Franz Schubert

Composer Franz Schubert

Seminal composer of the early Romantic era. His original harmonies and his affinity for homely genres like the art-song (lieder) and short piano pieces were hugely influential.

Vital Statistics
January 31, 1797, in Vienna
November 19, 1828, of syphilis
Performed As:
Pianist, singer
During Lifetime:
The twin revolutions of Beethoven and Rossini in music. Newly built Washington, DC, becomes the capital of the young United States.
Biographical Outline
  • College boy, 1808: After primary education at his father’s school, Schubert is accepted into the prestigious choir of the Hofkapelle (court chapel), which includes free enrollment at the Imperial and Royal City College.
  • Day job, 1813: Schubert has already decided to become a composer, but returns to his father’s house and became a schoolteacher to support himself. He also studies with Antonio Salieri, the aging imperial court music director.
  • Creative fire, October 1814-1816: Schubert hits his compositional stride with a flurry of works: The songs Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the spinning-wheel) and Erlkönig (Elf-king) are among 150 that he writes in that year. He also finishes two string quartets, two symphonies, two Masses, and four German singspiele, or song-plays.
  • Turning pro: In 1819, Schubert gives up teaching, for good. Performances of his music slowly increase, and he begins to publish. By the end of 1821, he is established in Viennese musical life.
  • Circle of friends: Many Schubert performances take place at private gatherings in the homes of friends and supporters. By 1822, “Schubertiads,” or evening-length recitals, are given regularly, with the composer at the piano.
  • Darkness and light, 1822: Schubert shows the first signs of syphilitic infection. He is hospitalized for a short time in spring 1823. His music takes a leap forward with the “Wanderer” Fantasy for piano, the “Unfinished” Symphony in B Minor, the Mass in A-flat Major, and several of his greatest songs.
  • End of the road, 1828: His health failing, Schubert also falls on hard times financially. His compositional production in the final months of his life gives no indication of his impending death. He is buried in the same cemetery as Beethoven, who had died a year and a half earlier.
Fun Facts
  • The Man: Schubert was short and rotund, with a high forehead and curly hair. He was friendly, but often was uncommunicative.
  • Carouser: Schubert loved drink and tobacco, often partying till after midnight, then waking up to compose from six in the morning until one in the afternoon. He was highly sexually active, though it is impossible to determine his sexual preferences absolutely.
  • A life for art: Schubert could not manage his finances or most practical needs. He lived immersed in his art; in his writings and reported conversations, he often referred to himself as an outsider, alienated from the world around him.
  • Operaphile: Schubert loved the theater and tried, unsuccessfully, to break into the opera world. He wrote many stage works, most of them unperformed in his lifetime.
  • Recognition: Although more than 100 Schubert publications were issued in his lifetime, his greatest piano and chamber works remained unpublished for decades after his death. The Symphony No. 9 was not performed until 1839, at the instigation of both Schumann and Mendelssohn; the “Unfinished” Symphony (No. 8) was not performed until 1865.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Lieder: Early on, Schubert was famous for his more than 600 lieder (art-songs), which today are cornerstones of the repertory. But, like the other great Viennese classic composers, he wrote masterpieces in every genre. All his works are distinguished by showers of melodic genius, which often take unusual twists and turns.
  • Song cycle: Among Schubert’s greatest lieder are the ones composed in two collections that tell stories: Die Schöne Müllerin (The beautiful maid of the mill) and Die Winterreise (The winter’s journey). Müllerin is an extraordinary portrayal of a lover going from hope to despair. Winterreise, darker in its mood and sparer, is psychologically brilliant and powerful, an absolutely essential work to get to know.
  • Piano parity: Schubert made the piano a partner with the voice in telling a song’s story or imparting a mood, rather than using it strictly for accompaniment. That’s one of the elements that makes his songs so rich in meaning, ambiguity, and irony.
  • Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 was a huge influence on Schumann’s orchestral writing and, through him, on many other 19th-century musicians, as well.
  • Point “D”: The “D” after a work (followed by a number) stands for Otto Erich Deutsch, who catalogued Schubert’s music chronologically in the early 20th century. Scholars have revised the dating of many works, so the numbers no longer run consecutively.
Recommended Websites
  • Lieder
    • You will encounter Schubert’s songs on any number of recordings. But it’s probably best to find a program of lieder by a favorite singer. Below are a few recital disks to get you started.
    • Barbara Bonney, soprano/Geoffrey Parsons, piano (Teldec, 1995; reissued on Warner, 2008). Includes Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The shepherd on the rocks), one of Schubert’s last compositions, and a fine Gretchen am Spinnrade.
    • Ave Maria: Schubert Lieder. Elly Ameling, soprano/Dalton Baldwin piano (Philips, 1990). One of the great Schubert interpreters.
    • Hyperion Schubert Edition, vol. 11. Brigitte Fassbaender, contralto/Graham Johnson, piano (Hyperion, 1992). Includes Death and the Maiden.
    • Goethe Lieder. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone/Jörg Demus, piano/Gerald Moore, piano (DG, 1999). This compilation disc contains Schubert’s songs to texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The recording of Erlkönig is a classic.
    • Schwanengesang (Swan song). Thomas Quasthoff, baritone/Justus Zeyen, piano (DG, 2001). A collection of Schubert’s final songs, published just after his death. With Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge (Four serious songs).
  • Song cycles
    • Die schöne Müllerin
      • Fritz Wunderlich, tenor/Herbert Giesen, piano (DG, 1996)
      • Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone/Gerald Moore, piano (EMI, 1999)
    • Die Winterreise
      • Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone/Jörg Demus, piano (DG, 1996)
      • Hans Hotter, bass-baritone/Gerald Moore, piano (EMI, 1999)
  • Orchestral
    • Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major
    • Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, “Unfinished”
    • Symphony No. 9 in C Major, “Great”
    • Overture and Incidental Music to Rosamunde
  • Piano works
    • Impromptus
    • Moments musicaux
    • “Wanderer” Fantasy
    • Piano Sonatas (No. 13 in A Major, D. 664, and Nos. 19-21 in C Minor, A Major, B-flat Major, D. 958-960)
    • The Late Piano Sonatas (Nos. 19-21). Andras Schiff (Decca Double Decker, 2003)
    • (Nos. 19-21) Murray Perahia (Sony, 2003)
    • (Nos. 13 and 21) Radu Lupu (London, 1994)
  • Other chamber music
    • String Quartets Nos. 12 in C Minor Quartettsatz, 13 in A Minor Rosamunde, 14 in D Minor Death and the Maiden
    • Piano Quintet in A Major “Trout”
    • Octet in F Major, D. 803
    • Piano Trios Nos. 1, 2 (D. 898 in B-flat, and D. 926 in E-flat)
    • String Quintet in C Major, D. 956