Franz Seraphicus Peter Schubert (1797-1828) was the last of the Austrian music masters and an iconic figure of the early romantic music era. He was also an outstanding composer, recognized globally for his contribution to classical music.

Classical music was the orthodox music in Europe from 1730 to 1820. The music from this era took the form of symphonies, solo pieces, ensembles, quartets, operas, and sonatas. However, sonatas and spins were the most popular forms during the Classical and Romantic eras. The works from this era continued to have influence deep into the 20th century. Alongside Schubert, iconic composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven left behind enduring legacies from this prolific period of musical creation.

Oil painting of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder. (Wikipedia/Public domain)

The ephemeral life of the genius

Schubert was born into a poor Austrian family. His father was a farmer, who also worked as a teacher at a primary school in Lichtenthal, a suburb of Vienna. Schubert’s first impression of music came from the music played in his father’s and brother’s music room. One of his brothers, Ferdinand, later became a well-known religious composer in his own right.

Schubert received his first music lessons at home, he was, as many celebrated composers often are, a musical prodigy. At the age of 6, he began learning how to play the piano, and at 8 he began attending violin classes. After that, he studied with Michael Holzer, from whom he learned singing and music theory. By the age of 11, Schubert had joined his parish choir and was playing the violin in the parish church service.

In October 1808, Schubert was sent to the Convent City School to enroll in other music courses, alongside choral voice.

By this time, Schubert had already composed a number of works. When he was 18, he inadvertently read Goethe’s poem Erlkonig, he was deeply inspired by the poem and spontaneously composed the world-famous song Der Erlkonig in just one hour. The song was a sensation and the entire city of Vienna was immediately gripped. Schubert’s career as a composer had officially begun.

Schubert idolized Beethoven and tried to reach out to the genius composer on two occasions. First in 1822, when Schubert went to Beethoven’s home to give him a private viewing of his new work, but Beethoven was unfortunately not home. And secondly, when Schubert attempted to attend Beethoven’s bedside when he was in the hospital. However, by the time he arrived Beethoven had tragically already passed away. Unbeknown to Schubert at the time, when Beethoven was in the hospital, upon examination of Schubert’s lyrics, he exclaimed, “Truly, the spark of divine genius resides in this Schubert!”  

The death of his idol in 1827 took a tremendous toll on Schubert’s already precarious health. The great composer quickly began to deteriorate.

Memorial at the Kalvarienberg Church, Hernals. (Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Before his death, just one year after Beethovens, in 1828, he made a request to his friends and family to bury him beside Beethoven’s grave. He was, however, ultimately buried at Währing Cemetery, not far from Beethoven’s grave. But, sixty years later, Schubert and Beethoven’s graves were moved to the same cemetery in central Vienna. Schubert finally had his wish.

Schubert’s eternal music

Schubert lived the first 31 years of his life in hardships and poverty. However, his works are full of enthusiastic positivity, peace, and joyful exuberance. In his short life, Schubert composed more than 600 songs, 18 operas, 10 symphonies, and 4 sonatas for violin, among many other works. He composed music for prolific poets, such as John Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich Heine, and Wilhelm Muller. For Schubert, music, and poetry were closely related and deeply intertwined.

His works explore extensive themes, and narratives, from romance to patriotism. He also composed across genres from folk songs to classical monoliths such as Ave Maria, Erlkonig, Ranger, Prometheus, etc.

Romanticism in Ave Maria

Schubert composed his most famous piece, Ave Maria, in 1825. It was based on Ellen’s song from the epic poem The Lady of the Lake by English poet Walter Scott. He loosely translated the poem from its original English into German for the song lyrics. From Ellen’s Song, the work Ave Maria becomes a romantic prayer to the Virgin Mary. It was later translated into Latin and approved as a prayer by the Catholic Church.

Through Ave Maria, Schubert managed to create a solemn atmosphere of prayer, articulating his emotions and the divine spirit via lyrics that people can understand. Though this is different from the function of the Holy Chanting used in religious ceremonies, it brings about the same spiritual power.

In the poem The Lady of the Lake by Walter Scoot, the story goes as follow: During the war, at sunset, chieftain Roderick was walking alone in the wild. Suddenly, he heard a voice singing, which turned out to belong to Princess Dallas Ai Lian. The music came from an old harp, and the song was a prayer to Ave Maria. It also expresses the Princess’s internal affliction and abounds with sincere feelings.

Ave Maria! maiden mild! Listen to a maiden’s prayer! Thou canst hear though from the wild; Thou canst save amid despair. Safe may we sleep beneath thy care, Though banish’d, outcast and reviled –Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer; Mother, hear a suppliant child! Ave Maria!

The lyrics are the prayer of a young girl, praying for her father’s sins. The melody is gentle and flowing, pure and simple. Etherial. This musical expression is subtle and satisfying, it shows the author’s desire for a beautiful truth. Due to its artistic elegance, artists through countless later generations have turned the piece into popular instrumentals, in which the violin plays the main melody, accompanied by the harp.

The musician of fantasy

Schubert lived during the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras. His symphonic style was inherited from Classicism, while his artistic songs and songs for the piano followed Romanticism. Commenting on Schubert’s marvelous Romanticism, Liszt called Schubert the most fantastic musician.

Schubert communicated his own spirituality into traditional chamber music. His chamber music works are fully Schbertian. They also belong to the last works of Classicism in Vienna. In such works as Wanderer Fantasy and Musical Moments, Schubert breathed a new romantic spirit into the piano voice. Their mentality, spontaneity and surprising attractiveness have become the key factors in romanticism.

‘Schubert at the Piano’ by Gustav Klimt. (Wikipedia/Public domain)

Schubert’s many popular songs were inspired by the inner feelings of poets and so contain extraordinary insight. Nobody has surpassed his extraordinary talent and refreshing emotion. When commenting on his Symphony in C Major, Schumann said that “His music leads us into a region which we never before explored, and consequently can have no recollection of.”

Schubert and Beethoven were recognized as the founders of musical Romanticism. Schubert not only inherited from classical music but also lay a foundation for the music of this school. Therefore, he established his position as the pioneer of romantic music, inspiring many other composers such as Mendelssohn, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, and Scriabin.

Let’s enjoy Franz Schubert’s Winterreise below:

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