Franz Schubert: An Appreciation

Franz Schubert was an awesome yet unflashy creative talent, largely ignored during his all-too-brief lifetime.

What’s the story with Schubert?

For years he was dismissed as something of a lightweight composer of songs by comparison with the rugged symphonic integrity of Beethoven. But as more and more of Schubert’s symphonies, sonatas, quartets and vocal works became widely known, he became viewed not so much as a “lesser” talent as treasurably unique. Like Mozart he died young, yet the tantalising, bittersweet quality of his later work appears to carry a lifetime’s experience on its young shoulders.

So why did Schubert struggle to gain recognition?

First and foremost he wasn’t a virtuoso, so he relied almost totally on others to spread the word. He was also relatively shy and retiring and found networking with aristos in order to gain commissions a severe strain. Finally, his music lacked the dramatic punch of his note-spinning contemporaries.

What were the Schubertiads?

Schubert’s intimate style of composing did attract some admirers, especially among the middle classes. Musical soirées known as Schubertiads were set up during which Schubert would often sing his latest songs.

What’s the best way into Schubert?

Try the Fifth Symphony. It has a sublime Mozartian grace and concision that the later works, for all their expressive profundity, rarely attain. Every movement is a priceless gem, making it all the more unbelievable that Schubert was only 19 years old at the time.

Did Schubert ever intend finishing the Unfinished Symphony?

Schubert got as far as orchestrating the first two movements and a portion of the third in short score before he turned his hand to his solo piano Wanderer Fantasy. For whatever reason, he never returned to the “Unfinished”.

Did syphilis kill Schubert?

Almost certainly. It now seems that Schubert began suffering syphilitic symptoms from around 1822, following several ill-advised liaisons. It is especially poignant to reflect that this was exactly the time that he began working on the angst-fuelled Unfinished Symphony.