Last week, I discussed Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin, D. 795 (Op. 25).” Today, Caroline Bennett introduces us to Schubert’s life and many of his works, including his haunting lieder “Der Erlkönig.”
“Truly this Schubert has the divine fire.”—Ludwig van Beethoven
Throughout his life, Franz Schubert’s contemporaries reasoned that he was so adept at playing instruments, learning pieces, and writing music because “he has learned it from God.” They had good reason to wonder at Schubert’s talent, for without a doubt he was an amazing musician, and his expressive compositions for voice, orchestra, and piano were some of the finest pieces written during the Romantic era.
Born in 1797 in Vienna to a schoolmaster and his wife, Franz Peter Schubert began studying music at an early age, first under his father and older brother, and later under the parish church’s choirmaster. By the time he was thirteen, Schubert was composing original works of music, and he quickly realized that this was his calling. Despite his lifelong dedication to his art and his hard work, Schubert was often so poor that he could not buy paper to write his music on, much less own a piano. Yet Schubert’s music was his life, and he never considered a more lucrative job.
Schubert’s friendly and modest disposition gained him many friends, some of whom were poets. Through their influence, he became very interested in poetry and its association with music. Schubert set many poems to music, and these pieces—classified as lieder, or “art songs”—are his most prominent works. Indeed, many critics say that the greatest art song ever written is Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig,” with words by the German poet Johann Goethe. Schubert wrote “Der Erlkönig” in less than an hour, and its driving piano accompaniment and the frantic, but sometimes soothing, vocal part perfectly suits the story of a father galloping home with his frightened son, while the young boy is assailed by the evil Elf King. Schubert also wrote the famous accompaniment for Sir Walter Scott’s “Ave Maria.”
Even when Schubert’s pieces are not settings of poems, his music has a poetic quality to it, for he studied so many different instruments that he was able to write melodies that make instruments “sing.” In his Symphony No. 8 in B Minor—often known as the Unfinished Symphony, despite its completeness—Schubert used a lilting theme that is repeated throughout by different instruments and perfectly suits each one. The piece is very dramatic, much like works written by Schubert’s contemporary Ludwig van Beethoven, and the deeper tones of the basses and cellos are often featured beneath the peaceful melodies of the violins and woodwinds.
Though Schubert was adept at writing for many different instruments, he wrote the most for piano, and through this instrument proved how good a “poet” he was with music. His piano impromptus are especially moving, with tender melodies flowing throughout. But no two impromptus have the same sound; some are rather playful, some romantic, some grand.
Despite Schubert’s entrancing melodies and moving lieder, he never enjoyed great popularity in Europe during his lifetime. He died of typhoid fever at the young age of thirty-one, and remained relatively unknown until the composer Robert Schumann began promoting his works a few decades after his death. During his life, Schubert was applauded and encouraged only by his friends; now the poet of the piano is appreciated by music-lovers around the world, and remembered as a leading force in Romantic music.
♪ Fischer-Dieskau, Dietrich. Schubert: Goethe-Lieder. Deutsche Grammophon, June 15, 1999.
♪ Karajan, Herbert Von. Schubert Symphonien 8 and 9. EMI Classics, 1978.
♪ Perahia, Murray. Schubert Impromptus D 899 & D 935. Sony Classical, 1992.