Personalities | Franz Schubert | Early Romantic | Classical

(Frants Shoo’-brt) 1797–1828
Austrian composer

Described by Liszt as ‘the most poetic of all composers’, Franz Schubert (1797–1828) was both the heir to the great Viennese classical tradition of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and the first true Romantic composer.

In his short life, spent almost entirely in Vienna, he was known almost exclusively as a composer of songs and piano pieces. Yet he composed prolifically in virtually all the major genres; and the full range of his achievement was only gradually realized after his death.

Schubert’s early death spawned a welter of sentimental myths and half-truths. For well over a century the image lingered of the complaisant, happy-go-lucky composer, scribbling melodies on the back of the nearest available menu. Only in recent decades have scholars identified a darker, depressive, even neurotic strain in his make-up, which manifested itself above all in the bleak Winterreise (‘Winter’s Journey’) song cycle and the great chamber works of his last years.

Schubert’s sexual orientation, too, has come under scrutiny and while this may remain the subject of speculation, the charges of fecklessness once levelled against Schubert have been well and truly discredited. Far from being the unselfcritical ‘clairvoyant’ composer of popular legend, he was unswerving in his sense of purpose, and would often make extensive sketches before a piece satisfied his stringent demands. And while he is rightly loved as the creator of some of the world’s supreme melodies, he is now equally revered for his mastery of large-scale structures and his innovative approach to harmony.

Schubert’s Childhood

Franz Peter Schubert was born on 31 January 1797 in a cramped apartment in the Himmelpfortgrund suburb of Vienna. Both his father Franz Theodor, the local elementary school teacher, and his mother Elisabeth originally hailed from northern Moravia, on the fringes of the sprawling Austrian Empire. Franz was their twelfth child; three sons survived to adulthood, as did a subsequent daughter.

From early on, Franz’s musical talents were nurtured by his affectionate family. He received piano lessons from his brother Ignaz and violin lessons from his father. Ignaz later wrote that ‘within a very short time he progressed so far that I had to recognize in him a master who far outstripped me’; and before his tenth birthday Franz had bluntly announced that he had no further use for his piano lessons and would continue on his own. By this time he was receiving instruction in organ and music theory from Michael Holzer, choirmaster of the local Lichtental parish church. It was probably Holzer who introduced Franz to the venerable Antonio Salieri (1750–1825), famous as Mozart’s rival. On Salieri’s recommendation the boy competed for a position as chorister in the Imperial Court Chapel and a place at the Stadtkonvikt, a boarding school run by Piarist monks. He sailed through his audition and exam; and at the end of 1808 he left his family home for the spartan regime of the Stadtkonvikt.

Early Influences

Franz no doubt suffered from the Stadtkonvikt’s inadequate...

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