Guess who said that about an Austrian composer born this day, January the 31st in 1797? Antonio Salieri, and the subject of his praise was none other than Franz Schubert.
Western musicians love to encapsulate their favorite composers by the first letters of their names: the obvious front-runners are the three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. All of them were German-born.
But I’d like to suggest another trio, dear to my heart, namely the three S’s – Schumann, Schubert and Strauss. Robert Schumann and Richard (not Johann!) Strauss were German-born, Franz Schubert was born in Austria. And it is the second of that trio I’d like to write about today in celebration of his birthday anniversary. Salieri’s famous quote about his pupil ends with the words, “…..for you are a genius.” And that gets me going into some facts that justify the Italian composer’s claim.
As a child, Franz received instruction on the violin, viola and organ; also in singing and thorough bass from his schoolmaster father, his brother, and a local choir-master. From 1808 to 1813 he attended the School of the Imperial and Royal Court Chapel where he completed a symphony, several chamber music works, and numerous songs and piano pieces.
In 1814 he wrote an opera, a Mass, 2 string quartets, and many smaller compositions including his first song masterpiece, Gretchen am Spinnrade (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” sung by Renee Fleming on YouTube.) In 1815 he completed 2 symphonies, 2 Masses, an opera, 4 operettas, 4 sonatas, some piano pieces, and 146 songs including the celebrated Der Erlkonig, sung here by the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
In 1817 Scubert abandoned teaching as a livelihood and devoted himself to composition. Despite his brilliant output of masterworks over the next decade that included songs, symphonies, sonatas and string quartets, he couldn’t earn a living to keep body and soul together, but his sheer genius kept his creativity intact.
On March 26, 1828, the first concert made up entirely of Schubert’s works was given in Vienna and generated a great deal of enthusiasm. But by then Schubert was mortally sick: he died November 19, 1828 and was buried near his hero Beethoven.
Though Schubert had technical shortcomings, his sheer lyricism enchanted the listener, particularly as expressed in the vocal field – that of the lied, or art song. Many of his songs appear in concerts of instrumental music through transcription and adaptation. Franz Liszt transcribed many of Schubert’s best-known songs for the piano, notably the delightful “Hark! Hark! The Lark!”, performed here by Natalia Katyukova on YouTube.
On a personal note, I was introduced as a boy to the 1921-22 Bosworth Edition’s Schubert Album, which included a piano selection of such pieces as Ecossaises, Moment musicals, Impromptus, Marche militaire, Scherzos, Ballet from Rosamunde, and the Unfinished Symphony. The last intrigued me from the very beginning, and led me to hear the original orchestration as well as to Schubert’s other symphonies: among them my favorites have always been No. 5 in B flat major, No. 7 in C major and, of course, the Unfinished Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the first movement of which is performed here on YouTube by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. By the way, the Fifth Symphony (D485) can be found on Nimbus Records with Roy Goodman directing The Hanover Band on original instruments – a rarity, but quite realistic in capturing the exhilaration of Schubert’s music and the clear bright sonorities of his orchestral textures.
Nowadays, I rarely perform or listen to any of his piano works, as too many are too prolix to my mind – and ear! Notable exceptions are: His sonata Op. 147 (D575) in B major, which has a sterling recording made in 1966 of the Aldeburgh Festival performance by Sviatoslav Richter; and the posthumous sonata masterworks, D959 in A major and D960 in B flat major.
Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen; Keyboard Music edited by Denis Matthews; Bosworth Edition No. 1119, London & Leipzig.
Copyright © 2016 Azim Lewis Mayadas