as has been suggested, He was in fact passed unfit for service on account of short stature and short sight, for which he wore thick-lensed glasses.

In 1814 he wrote his 3rd and 4th symphonies, six operas, a quartet, many church works and 150 songs, including Heidenroslein, Gretchen am Spinnrade, Der Erlkonig, and in 1815 the Mass in G. He got to know a young poet, Franz von Schober, who gave him free lodgings, enabling him to give up teaching and concentrate on composing.

Schober became a great friend, one of a circle of musical and artistic young men who went around together. One of them was Johann Vogl the baritone, who helped to popularise Schubert's songs.

Though not a brilliant pianist, Schubert wrote a lot of music for the piano, and played accompaniments for Vogl and other singers. One such song was Der Tod und das Madchen (1817). The same year he wrote the 6th symphony in C. In 1819, while writing the piano quintet Die Forelle (the Trout), he accidentally poured ink on the paper instead of sand. In 1820 he wrote the operettas Twin Brothers and the Magic Harp.

This group of friends used to go on excursions into the countryside, of which, like Beethoven, he was very fond. In 1821 a group of them decided to have twenty of his songs published, which helped to popularise them. In 1822 he started the 8th symphony in B minor (unfinished). He wrote only two movements and set them aside.

At this time he caught syphilis; during the secondary stage he was very ill and had a bad bout of reactive depression. He wrote 1,000 works altogether, including 600 songs, known as lieder. In 1823 he wrote the song cycle Fair Maid of the Mill, the A minor string quartet, the opera Alfonso and Estrella and the Wanderer Fantasy for piano.

Later Adult Life
He left Schober's about this time and returned home. For a while he was in hospital with pains and dizziness, possibly the effects of secondary syphilis; this was accompanied by depression.

He met Weber at the premiere of Euryanthe, an opera he had just composed, Schubert formed a poor impression of it, and told Weber so in no uncertain terms.

In 1824 he went to the family home of the Esterhazy family, where Haydn had spent so many years, as piano tutor to the Princesses Marie and Caroline. He eventually fell in love with Princess Caroline; in this way he resembled Beethoven, who was constantly falling in love with young ladies above his social station.

In 1825 he wrote Ave Maria and the settings from Shakespeare, Who is Sylvia? and Hark, Hark the Lark. He then had a four month holiday in Upper Austria (the area West of Vienna), during which he worked on the Gmunden-Gastein symphony, which later became the great Symphony in C.

Back in Vienna he had his portrait painted. He extemporised a waltz for a friend's wedding, which was remembered by the bride and handed down in her family; it was heard and written down by Richard Strauss in 1943. Musical evenings of Schubert and his friends were known as Schubertiades; these had tailed off during his illness, but now became more frequent again. He had applied for a job as vice director of the Imperial Court Chapel, but was not appointed. He wrote the song cycle Wintereise (Winter Journey) in 1827 to a text by Muller.

He sent some songs to Beethoven during his last illness; the great man was much impressed and spoke of the "Divine Spark" he found in them.

He was invited to stay with the Pachler family at Graz with Jean Baptiste Jenger. Frau Pachler was an excellent pianist, had known Beethoven and did a lot of entertaining, especially of musicians. While there he wrote several dances, including the Grazer Galop and the Grazer Walzer. He gave a performance of the lied Standchen for alto solo and women's chorus in 1827 at nearby Dobling. He dedicated Who is Sylvia? to Frau Pachler.

On his return to Vienna in September he became ill with headaches and "suffusions of blood to the head". Shortly after, he visited Beethoven, only a week before he died, and attended his funeral. Unlike Beethoven, he never had his own home, spending time moving about from one friend to another.

Final Year
Like Beethoven he never married and never relied on a single patron. In January 1828 the Standchen was given again in public, then later as part of a concert of his own works in March, when he finished the great C Major Symphony (started in 1825). In April he wrote the F minor Fantasy for piano duet, dedicated to Princess Caroline. Later that year there came out the appropriately named Schwangesang, (Swansong). In June he started the Mass in Eb no. 6.

In October he went on a three day walking holiday in Lower Austria. He was given some fish at an inn, which he pushed away after one bite, saying it tasted like poison. After that he neither ate nor drank, except for medicines. He was now very frail and weak, but managed to write his sonata no. 18 in G and the string quintet in C. He was cared for by his brother Ferdinand and stepsister Josefa, and attended by two doctors and a nurse. He got gradually weaker and died at 3.00pm on Wednesday, 19th November, 1828 aged 31.

The funeral was on 21st November and he was buried, at his own request, near Beethoven. A memorial service was held on 23rd December at St. Augustine's church. A group of friends started a fund, which included the proceeds of a concert of his own music, to erect a bronze bust in 1830.

Medical History
When but 25 he caught syphilis, no doubt about that. Some weeks later he mentions pains in the bones, dizziness, loss of voice and loss of hair, typical symptoms of secondary syphilis. He is also known to have had his head shaved, possibly for the patchy loss of hair. He also mentions headaches and rushes of blood to the head. These could well be due to the meningitis, a common complication of the condition. At this time he was known to have been very miserable, no doubt because of reactive depression.

He was at one time thought to have died of the effects of tertiary syphilis, but there would hardly have been time for this to develop. His death certificate gives the cause of death as "typhus abdominalis", a term used at that time to cover a multitude of sins. The commonest of these was typhoid fever, common in those unhygienic days.

In his last few weeks he ate and drank little, and was noticed by Ferdinand to be delirious, probably due to fever. I think, therefore, that he probably died of typhoid.


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