An Evening of Music by Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
My love for Schubert is a very serious one, probably just because it is not a fleeting fancy. Where is genius like his, which soars aloft so boldly and surely, where we then see the first few enthroned? To me he is like a child of the gods, who plays with Jupiter’s thunder, albeit also occasionally handling it oddly. But he plays in such a region, at such a height, to which the others are far short of raising themselves…
—from a Letter from Brahms to music critic Adolf Schubring, June 1863
I look back at the life of Franz Schubert with absolute wonder. The sheer volume of music he produced in a lifetime that only lasted thirty-one years is amazing enough. That so much of that volume of material is work of absolute genius is mind blowing. There is no waste.
Schubert was born and raised in Vienna making him the only master of the classical era who was a native. The city was chock full of music making: public and private concerts, parties, musicales, and a thriving market for published musical scores for use by a well educated middle class. His father was a schoolmaster. He began teaching Franz the violin, and his son quickly outstripped him. About age nine Franz began receiving instruction from Michael Holzer, a parish organist. These lessons included violin, piano, organ, singing, and harmony. Schubert quickly gained a reputation for his violin playing and singing voice. Holzer said of his student; “If I wished to instruct him in anything fresh, he already knew it. Consequently I gave him no actual tuition but merely conversed with him and watched him with silent astonishment.”
Schubert became a choirboy in the imperial court chapel in 1808. This position came with admission to the Royal City College, a boarding school for commoners that was both a grammar school and university. Choristers were automatically enrolled in a music curriculum where Antonio Salieri (the Italian composer who did NOT murder Mozart despite what that movie hinted at) was one of the professors. By age eleven Schubert was already the concertmaster of the student orchestra and occasionally conducted rehearsals. We know for sure he was composing significant pieces by 1810.
Schubert’s mother died in 1812. He was able to remain in school until 1813 when family pressure to help with expenses compelled him to enter a training program for elementary school teachers. In 1814 he started teaching in his father’s school. He was capable of but not particularly well suited to teaching. A wealthy young law student, Franz von Schober, met Schubert in 1815 and worked on him to leave teaching and devote himself to writing the endless streams of music flowing out of him. Schubert took that step finally in 1818 becoming a freelance musician and composer. The career hasn’t changed much in 200 years. Then as now, success depends on people commissioning your music. You need to have your works published (then as manuscripts, now as cd’s and scores) so a greater public can discover them and you can see some royalty income. If you are a performer you give public concerts of your music. You can teach music. Only if you are fortunate enough to have patrons to support your efforts can you put all your energy into your work without distraction.
The reality of Schubert’s professional life is that he was never successful. He was a distracted teacher known for leaving a student mid-lesson to write down an unstanchable burst of musical inspiration. Commissions were infrequent. He did not perform a public concert until late in his life. And then there were the struggles to get music published. A cursory look at the list of compositions in the Schubert article in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians tells part of the story. Only a fraction of Schubert’s music made it into print in his lifetime. These works include 22% of his songs, 27% of his dances for solo piano, 46% of his piano 4 hands music, and 0.5% of his chamber music.
Despite being one of the most extraordinary talents of all time, Schubert would not have survived without the support of friends and family who housed him, loaned him money, and championed his music.
Tonight we begin our concert with his bright and cheerful Sonatina in D Major for violin and piano written in the spring of 1816. It was most probably intended for performance at a Schubert family musicale. The breezy lightness and charm of the work is in extreme contrast to the piece he was working on simultaneously, his Fourth Symphony (the “Tragic”). All three movements are lovely examples of Schubert’s melodic gifts.
The musical genre known as the Impromptu appeared in the early 1800’s. These short works are best described as “character pieces”. They are usually of three parts (A-B-A form). The middle section typically contrasts the mood or character of the outer ‘A’ sections. Tonight we hear two of the four Schubert wrote in 1827.
The Impromptu No. 2 in E-flat has ‘A’ sections of exciting running scalar passages using the extremes of the piano’s upper register. These are contrasted by the bold dark emotional outbursts in the middle ‘B’ section. The 4th Impromptu in A-Flat Major begins with cascading minor chords before settling down into the Major. The contrasting ‘B’ section uses the interval of the half step to create a melody full of great anxiety before returning to the lightness of the beginning material.
No one is sure exactly when the Marches militaire in D Major was written. Most scholars say 1818. We do know that it was written while Schubert was being employed by Count Johann Karl Esterházy to teach his daughters at their summer home in Hungary. This would have been one of a number of pieces written to instruct the young ladies. This march has turned out to be one of Schubert’s all-time most popular pieces. It is structured in the same durable and flexible ‘A-B-A’ form of the Impromptus.
The Piano Trio in E-flat Major was begun in November 1827 and had its first performance on December 26th that year. Three months later a group of friends organized an all Schubert concert at the Musicverin in Vienna. This concert included very popular songs audiences already knew but also piano and chamber works that had been rejected for publication. The concert was a huge success but would never be repeated. It was at this concert that Schubert made his only public chamber music appearance when he played the piano part in his E-flat Trio.
The trio is enormous in scale taking about forty-five minutes to perform in its entirety. The first movement begins with a bold unison fanfare. The cello then introduces a lyric second theme. In all there are four themes introduced and developed throughout the movement. The second movement, Andante con moto, is in the relative key of c minor. It features a gorgeous melancholy melody that is said to be taken from a Swedish folk song about the setting of the sun.
The third movement Scherzo begins with a two part canon between the unified strings and the piano. The movement continues introducing new melodic material in canon. The trio section is a jovial heavily accented three step dance. The final movement is a rondo. Each instrument takes the lead in playing the charming rondo theme at various times. The second subject becomes much darker and brooding. For a moment the Swedish folk tune from the second movement reappears in the cello. The first two rondo subjects then return in various guises before one final revisiting of that second movement theme and a heroic push to the end.