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Franz Peter Schubert (b. Vienna, 31 January 1797; d. Vienna 19 November 1828) was an Austrian composer. Although he died at the age of 31 he composed over one thousand pieces of music. Some of his works are among the greatest music ever written. He wrote wonderful melodies. There were other great composers who lived and worked in Vienna: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but Schubert is the only one who was born in Vienna. He was the last great composer of the Classical music period, and one of the first of the Romantic period.
Schubert’s father was a school teacher. Twelve children were born into the family, but only four of them lived to maturity. Schubert's father tried to persuade his sons to help at the school when they grew up. As a boy the young Franz learned the violin, piano, organ, singing and harmony. He soon became very good at them all. His teachers were all amazed at how quickly he learned. He was also very good at other subjects in school.
In the holidays he played string quartets with his two brothers and his father, and he wrote his first string quartets for them to play. By the age of 16 he had composed a lot of music, including his first symphony. His mother had died, and his father soon remarried. His stepmother was very kind to him and often lent him money. He had one strange thumb on his right hand.
By the age of 17, he was teaching at his father’s school. He had been rejected by the army because he was too short (shorter than five feet) and his sight was very poor. He still had composition lessons from Antonio Salieri and he often went to the opera where he heard some of the finest music of the time. He liked reading, and one of his favourite books was Goethe’s Faust. He wrote a song called Gretchen am Spinnrade which is about the young girl in the book who is sitting at the spinning wheel dreaming of her lover. The piano has a gentle accompaniment which sounds like the throbbing of the spinning wheel. The music stops for a moment when the girl imagines her lover is kissing her, then the piano gradually starts again. It is a very famous song. Another song which soon made him famous in all Europe was Erlkönig. When it was first published another composer (not a very good one), whose name was also Franz Schubert, thought that somebody had published a song in his name because the music publishers sent it to him for correction. He sent a very angry letter back saying he had not composed that rubbish.
It was difficult to find enough time to compose because he was a teacher. A man called Schober persuaded Schubert to give up teaching so that he could spend all his time composing. Soon he had become well known in all the drawing-rooms in Vienna where he met famous people, many of them musicians. These meetings were called “Schubertiads” because they played and sung his music. He wrote so many wonderful pieces that it seems strange that the music publishers did not want to publish them. They were only interested in publishing works written by performers, but were not very interested in people like Schubert who just composed. For a time he became music teacher for the two princesses of Count Johann Esterházy, but then he returned to Vienna to live with the Schober family. During the last few years of his life Schubert was ill. He had to leave the Schober’s house and find his own rooms. He was often desperately poor and composed in bed to keep warm.
Although Beethoven and Schubert lived in the same town they only met once, although they knew one another’s music. Schubert visited Beethoven on 19 March 1827. Beethoven was dying. Schubert was one of the torch-bearers at his funeral. A year and a half later Schubert, too, had died. He asked to be buried near Beethoven. Their graves were just three places apart.
Schubert’s songs are among the greatest ever written. They are all settings of German poems. German art songs are called Lieder (pronounced “leader”), and Schubert made his Lieder very special by making the piano accompaniments describe the action of the songs in many different ways. If you try to sing them in a translation it is difficult to make it sound good. It is best to hear them in German and to have a translation so that you understand what is being sung. Some of the last songs he wrote make up a cycle called “Die Winterreise” (“The Winter Journey”). The poems are about a man who is unhappy because his lover does not want him. He goes out into the cold winter woods and all nature seems to reflect the way he feels inside. The songs are usually sung by a male singer (tenor, baritone or bass).
Schubert wrote a great deal of chamber music. Among his most famous pieces are several string quartets, a string quintet (for 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos) and the “Trout” quintet (for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass). There are sonatas and sonatinas for violin and piano, and a sonata for an instrument called the “arpeggione” which was used for about ten years after it was invented and then it was forgotten. The sonata is normally played on a cello or a viola nowadays. There is lots of piano music including sonatas, impromptus and also piano duet music. Schubert wrote eight famous impromptus.
Schubert wrote nine symphonies. The last one is known as the “Great” symphony in C major. The eighth is called the “Unfinished”. There are only two movements instead of the usual four. A lot of people still argue about why he left it unfinished. Some people even think that he completed it and that the last two movements are either lost, or are now known as movements from a piano duet. We shall probably never know for certain.
Most of his life he was supported by his friends who gave him manuscript paper when he could not afford it. Many of his greatest works only became widely known in the 1860s, long after his death. The house in Vienna where Schubert was born is now a museum which people can visit.