The Living Biography Of Franz Schubert, My Favourite Composer & Personal Inspiration
In 1805 the French army under Napoleon stormed the gates of Vienna. The half a million Viennese, accustomed to the laughter and gaiety of peace, were thrown into a panic. The bombardment was terrific. The shells burst everywhere. The older boys from the university flocked to the colors and marched to fight against the legions of the Corsican. The little boys in the parochial schools huddled together in their bedrooms in terror and stuffed cotton in their ears to lessen the noise. A shell hit the Jesuit Grammar School. It fell in the middle of the stone-flagged corridors and tore the high windows apart. One of the students, an eight-year-old tubby-faced little fellow with steel-rimmed glasses, was in his room playing the piano. He jumped up in confusion. His eyes widened with horror. He fell to the floor and hid his face.
"Schubert, Franz Schubert!" called the schoolmaster. He was counting the heads of his young pupils to see if anyone had been hit. "Are you all right?" The round friendly face came into view. "We can't afford to lose the choirboy with the best voice in the school," added the schoolmaster in relief. "Who would do the singing on Sundays?"
Franz Schubert was a shy, obscure little lad who spent all of his spare time in his bedroom keeping his own counsel and his own silence. One of the few things that distinguished him among his fellow pupils was his beautiful soprano voice. But this distinction soon failed him. A note written in a scrawling hand over the flyleaf of his schoolbook informs us that "Franz Schubert has crowed for the last time, Sunday, July 26, 18-." From now on he would talk in low, manly tones. The school must look for it's sopranos elsewhere. Franz Schubert had become a man.
HE PLAYED VIOLIN in the school orchestra. And he did a fine job of it. He took upon himself the task of looking after the instruments, to see that they were properly tuned; he gave out the parts and placed them on the music stand. He attended to the tallow-candle illuminations. Clumsy as he was in his movements and ungraceful in his speech, he nevertheless has about him a quiet charm that went straight to everybody's heart. He was saturated with music; he talked of nothing but music; and he got the thrill of his young life when a Viennese aristocrat asked the school orchestra to play at his home when the great Beethoven was an invited guest. To be sure, when someone suggested that the boys play one of Beethoven's symphonies the composer begged them to desist, explaining that he was rather particular about listening to his own music. This rebuke somewhat daunted Franz. For the rest of his life he never got over his fear of the old musician.
Schubert's father believed that Franz was spending too much time on his music. He wanted to know why the boy had failed in mathematics. It was a severe question put by a severe man, a phlegmatic schoolteacher whose horizon was bounded by the classroom and whose ambition was to turn his sons into pedagogues like himself. For schoolteachers were at least certain of a regular wage-Schubert's father was earning two hundred dollars a year. Compared to the musicians, the teachers were the aristocrats of the starving fraternity. If teaching meant a dead living, music meant living a death. And so Franz had better stick to his mathematics and forget his silly compositions.
In answer to his father Schubert composed a poem on the wisdom of God and the foolishness of man-and then he went on with his music. He was fifteen now and as much of a recluse as ever behind the barrier of his steel-rimmed spectacles. He was incredibly nearsighted. His schoolmates jestingly remarked that he kept his glasses on his head even when he slept. The masters thought that he was too serious for his own good. But they recognized that here was a boy with extraordinary talent and a deep imagination-though the Lord alone knew the source from which it sprung. Certainly not from Papa Schubert.
Young Schubert's allowance was as skimpy as his knowledge of mathematics. Occasionally he wrote to his older brother, Ferdinand, for money. We have one of these rather naive letters. "Let me bring out at once what is on my mind," writes Franz, "so that I may come to the point and not just meander coyly around it....The few groschen that my father allows me are all spent-the devil knows how-in the first few days. What am I to do, then, for the rest of the time? 'They who put their trust in Thee shall not be confounded." Matthew, Chap. 3. verse 4. I think so myself.... How would it be if you were to let me have a few kreutzers each month? You would not really feel it, while I should consider myself so lucky, and would be quite satisfied in my cloistered retreat. As I said before, I rely on the words of Apostle Matthew where he says: 'He that hath two coats let him give one to the poor...'"
All this time he was composing quietly in his room. He wrote a fantasia, a duet for the piano in twelve movements, an overture, two string quartets and a sonata. He rarely used a piano for his composition; he said that it interrupted his train of thoughts. Sometimes he drummed his fingers on his desk, as if trying out a musical passage. He wrote easily and rapidly and made few corrections. A handful of his intimate school friends read his compositions. Music was his best medium of communication with these friends, since he was frequently at a loss for words. When the pupils went out for their daily walk Schubert kept apart from the others, head bent to the ground and hands behind his back with the fingers constantly moving as if they were playing keys. He had a mobile face. It expressed many moods. Conversation with him was unnecessary. When he did speak it was brief and to the point. Although he rarely laughed, he had an abundance of quiet humor.
The following year, his sixteenth, brought no change in his situation. He was first violinist of the Jesuit orchestra, and he composed incessantly in all his spare time. His only formal training as a composer came form the school's musical director, Salieri, who gave him lessons in thorough bass and counterpoint. He still failed regularly in his mathematics. This inability of Schubert's to do his sums was a source of deep chagrin to his mother as well as to his father. Mama Schubert, a cook before her marriage, was a simple and practical soul who regarded her poor Frantzl as a stupid and idle good-for-nothing.
In this opinion she died when Schubert was seventeen years old.
FRANZ'S FATHER has his way at last. Shortly after the death of Mama Schubert, Franz entered the Normal School of St Anna to begin his training as a schoolteacher. When he came up for compulsory military service he was rejected. For he was anemic, undersized, and "blind as a bat." Three times he was called up for a physical examination, and each time he failed to pass the test. Poor material for killing. He was allowed to remain at the Normal School and to prepare himself for living.
Yet Schubert was unhappy. Teaching was as distasteful to him as soldiering. The classroom was a prison house. He felt completely out of his element. To escape from the monotony of the academic life he began to court the company of a young lady whose passion, like his own, was music. She had a charming soprano voice. Franz fell in love with her and under her influence composed nearly a hundred and fifty songs. Yet he was too shy to express his love in words. "It's strange," he wrote in his diary, "how some people try to picture their feelings in plain moving language, only to turn themselves into a laughing stock. To speak easily is a gift of nature." Schubert lacked this; he possessed only the gift of melody. And it was in this language of melody that he tried to convey his sentiments to Theresa Grob. But the gods are ironical. Theresa Grob spurned the arms of the master musician and became the wife of a master baker. She preferred the realism of fresh buns to the romanticism of inspired song.
But if unlucky in love, Schubert was lucky in friendships. Like himself, his friends were interested in music and the arts. Whenever a new person was brought into his company Franz would always turn to a comrade and whisper "Can he do something?"
These friends formed a small but appreciative audience for his songs. They would discuss his compositions with a fanatical enthusiasm. Franz alone did not join in the discussions. He allowed his music to express all his moods. His music, and his pipe. he was an incessant smoker.
His development as a musician was incredible. Within two years he composed two hundred and fifty songs. At last he definitely decided to give up his job as a teacher and to starve as a musician. He secured an introduction to the foremost singer in Germany, Johann Michael Vogel, a giant of a man with a gigantic reputation-a huge Greek god with monocle. This favorite of society examined a number of Schubert's songs. One of the especially caught his attention. He hummed it over to himself and then tried it on the piano. "Not bad," he murmured. It was a setting to one of Goethe's most touching poems, the Erl-King. A father on horseback is carrying his little son through the night and the wind. The child is terrified. "Look, Father look, the Erl-King. See where he stands!" The father sees nothing. "My child, it is only the mist and the rain." But the voice of the Erl-King whispers seductively into the ear of the child. "Come along with me back to my home, you lovely child....There you will find flowers to pick and fine clothes to wear...and many a pretty toy to play with." "Father, oh, Father, do you hear what he sings?" "There, there now, my child. There is nothing to mind. It is only the leaves that are tossed by the wind." "Come down, pretty child, come down to the deep....My maidens will rock you and sing you to sleep." And then the voice becomes more menacing. "Come, come, now, I'll seat you a-top of my horse....If you don't come yourself, I will take you by force!" "Father, dear Father, he won't let me go. The Erl-King is hurting me, hurting me-so!" That father shudders and hurries home. But when he arrives there, in anguish and dread, the child in his arms lies quiet...and dead.
The simple nobility of Schubert's setting to this poem made a deep impression upon many people. Johann Vogel, who was considerably older than Schubert, became his sworn friend. yet curiously enough, when Schubert sent this song to Goethe, the poet did not even deign to acknowledge the present from the unheralded young musician. He did not find the music outstanding. It was not until several years later, when Goethe attended a concert at which the song was sung, that the glory of the melody burst upon him for the first time. Tears rushed to his eyes as he applauded. But it was too late to make amends to Schubert. For the composer had been dead two years.
But to return to our living Schubert. Although by the time he was twenty he had completed six symphonies in addition to his numerous songs, he possessed no financial resources whatsoever. Not a single work of his-and by this time there were several hundred-had either been published or publicly performed. Clearly music was not a profitable profession for the young man.
But he had good friends. They worshipped him. Most of the time he was kept at the house of one or another of these people rent free. Schwämmerl (Fatty), his companions affectionately called him. Through one of them he received an introduction to the Count Esterhazy and a position as musical instructor to his children. But he despised the unimaginative spirit of the ducal family, none of whom manifested a sincere devotion to the art. It was a great relief for him to retire into sanctuary of his room, alone with his beloved pianoforte and his scribbled sheets of music piled untidily from floor to ceiling. there, away from the tables of the rich and the petty talk of the titled, he was free to proclaim: "I give to the world what I feel in my heart."
ONE OF THE GREAT IRONIES of Schubert's life was that he never fully realized where the strength of his true genius lay. That he was the writer of the purest songs in the world was a matter of indifference to him. Melody was so much a question of nature, and he composed his songs with rapid facility, that he thrust most of the sheets into abandoned drawers and dusty corners without giving the music a thought once he had written it down. It was his life's ambition to write successful operas. He looked enviously upon Rossini, whose genius for melody had brought him wealth and fame. He determined to try his hand at the opera. But in this field he was destined to never achieve success, financial or artistic. He wrote a comic opera entitled The Twins, which ran for six performances and then closed. Neither the public or the press had taken warmly to it. The critics had observed that some of the purely lyrical passages of the opera possessed moments of great beauty but that the music as a whole lacked the dramatic quality necessary for the stage. This should have been a strong hint to Schubert. But instead of taking the hint he tried his hand at a serious opera, The Magic Harp. Again the criticism was in the same vein. "Herr Schubert needs a closer knowledge of the stage. Until then his attempts are bound to fail." Schubert was heartbroken and poured out his disappointment in scores of songs that only his friends heard in the quiet of his room-heard and worshipped.
Once he had written in his diary: "The world resembles a stage on which every man is playing a part.... The manager is to be blamed if he distributes to his players such parts as they are unable to act." As he sat in the tavern of the Schwarze Katze and sipped his Bavarian beer he felt that he was most strangely miscast in this role of life-he and the friends who flocked to him. Their diet consisted of beer and song and sorrow.
But they were young and their sorrow sat lightly upon their shoulders. They met for their meals in the upper room of the tavern-painters, poets, musicians, actros, Bohemians all. The city of Vienna was a Bagdad of intrigue and adventure and nocturnal pageantry. To Schubert's overworked brain and tired heart the society of these pagan young radicals came as a great relaxation.
And yet Schubert's moods were decidedly religious. The music of Bach and Handel stirred him profoundly. When he listened to the works of these great composers he folded his hands in emotion and pressed them to his mouth. At such moments he was not ashamed of his failure or embittered about his poverty. Revelry and religion-these were the two props that upheld his drooping spirits. Schubert was a pagan with a Christian prayer in his heart.
When he submitted the Erl-King to the publishers they rejected it. He tried to sell them his other songs, but with the same negative results. Thereupon several of his friends interested a number of people to print for private subscription a hundred copies of one volume of his songs. This private edition sold rapidly-so rapidly in fact that several music publishers in Vienna offered to republish the volume. They persuaded the unbusinesslike composer to sell them the complete rights to the songs, including the plates, for three hundred and fifty dollars. He was so anxious to get a little money into his pockets that he forgot about the prospect of royalties. Probably, too, he was unprepared for the great wave of popularity that his songs were about to arouse. In two years his publishers realized fifteen thousand dollars on one songs alone-The Wanderers. And Schubert remained as poor as ever. His publishers systematically swindled him.
Once he had a strange dream. He dreamt that his father struck him in the face and told him to leave the house. And then he wandered off to distant lands, dejected and solitary and silent-silent but for his songs. Through the long years he sang his songs. "But when I wished to sing of love, it turned into sorrow." Such had been the love songs he had dedicated to Theresa Grob and to the world. He had offered them love and for his trouble they had requited him with sorrow. He took more strongly to the wine cup and wandered into the forbidden haunts of meretricious pleasure. In 1823, his twenty-sixth year, he contracted a horrible disease. He was sent to General Hospital in Vienna, where a long and painful treatment stilled his fever and checked the acute form of malady. But the doctors could not cure him permanently. Throughout the remainder of his life he was subject to frequent attacks which gradually weakened his resistance and brought him to the verge of despair.
And now, having been repaid for his love with sorrow, he transmuted his sorrow once more into love. Out of the soil of his suffering blossomed his epic love song, the Unfinished Symphony.
IT WAS in the following frame of mind that Schubert wrote his Unfinished Symphony: "Picture to yourself," he said, "a man who will never recover his health...whose brilliant hopes have come to nothing." The symphony, a lyrical poem in an epic form, consists of two movements. Though Schubert made sketches of a third movement, the Scherzo, and actually scored a page or two, he evidently found no ending that pleased him sufficiently; and so he left the music unfinished--or rather a completely finished fragment, like the life of a beautiful character-his own life-cut off in it's youth.
It is not clear that Schubert realized the significance of the symphony: for, as usual, he was concentrating all his efforts on another stage piece. He completely neglected the symphony that was destined to give him fame for the score of an opera that brought him nothing but obscurity and defeat. He never heard the Unfinished Symphony performed by an orchestra. He had plucked it like a flower from the exuberant garden of his genius and had flung it carelessly to an unheeding world. It was found, many years after his death, in the desk of a friend.
During his entire life Schubert drew a total income of less than three thousand dollars for his compositions. At no time more than a step ahead of starvation, he began to lose faith in his ability to compose. The older he grew, the less he received for his work. The reason for this was that his publishers, well aware of his poverty and his desperation and his debts, offered him smaller sums for each new composition. Schubert was one of the greatest geniuses and one of the worst businessman in the nineteenth century.
Added to his insufficient bussiness ability, or rather included as a constituent part of this inability, was a stubbornness that made it impossible for Schubert to get along with practical people. He couldn't stoop to conquer. On one occasion there was a vacancy at the Imperial Opera House of Vienna. Schubert had a good chance for the appointment. He possessed all the necessary qualifications for the job. He had powerful friends and admirers who interceded for him and persuaded the trustees to give him a trial. Rehearsals were started on a libretto to which Schubert wrote some sketches. But when the soprano of the company complained that some of the notes in the arias assigned to her were too high Schubert refused to modify them. During the final rehearsal, at which the directors of the opera were present, the prima donna struggled bravely with the troublesome passages; but her voice broke and she was too exhausted to continue. The directors conversed in low tones with the singer and then walked over to the conductor's stand. "We shall postpone the rehearsals for a few days, Herr Schubert," said their spokesman. "In the meantime we beg of you to make the alterations which Fräulein Schechner desires." Schubert grew purple in the face. "I will not change a single note!" he shouted, slammed down the score and marched angrily out of the auditorium and out of his job.
On another occasion his friends suggested that he give a concert of his own works. "Your name is on everybody's tongue," they told him, "and every new song of yours is an event." The public, they assured him, would fight for the tickets and he would become a "veritable Croesus." Schubert agreed. The concert was arranged and the hall was filled to the last seat. On this single evening he made over a hundred and fifty dollars-to Schubert a fabulous sum. The public clamored for a second concert. But the peculiar stubborness in the composer would not let him comply with the popular demand. He didn't care for the mob, he said, and he wanted none of it's patronage.
At about this time he neglected another opportunity to enrich his purse. The publishers asked him to supply them with songs that would be less difficult technically. And they promised to buy his work in large quantities. But the composer refused to write music that would please them. He insisted, fortunately for the music lovers of subsequent generations, to write only those songs which would meet his own high and sometimes difficult standards. He had become increasingly impatient at the standards of the world.
Yet, after all, the world was not to blame if it sometimes failed to understand the idiosyncrasies of his temperament. Those who knew him catered to him and treated him with a kindness accorded to few men. And even those who did not know him intimately, apart from a few unscrupulous publishers who deliberately took advantage of him, were not hostile to him. In fact, they were quite receptive. But Schubert, worn out with disease and continual disappointments, had developed an acid attitude which frightened the public away from him.
He vented his bitterness not only against the public but sometimes even against his fellow musicians. Once a few well-meaning but mediocre musicians espied Schubert sipping his beer in the Gasthaus. They rushed over to him and begged him to write them some compositions for their instruments. Franz drew himself to his full height. "For you ," he shouted, his face flushed with the contents of the cup, "for you I shall write nothing!"
"And why not Herr Schubert?"
"You think you are artists," continued Franz. "Tootlers and fiddlers-that's what you are. I am an artist-I, Franz Schubert. I have written great and noble works, the most beautiful symphonies, cantanas, operas and quartets. Yet they call me nothing but a singer of trifles, and they call you artists-you creeping, gnawing worms whom I disdain even to crush under my heel. For whilst you are wriggling and rotting in the dust, I have learned to walk among the stars!"
SCHUBERT continued his solitary dreams among the stars. Poverty, disillusionment, disease could not still his music. Many a time he had declared that he would never write another song. He was tired of scattering his treasures to the fickle winds. But he never stopped. Sitting at the tavern amidst the clatter of ninepins and the laughter of the drinkers, he would suddenly snatch upa menu and dash off upon the back of it a melody that bubbled like wine out of his overflowing heart.
One day a friend asked him to set to music the words of a little poem he had composed for a young lady's birthday. Schubert, who knew nothing of the young lady, scribbled down a handful of notes and gave them to his friend with an apology. "Sorry, but I haven't the time for anything more serious just now." His friend took the music home and tried it on the piano. He was delighted with it that he made arrangements to have Schubert play it at the home of a mutual friend before a select circle of music lovers.
At the appointed hour everybody was there--except Schubert. The composer was nowhere to be found. The hostess was beside herself. She sent one of Schubert's companions to search all the beer taverns in town, certain that he would be found in some isolated corner, sipping his beverage and shaping his dreams. She was right. Schubert was discovered in one of his favorite haunts. Dragged unceremoniously to the drawing room, he confessed that he had forgotten all about the appointment. He sat down and played the song he had scribbled for his friend in such a hurry. When he had finished playing tears came into his eyes. "I hadn't realized it was so beautiful," he said.
The name of this song? Schubert's Serenade.
Schubert composed this serenade toward the end of the brief summer of his life. The winter was at hand-a premature winter, for Schubert was scarcely thirsty. As if aware of his approaching death, he composed a hymn to the Virgin, Ave Maria. For, as he remarked, "in order to have understanding, one must have faith." People said of him, as he played the piano during this last year of his life, that the keys were transformed into "singing voices." The voices sang from every fiber of his being-an anthem of faith in his own ultimate destiny far from the squabbles of publishers and the noises of men. Once during a trip through southern Germany he had written in a note of exaltation to his father: "Why do men fear death? If only they could see these marvelous mountains and lakes whose giant contours are waiting at every moment to absorb us, they would become less enamoured of the tiny span of human life. They would be eager to give their bodies to the earth that they may be quickened by it's forces into new life."
And in preparation for this new life, the dawning of the unknown spring, he composed his last Symphony (in C major) and a farewell series of songs--Winterreise (Winter Journeys). "In the dark hallowed hours of his final days," observed his friend Bauernfeld, "he wrote the most sadly beautiful of his songs." His friends were amazed and frightened at the morbid melody of these winter songs. But Schubert reassured them. "Someday this music will comfort you as it comforts me. For in it you will hear the rustling of the wings of the angel who is calling home."
In March 1827 he attended the funeral of Beethoven. After the burial he went with several of his friends to a tavern and raised the wine to his lips with the words, "To him we have just buried." Then he refilled his glass with the salute, "To him who will be next." It was a toast to himself he was drinking. Just nineteen months later (November 19, 1828) he was laid in his own grave, only a few yards away from the tomb of the great master.