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Composers Corner: A Brief Biography of Franz Schubert

by Paul Siegel

posted in Arts and Entertainment

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Franz Schubert [1797-1828] lived a short but amazingly prolific life, leaving behind a legacy of seven symphonies (plus one that remained famously unfinished upon his death), some 30 chamber music pieces, and more than 600 songs. He was born in a suburb of Vienna to middle-class parents -- his father was a teacher and his mother had been a housekeeper prior to marriage -- and was one of five children to survive infancy (nine others died). As with many composers of his era, Schubert showed an early affinity for music and was taking formal lessons as early as age six. A year later his vocal promise attracted the notice of composer Antonio Salieri, who was the most prominent musical figure in all of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until supplanted by a young W.A. Mozart. Although Schubert trained as a teacher to follow in his father's footsteps, his remarkable facility to write vocal music set him on the path to live out his life as an impoverished composer rather than a more financially secure educator.
Schubert made friends with a cadre of young intellectuals who frequented Vienna's coffeehouses, the site in those days of deep thought but also revolutionary concepts. Among his steady companions were several poets, whose written material provided significant fodder for the vast numbers of lieder (art songs) he wrote. Johann Vogl, a prominent Viennese singer, took the younger Schubert under his wing and subsequently enjoyed the fruits of much of the composer's resulting song writing. Vogl's influence is the primary reason that a number of Schubert's song cycles were written for the baritone voice.
In addition to lieder, Schubert tried his hand at composing operas. However, the public's fascination with the Italianate style as embodied by Rossini -- in direct contrast to Schubert's methodology, which was decidedly Germanic in tone and characterization -- offered the composer no success whatsoever. Of the eight operas Schubert wrote, only his three-act heroic opera Fierrabras is performed with any sort of frequency today. Interestingly, it did not receive its official premiere until 1897, nearly 70 years after the composer's death. A 1988 production staged in Vienna -- conducted by Claudio Abbado -- is reportedly the first time the opera was performed in its entirety, surpassing the more commonly produced 1897 version noted for its multiple deleted scenes. However, the piece exhibits the same flaws common to his other seven operatic efforts -- a weak libretto whose only saving grace is the music. Schubert composed half a dozen other works for the stage, although they are more accurately defined as singspiels in the Mozartean tradition.
Schubert died after several years of deteriorating health. The officially cited diagnosis was typhoid fever, but today historians agree his demise was due instead to mercury poisoning, which was a common "cure" in those days to combat the effects of syphilis. He apparently contracted the disease in 1822, although its remission for several years allowed him to continue composing. During that period he wrote some of his best-known and most compelling music, including the Winterreise song cycle and the "Great" C major Symphony.
Throughout the early 1830s, Ferdinand Schubert, Franz's elder brother by three years (and a composer as well), worked diligently to have his younger sibling's works published, but it took the budding influence of Robert Schumann -- a noted music critic who only later became known for his compositions -- to bring Schubert's collection of works to a broader audience. A complete edition of Schubert's compositions was published in the 1884-to-1897 time frame. Because so few pieces were published during Schubert's lifetime, most are missing the "opus" numbers generally associated with classical music and oftentimes used to determine the order in which works were composed.
The first video clip that accompanies this article features baritone Dietrich Fischer-Diskau (with pianist Murray Perahia) singing "Dream of Spring" from Schubert's song cycle, "Die Winterreise." The second clip is the closing movement ("Agnus Dei") from Schubert's Mass in G, from a 2009 performance by CityCleveland & Quire Cleveland, a northern Ohio music ensemble.
About the Author: Paul Siegel has been writing about opera and classical music for more than 20 years. In addition to being a regular contributor to various Internet sites, he also writes concert reviews and feature stories on these topics for a monthly music magazine published in his hometown of Denver, Colorado. These articles are found at http://coloradomusicbuzz.blogspot.com.

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