Celebrating the genius of Schubert

December 29, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

IN 1808, 11-YEAR-OLD Franz Peter Schubert presented himself before the examiners of the School of the Imperial and Royal Court Chapel in Vienna to apply for one of two vacancies that had been announced in the local newspapers.

He so impressed the examiners -- who included the dean of Viennese musicians, Antonio Salieri -- that he was accepted immediately and received free tuition, room and board at the school. For the next five years, young Schubert devoted himself to absorbing the great variety of music he encountered as a member of the court choir and orchestra.

It was to be his only formal musical training. Yet he went on to become one of the greatest composers ever, writing one masterpiece after another from an inexhaustible creative well that stamped him with the mark of genius.

Born 200 years ago next month, Schubert was the first musical voice of the Romantic movement. To celebrate this anniversary, the Peabody Conservatory of Music will present a "Schubertiade" -- an evening of Schubert chamber music led by pianist Amy Lin on Jan. 31.

As a composer, Schubert invented entirely new musical forms graced by an incomparable lyricism that has made his melodies beloved the world over. He worked with incredible speed, his ideas flowing so naturally and spontaneously that he hardly ever revised. He could write six or eight songs a day, a whole movement of a string quartet in a few hours. By the age of 23, he had written more than 500 works in every field of composition.

Schubert was born Jan. 31, 1797. His father, Franz Theodore, was a schoolmaster and good amateur cellist who gave his son lessons on the violin. But the elder Schubert had no intention of encouraging the boy in a musical career. He probably allowed his son to enter the chapel choir school only because he believed it would be excellent preparation for a future teacher.

Though life at school was hard, Franz distinguished himself. And he made friends, among them Josef von Spaun, who was to become one of the composer's most ardent champions. Spaun, eight years Schubert's senior, left a vivid description of the composer: "Very soon, I noticed that the little musician far surpassed me in rhythmic surety."

Schubert's voice broke in 1812 (after the performance of a Mass that summer he scribbled on his part: "Schubert, Franz crowed for the last time, 26 July 1812") and he returned home to become a teacher at his father's school.

But Schubert hated teaching and found classroom duties an intolerable burden. Still, he kept composing, producing his first Mass, two string quartets and many smaller pieces.

Salieri, who attended the second performance of Schubert's "Mass in F Major" in 1814, commented: "You are a worthy pupil, and will do me great credit."

A few days later, Schubert fulfilled that prediction when he set a poem from Goethe's "Faust" as the song "Gretchen am Spinnrade" ("Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel"). The work contains a recurrent figure in the piano accompaniment that suggests the whirring of the young girl's wheel as she recalls an ardent love.

It was Schubert's first masterpiece and established the German art song as a new genre. It was just one of some 145 songs Schubert composed that year.

The next year, Schubert set another Goethe poem, "Der Erlkonig," and again his achievement was unprecedented. It was the first of Schubert's works to be published (by private subscription, in 1821) and it spread his fame far beyond his native Vienna.

In 1816, Schubert decided to quit teaching and devote himself to music. Thus commenced a Bohemian existence that would see him -- now wholly dependent on the generosity of others -- stay with one friend after another for the rest of his life.

It was a heady existence. "Every day at six in the morning, Schubert seated himself at his writing desk and composed without a break until one o'clock in the afternoon, smoking a few small pipes," wrote his friend Anselm Huttenbrenner.

Then it was off to the cafes, where Schubert would drink and smoke for several hours.

Within four years, Schubert's hopes were raised by commissions to write two operas. But the critics were lukewarm and neither work was a success.

These and other setbacks compounded the growing melancholy the composer was prone to as a result of having contracted syphilis several years earlier. Vienna at that time was inhabited by thousands of prostitutes, none of whom were accountable to health authorities.

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