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Franz Schubert: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

How does a short, pudgy man nicknamed 'the little mushroom' turn out to be one of the most influential giants of music history? Find out in this lesson about early Romantic Era composer Franz Schubert.

Early Life

Schubert's mother gave birth to 14 children, but only 5 survived childhood. Born January 31st in 1797, little Franz Peter was one of the lucky ones. His father, a teacher, had a successful school in Vienna where Franz received his elementary education. Young Schubert loved music, and took lessons in piano, violin, theory, singing, organ, and composition. One of his music teachers was Antonio Salieri, court composer to the Emperor of Austria, who encouraged him to audition for the Vienna Boys' Choir. Schubert won the audition, a position that not only gave him a place in the choir, but also free tuition, room, and board to one of the best schools in Vienna. While at school, Schubert soaked in the music Vienna had to offer. His favorite Viennese composers included Haydn, Mozart, and above all, the musical giant Beethoven.

When his voice changed at age 15, Schubert was no longer eligible to be part of the choir and had to return home. He was given a job at his father's school, but he seriously disliked teaching and was very impatient with his pupils, preferring to spend every spare second composing. Even though he was only a teenager, his composition list was already quite impressive, including large choral works and even a full symphony.

Posthumous painting of Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder, 1875.
Painting of Schubert

Early Compositions

Autumn of 1814 was the beginning of Schubert's 'Miracle Year.' In just 15 months, he composed an incredible amount of music, ranging from huge orchestral compositions to chamber music designed for home performance. During this time, Schubert wrote an average of 60 - 70 bars of music per day. To help put this in perspective, the average pop song has between 120 - 140 bars of music. Therefore, Schubert wrote the equivalent of a full pop song every other day for over a year, about 225 songs! Not bad for a teenager.

A good portion of Schubert's 'Miracle Year' music chamber music such as lieder, a German word meaning 'songs.' A lied (singular) is a song written for a pianist and singer with lyrics taken from a German poem. In Schubert's lieder, the voice and the piano play equal roles in telling the story of the poem, making them interesting and fun to perform for the soloist and the accompanist. One of Schubert's most famous lieder from this early period is 'Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.' The lyrics are sung from the perspective of a young woman who has been suddenly abandoned by her lover without explanation. This lied is a perfect example of Schubert's musical brilliance as he captures Gretchen's tormented emotional state with a melody that reflects her confusion and broken heart. Meanwhile, the piano plays the part of her spinning wheel, moving in a circular motion that not only resembles the revolving wheel, but also Gretchen's racing mind. The musical world had never heard anything quite like it before.

Illness and Lifestyle

Schubert could be described as a party boy, and enjoyed evenings of song, poetry, wine, and spiked punch. These gatherings were nicknamed 'Schubertiads' and were not only fun, but a way for Schubert to premiere his latest compositions. Unfortunately, it was most likely at one of these raucous parties in 1823 that Schubert contracted the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. Although now curable with penicillin, syphilis was practically a death sentence in the early 19th century. A common treatment was to apply mercury to the infected areas, which did more harm than good. For six long years, Schubert's health continued to deteriorate from the disease and effects of mercury poisoning.

It has also been speculated that Schubert, preferring the company of men and there being no evidence of love letters to women, was bisexual, if not homosexual.

Later Compositions

On good days, Schubert would continue to compose later in his life, including two song cycles, 'Die schöne Müllerin' (The Lovely Mill-Maid) and 'Winterreise' (Winter Journey). A song cycle is a group of lieder that tell a story. In that way, it is similar to the songs in a musical. Each song is a different musical number, but contributes to the overall plot of the story.

Another famous piece Schubert wrote during this time was the 'Ave Maria!'. There are several popular versions of the lyrics, but Schubert's original version was based on a poem by Sir Walter Scott called 'The Lady of the Lake.' In the poem, the Lady offers up a prayer to the Virgin Mary as her clansmen go off to fight a rebellion against the king, a fight which her father has refused to join. Her prayer begins with the words 'Ave Maria,' which inspired others to replace Schubert's lyrics with the words to the Latin prayer to Mary. This melody was also used in the 1940 version of Disney's Fantasia.

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