The short, unfinished life of Franz Schubert

Not all composers possess gigantic egos. Franz Schubert is a case in point.

Shy, quiet, bespectacled, known but to a small cadre of friends who performed his music, Schubert lived a short life of obscurity and didn’t achieve fame until many years after his death. He worshipped Beethoven from afar and occasionally saw him on the streets of Vienna but never had the courage to go up and introduce himself.

Schubert’s musical gift was song, and he is credited with bringing the German art of songwriting to its highest point of perfection. By definition, a song--popular, folk, or arty--is “the musical setting for a poem.” Schubert set German poems to music. By his death at age 31, he had composed more than 500 songs, among them “Ave Maria.” Schubert is often compared favorably with another master of song who died young, George Gershwin. Or rather Gershwin is compared favorably with him.

Like Beethoven, Schubert wrote nine symphonies. Symphonies One-thru-Six are of Haydn’s and Mozart’s world--clever, tasteful, sunny--while Numbers Eight and Nine are more of Beethoven’s Olympian scale.

Schubert never heard Symphonies Eight and Nine performed. Number Nine wasn’t performed until a month after his death, and Number Eight was lost for 20 years. All that remains of the Eighth (the “Unfinished Symphony”) is the first two movements, but the music is so well-conceived and so compelling it has become a favorite with conductors and concert-goers. Schubert left sketches for another three symphonies, unfinished at his death.

Schubert played both violin and piano but he never got around to composing a concerto for either instrument. He wrote world-class string quartets, quintets, trios, and sonatas for piano. He wrote one opera which is seldom performed today.

After completing his third symphony (at age 18), Schubert quit his job and spent his remaining years composing and socializing with his Bohemian friends in Vienna. He died at age 31 from venereal disease.

Schubert is seventh on the list of the 50 greatest composers.


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