Influential People: Franz Schubert

Truly in Schubert there is the divine spark.

Ludwig van Beethoven

His influence is interesting, and we’re not really going to be discussing his influence as much as his potential influence, or something.

This article that I scanned quickly asks if perhaps Schubert was Beethoven’s biggest fan. He requested (demanded?) to be buried at least near Beethoven and was, twice actually. They were disinterred, the article says in the 1860s, and relocated in Vienna, still next to one another. This may or may not be as close to (the remains of) Beethoven as (the remains of) Schubert ever got. An apparently “unreliable” biographer of Beethoven’s, one Anton Schindler, claims that Schubert hand-delivered a set of variations he composed and dedicated to Beethoven, while other sources claim LvB wasn’t home. The ClassicFM article linked above states without qualification that the two never met. Both agree, at least, that Beethoven at least scanned through the scores of some of Schubert’s songs on his deathbed, where this book claims that Beethoven stated that “…Franz has my soul.” My comment about Schubert getting close to Beethoven may have been wrong. He was a torchbearer at the funeral.

In any case, Schubert lived at an interesting time in music history, right around the time that Beethoven dropped the mic on the symphony by tossing a chorus into the final movement of his monstrously large ninth, the ‘choral’. I’ve expressed to people before that, to me, Beethoven’s ninth was, for a time at least, bad for music history. Few people had the guts to continue writing symphonies in the great shadow cast by Beethoven’s 1824 masterwork, and symphonies were by no means Schubert’s bread and butter. Nothing was, really. He died almost exactly a year and a half after Beethoven, at the age of only 31.

What he wrote more than anything of (and what we haven’t touched a single bar of yet) is songs, vocal music, most notably of which is his song cycle Winterreise. We’ve gotten through four of his symphonies (and the fifth coming up this week) and a few string quartets, some early piano works but none of what he was arguably most known for in his career.

I took Beethoven as a jumping-off point because… well, because Schubert was his contemporary. Although they were almost three decades apart in age, they lived and moved together in Vienna, although they apparently almost never crossed paths.

If you want a full biography and discussion of the man and his story, check out the Wikipedia article. It can be summed up thusly:

Appreciation of his music while he was alive was limited to a relatively small circle of admirers in Vienna, but interest in his work increased significantly in the decades following his death. Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms and other 19th-century composers discovered and championed his works. Today, Schubert is ranked among the greatest composers of the late Classical and early Romantic eras and is one of the most frequently performed composers of the early nineteenth century.

Imagine what kind of human is adored by people like Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms. Also, Schubert, perhaps even more than Beethoven (at least for symphonies), might most perfectly cross the bridge from the classical to the Romantic eras. There is certainly an enormous degree of growth from Beethoven’s first to ninth, but Schubert’s ninth, in my opinion, pushes the envelope equally as far as Beethoven’s ninth did, but in a different way. Decades later, when it was being premiered, the violinists were said to “collapse in laughter” at the apparent ridiculousness of the final movement.

In any case, what I want to pose is a what if question: ‘what if Schubert had lived to be 60 or 80 instead of only 31?’ What if he’d lived into his mid-sixties, been around when Mahler was born, and then lived another few decades to interact with the young man? Or not even that far ahead, but for Bruckner, or Wagner, or Brahms? How would this man, whose music grew to become some of the most famous of his century and those that succeeded it, have changed history, redirected the course of classical music? Perhaps not at all, but perhaps in a very large way. Listen to his ninth and think of how he prefigured Bruckner and Mahler. Michael Tilson Thomas said in a UE interview about Mahler (from the series) (at least I think it’s there) that Mahler accomplished Schubert’s goals with Wagner’s musical language (or something along those lines), and indeed I find Schubert and Mahler to be kindred spirits of sorts.

That’s really all… except I’m not just talking about symphonies here, as much as it may seem that way in speaking of Bruckner and Mahler. Schubert wrote more of almost everything else he wrote than he did symphonies. A handful of half-completed ones existed (and have since been ‘completed’), but his string quartets, piano works, and especially songs, among other things, all outnumber his symphonic output.

We have only scratched the surface of what this subtle giant of 19th century music has left us, and I am looking forward to learning more. Stay tuned.


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