Franz Schubert – a Biography

Henry Frost

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Clarity of outline, conciseness, and formal beauty are excellent things in musical works, but an exquisite fancy, a noble imagination, and a lofty poetic spirit are of infinitely greater account; and no one ever possessed these inestimable gifts in richer profusion than Franz Schubert.

This new edition of Henry Frost’s 1892 biography of Franz Schubert has been edited and revised. The original references to pieces by Opus number have been replaced with the more commonly used D numbers. Many illustrations of places and people have been added throughout the text, and a complete catalog of Schubert’s works has been included.

“With faith man steps forth into the world. Faith is far ahead of understanding and knowledge; for to understand anything, I must first of all believe something. Faith is the higher basis on which weak understanding rears its first columns of proof; reason is nothing but faith analysed.”

Franz Schubert


Schubert’s unique position among composers — His birth and parentage — Early instruction in music, and evidence of extraordinary talent — Admission to the Imperial Chapel and Stadtconvict — School experiences and first compositions — Salieri — Symphony No. 1 in D — He decides to leave the Convict.

THERE ARE CIRCUMSTANCES in the personal career of Franz Schubert, and in the history of his principal works, which render his position among composers, and indeed in art generally, peculiar, if not unique. He lived not for himself, nor for those of his own time. This may be said of many men of genius, who, misjudged and misunderstood by their own generation, have afterwards come to be accounted among the world’s great.

But Schubert suffered less from opposition, prejudice, and envy, than from simple lack of recognition. If we consider his life in the abstract, it is that of an obscure individual who gained a scanty livelihood first as a school teacher and afterwards as a musician, who occupied his spare time with compositions of all kinds which publishers looked upon with indifference, grudgingly accepting a few towards the close of his life. There is nothing here distinguishable from the experience of numberless humble workers in any of the arts, who pursue their useful but insignificant course, and vanish from sight and memory at one and the same time.

Not for Schubert the varied experience among noble and princely patrons of music which Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven enjoyed and suffered. Not for him the sunny existence of Mendelssohn, or the immediate popularity of Weber.

Life for him was commonplace, dreary, and even sometimes sordid; and yet, if we dwell for but an instant on the romantic and poetical in music, the name of Schubert is the first which rises to our lips. The mighty power of genius, defiant of circumstance and surroundings, was surely never better illustrated than in the master whose place and mission in the world we are discussing.

The Schuberts were natives of Zukmantel, in Austrian Silesia. Franz Theodore Schubert, the father, held an appointment as the parish schoolmaster of Lichtenthal, and became fairly comfortable in his vocation.

He first married Elizabeth Fitz, a cook, by whom he had fourteen children, of whom only five survived. These were named Ignaz, Ferdinand, Carl, Franz, and Therese. His wife died in 1812, and next year Franz the elder married Anna Klayenbök, the daughter of a mechanic, five more children being the result.

Franz Peter Schubert was born on January 31st, 1797, at Himmelpfortgrund No. 72, Lichtenthal, Vienna.

The elements of music are included in the curriculum of a German schoolmaster, and consequently young Franz found no hindrance in attaining the principles of the art towards which he manifested at the earliest age a remarkable predilection.
At first he was his own teacher, and when old enough to receive regular instruction, it was found that he had already mastered much of the groundwork of music.

At eight his father began teaching him the violin, and he could soon take his part in duets. He was then sent for singing lessons to Michael Holzer, the parish choirmaster, whose testimony in his favour is unqualified:

“Whenever I wished to teach him anything new, I found that he had already mastered it. Consequently I cannot be said to have given him any lessons at all; I merely amused myself, and regarded him with dumb astonishment.”

His elder brother Ignaz taught him the piano; but after a few months Franz said that he did not require any more lessons, but would make his own way.

The evidence is therefore tolerably conclusive that Schubert showed extraordinary precocity in music, and if we do not read of any displays of his ability similar to those which gained for Mozart and Mendelssohn the wonder and admiration of persons outside the family circle, it is only because circumstances were not favourable to such manifestations.

Being possessed of a fine voice as a boy, he was admitted, early in 1808, into the parish church choir; and in October of the same year his father presented him as a candidate for admission to the Imperial Chapel, a position which included the right to education in the Stadtconvict.

It appears that his garb on this occasion was so abnormal, both in shape and colour, that the other competitors jokingly called him the ‘miller’s son.’ But their laughter ceased when he began to sing, and the conductors, Salieri and Eybler, quickly recognising his ability, gave him preference.

He was now temporarily provided for, and his position was favourable to his advancement as a musician. In the school orchestra his ability soon brought him to the front, and he was made leader. Here he became acquainted with the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, together with those of other composers then popular but now forgotten. His greatest sympathies were shown towards those works which may be termed poetical and imaginative; thus he gloried in the G Minor Symphony of Mozart, which he declared was like the songs of angels, while his enthusiasm for Beethoven, then regarded by many as a mere dreamer, knew no bounds.

We have ample proof of the comparative poverty of the Schubert family at this time through the shortness of pocket money of which Franz complains. The following letter, addressed to his brother Ferdinand, illustrates this, and also affords a glimpse of the young musician’s character:

“You know by experience that a fellow would like at times a roll and an apple or two, especially if, after a frugal dinner, he has to wait for a meagre supper for eight hours and a half. The few groschen that I receive from my father are always gone to the devil the first day, and what am I to do afterwards? Those who hope will not be confounded,’ says the Bible, and I firmly believe it. Suppose, for instance, you send me a couple of kreutzer a month; I don’t think you would notice the difference in your own purse, and I should live quite content and happy in my cloister. St Matthew says also that ‘whosoever has two coats shall give one to the poor’. In the meantime I trust you will lend your ear to the voice crying to you incessantly to remember your poor brother Franz, who loves and confides in you.”

The boyish sense of fun which pervades this letter has a certain significance, for a vein of humour was conspicuous in Schubert’s character to the very end.

One serious result of his poverty was the impossibility of purchasing music paper for the compositions which were now  flowing in rapid succession; but this need was met by the generosity of one of his older schoolmates, Joseph Spaun, who had early recognised the genius of his friend.

Whether Franz had made any serious attempts at composition prior to his admission to the Stadtconvict cannot be distinctly ascertained; but in 1810 authentic records of his labours commence. In this year he wrote a piece for piano, for four hands, to which he gave the curious title Leichenfantasie (Corpse Fantasia), probably suggested by a poem of Schiller.

The manuscript bears the dates April 8 to May 1, 1810. It extends to 32 closely written pages, and consists of a dozen sections, in various styles, each ending in a key different to the one in which it commenced. Some variations for piano, also referable to this year, and played to his father, are stated by Ferdinand to bear the stamp of individuality.

In 1811 the list of compositions is much more extensive. It includes a quintet overture, a quartet, a fantasia for piano, and, of decidedly greater importance, his first songs, Hagar’s Klage and Der Vatermörder.

Hagar’s Klage is a remarkable piece, of the dimensions of a cantata, and, despite many crudities, is said to contain passages of a true Schubertian type. It at once drew the attention of Salieri to the boy’s talent, and he was handed over to a musician named Ruczizka for lessons in harmony. The result was similar to that with Holzer. Ruczizka said:

“He has learned everything, and God has been his teacher.”

From Salieri, however, Schubert continued to receive instruction for some years, and his relations with this celebrated musician seem to have been generally satisfactory, and even cordial.

Antonio Salieri was for many years the most eminent of the Italian musicians resident in Vienna. He was a man of very great ability, but he was wedded to the Italian school, and could neither comprehend nor sympathise with German musical development, which was now making rapid strides.

Hence, although his character was generally amiable, as the lasting attachment of his pupils — among whom were Hummel, Weigl, Moscheles, Meyerbeer — sufficiently indicates, his jealousy of Mozart made him stoop to mean and dishonourable intrigues against that great master; and a report was even circulated that he had poisoned him, the rumour gaining credence from the fact that poor Mozart in his last days suffered from delusions on the subject of poison. When Salieri was dying this horrible accusation troubled him, and he solemnly declared to Moscheles, who was by his bedside, his complete innocence of the crime.

There is, indeed, not a piece of evidence against him, but the very suspicion may be considered as just, if awful, retribution for the unworthy acts towards Mozart in which he had actually indulged.

It is not surprising that Salieri should have regarded with distrust the predilection of the young Schubert for the deep and imaginative utterances of the great German poets as material for the exercise of his musical creations; and it is equally natural that the boy, who felt the dawning power within him, should have totally disregarded his preceptor’s advice to adopt Italian verses for his songs.

Still, with all his marvellous intuition, there can be little doubt that he derived benefit from the counsel and assistance of the old Italian maestro, particularly in the study of counterpoint and fugue.

It is time to return to Schubert’s experiences while at the Convict. The compositions in 1812 are numerous, as will be seen by the catalogue. One song, Klage, is noteworthy as being the earliest of his compositions which have been published. The instrumental chamber works were played at home on holidays, the quartet being: Ferdinand, first violin; Ignaz, second violin; Franz, viola; and the father, cello.

Franz possessed much artistic sensitivity, and his quick ear detected the most trifling blunder. In the instance of one of his brothers he did not hesitate to rebuke either by word or look; but if his father played a wrong note or made a false entry he would ignore the mistake once, and if it occurred again he would say with hesitation, “Father, I fear there is a mistake somewhere…”

If a musician is asked to state in which branch of music Schubert was least successful, the unhesitating reply is “in music for the theatre.” But this did not arise from want of sympathy, for he not only frequented the opera as often as circumstances would permit, but manifested the strongest enthusiasm for some of the masterpieces then in vogue. Weigl’s Swiss Family, Cherubini’s Medée, Boieldieu’s Jean de Paris, Nicolos’s Cinderella, and, above all, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride attracted him immensely, and as a result he began to feel a passion for dramatic composition.

In 1813, his last year at the Convict, he commenced work on Kotzebue’s Des Teufels Lustschloss, which he completed in the following year. His first Symphony in D was composed in honour of the Convict director, Innocenz Lang, and, like his other orchestral works of this period, was performed by the school band. It is framed entirely on the Haydn-Mozart model, and consists of the usual four movements with an introductory adagio. The scoring is for the usual orchestra, without trombones and second flute.

The work has never been published, and the manuscript, dated October 28th, 1813, is in the possession of Dr. Schneider, in Vienna. On January 31st, 1880, the anniversary of Schubert’s birthday, the first movement was performed at the Crystal Palace.

It proved to be a scholarly composition in the Mozart style, but showing traces also of the influence of Beethoven. Of individuality there is little or none, and the evidence of this and other early works indicates that Schubert’s real genius began to manifest itself sooner in vocal than in instrumental composition, for some of his songs written at this time are in the highest degree expressive and original.

The piano minuets, composed for his brother Ignaz, elicited the remark from Dr. Anton Schmidt, an excellent musician, that “If these works are written by a mere child, there is the stuff in him to make a master such as few have been.”

Unfortunately these pieces were not treated as they should have been, and the manuscripts were lost. The octet is marked in the catalogue of his compositions, kept by Ferdinand, as Franz Schubert’s Leickenfeier, possibly with reference to his mother’s death, which took place a few months previously.

It is impossible within the limits of the present volume to comment on even a small proportion of Schubert’s songs, which he poured forth with such wonderful rapidity. His style in this branch was already becoming matured, and his passion for the poetry of his native land is shown in his choice of authors. Those he selected this year were Schiller, Goethe, Matthison, Herder, Höltz, and Theodor Körner.

One Italian aria must also be mentioned, probably composed at the instigation of Salieri. Schubert was now in his seventeenth year, and his treble voice breaking, he had to leave the Imperial Chapel. His devotion to music had proven detrimental to his other studies. During his first year at school he passed his examinations creditably, but this satisfactory state of affairs did not last, and afterwards he gained commendations for only his musical progress.

He does not seem to have felt much anxiety on this score, for he declined the privilege of staying on at the Convict for  higher studies after his duties at the Chapel had ceased.

Music was the essence of his being, and, considering the vast quantity of works of all kinds which he penned during the brief period of eighteen years, it would have been surprising had he found time to pursue any other study to serious purpose. And it would be extremely idle and illogical to regret his concentration of energy on this one object. The world would would have lost had Schubert devoted the time occupied in writing down his music to perfecting himself in foreign languages or mathematics. He had a mission to accomplish, and the time allotted him was brief. Let us then be grateful that he fulfilled the task set before him so worthily and well.

One other point remains for consideration before we pass on to the next period in Schubert’s life. It has been stated many times that he suffered from a lack of opportunities to hear his music performed. Whatever diffuseness, want of symmetry, or other defects may be discovered in his statements over the years can be attributed to this cause.

In his later years this was undoubtedly the case, but during his residence at the Convict, circumstances could hardly have been more favourable to his progress as a practicing musician. Both at school and at home, his songs and instrumental works were constantly performed, and the experience thus gained must have been of great value.

Later on, his theoretical studies under Salieri, whose attachment to rules and forms bordered on pedantry, must have had the effect of instilling a sense of mental discipline, a characteristic which remained with him for the rest of his life.

Schubert left the Convict at the close of October 1813, his residence there having lasted exactly five years.

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