Five reasons any music lover should own a record by Franz Schubert

It’s good to have some classical music in your collection.

In fact, we feel every record collector should own at least a dozen classical albums, and ideally more. Us Gen Xers grew up during the music’s decline in popularity and appreciation. Our parents generation enjoyed classical music, and watched Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein introduce pieces on television.

We saw music programs eliminated when we went to school (and we are fortunate today, here in Minneapolis, that they have been reinstated). As with many other forms of music, people don’t enjoy western classical music because they don’t have a point of entry to begin to appreciate it.

Here’s an example which we think about from time to time: some years ago we bought a collection from someone who lived in one of those enormous houses on the lakes. In the basement there was a luxurious home theater, which included an elaborate sound system. The owner wished to make more room for his collection of movies (we have never seen so many DVDs in all our lives) and planned to sell the collection of audiophile albums he had impulsively purchased. There were half-speed mastered collections of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Sinatra, and so on. There were also deluxe editions of jazz standards like Kind of Blue, and he was more than happy to demonstrate the extraordinary sound quality of his $8000 stereo system.

But in all of this there was only a single classical album, the Funk & Wagnall’s Family Library of Great Music edition of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Not a particularly great performance or recording at all. We never understand how someone could have such interest in the sound of his records, but so little interest in discovering a wide world of new music to hear.

Schubert’s life story should be a Netflix documentary about an unappreciated genius, whose talents were recognized only after his untimely passing.

Franz Schubert died on November 19, 1828, at the age of thirty-one, following an extended illness which marred the frantic late years of his short life. Although we cannot be certain, it is likely Schubert suffered from syphilis, and was either killed by the venereal disease itself, or the backwards treatments common to the time. Schubert was hardly as vibrant a character as Mozart, who lived but four years longer, and his story would not be as ribald as Amadeus, but it would still be a similar portrait of an extraordinary musician who left this Earth entirely too quickly.

Throughout his tumultuous professional life Schubert was shockingly prolific — composing well over five hundred songs, seven symphonies (and several famously “Unfinished”), as well as operas, overtures and s stunning collection of chamber works. All of this was largely lost on his contemporaries until long after his death, as Schubert’s music was scantly published and rarely performed in public.

His brother Ferdinand and other friends held onto his scores after his death, but they were slow to publish them. It was a decade before his Symphony no. 9 in C Major (“The Great”) was debuted, and decades more before the same for the Symphony no. 8 in B Minor (“Unfinished”) — this second launching his rise to the echelon of western composers.

The now nearly universal praise for Schubert’s chamber works is, in our opinion, the longest overdue. Schubert’s mastery of lieder (songs) won widespread praise well before the works by which he may, today, be held in the highest esteem. His Piano Quintet in A Major (“The Trout Quintet”) is one of the most widely recorded chamber works in the classical repertoire and a concert favorite around the world, as are the C and D Minor Quartets. This second is his celebrated “Death and the Maiden” Quartet.

In addition to being largely unperformed and unpublished, Schubert’s romantic ambitions appears to have been just as unfulfilled. He is widely believed to have been a homosexual, in part because for all his intimate letters to male friends, not a single love letter to a women has survived. His orientation may have driven him further into small insular circles, like the music societies which supported his music or the casual court of his friend Franz von Schober, an actor (often of women), poet and bon vivant, whose enthusiasms extended to then-exotic orientalism and homosexuality. There seems to be no great love or acceptance found in Schubert’s short life.

Death and the Maiden

So shy was Schubert that it’s said he couldn’t find the courage to introduce himself to his hero, Ludwig van Beethoven, when they passed one another on the streets of Vienna. Their first meeting in 1822 went terribly for the younger composer, although Beethoven expressed great admiration for Schubert on his deathbed. These would probably be pretty big scenes in the movie. It’s too bad we can’t get Sebastian Cabot to play Beethoven (see: Tuesday’s post).

Schubert was underground music.

His String Quartet in D Minor was debuted at a house show in January 1826 with the composer himself playing the viola. It was performed perhaps only once again while he was alive, and not published until three years after his death.

Remarkably, the debut for most of his works took place in private residences, house shows hosted by supporters or musical societies. Only once in Schubert’s life, on the 26th of March, 1828, six short months before his death, was there a public performance with the program being entirely his music. This rare professional triumph afforded him the opportunity to buy a piano.

Always regarded as a natural talent (one early teacher said, “he has learnt everything from God, that boy”), the spontaneity of Schubert’s inspiration is the stuff of legend. Some songs were said to have been written on the back of napkins in coffee houses and taverns. In one year he wrote 145 songs.

Schubert’s outsider status is cemented by his belated recognition of a musical form previously on the outskirts of legitimate composition. His body of lieder (songs) is a cornerstone of the form, which dates to medieval German traditions, but becomes something entirely different after the publication of Schubert’s nearly 600 songs, some written in cycles that we might think of as like concept albums today. He excelled in other forms, but in this he exceeded even Beethoven in his unique mastery of a marriage between words and music.

Some of Schubert’s outsider status may be the stuff of legend. For instance, a letter once found its way to him addressed only with: “Franz Schubert, famous composer of Vienna.” Still, so much of his music remained unknown even into the modern era. A century after Schubert’s death, Rachmaninov expressed shock to learn he had even composed piano sonatas. Today they are considered some of the finest of the late romantic era. And our favorite work for solo piano, his Moment Musicaux, was basically unknown into the same period.

 

Schubert was aware he was dying when he composed the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet.

Returning to the theme of Schubert’s life being like a “behind the music” tragedy, he was well aware his life would surely be even shorter than Mozart’s. Surviving letters suggest he was preoccupied with his rapidly declining health, and many symptoms he describes suggest mercury poisoning (mercury was a common, fatally flawed treatment for syphilis at the time). He likely suffered a great deal during his last months, and it is remarkable he continued to compose.

Many of his song cycles dealt not with the traditional themes of adventure or romance, but of spiritual journeys. It is from one of these, a 1817 song, that he drew the melody of the quartet’s Andante, and from which the later work subsequently earned its name. The song finds a young maiden pleading with death to pass her by. “I am still young, go rather / and do not touch me,” she sings (this is an English translation). In the duet for piano and voice, death assure her he is “a friend, and come[s] not to punish.”

It’s remarkable this and other heartbreaking works were composed in the same mind as the bright and cheerful Trout Quintet. Schubert had an innate ability to express emotion, making his chamber works an excellent introduction for people unfamiliar with most classical music. Ironically, the outsider is in many ways the most accessible.

Five days before his death, friends arranged for a final performance, and Schubert requested to hear Beethoven’s 14th Quartet. A friend remarked that the king of harmony ha[d] sent the king of song a friendly bidding to the crossing.”

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