Franz Schubert


Franz Schubert was born in Vienna in 1797, the son of a schoolmaster, and spent the greater part of his short life in the city. He began to learn the piano at the age of five, with the help of his brother Ignaz, twelve years his senior, and three years later started to learn the violin, while serving as a chorister at Liechtental church. From there he applied, on the recommendation of Antonio Salieri, to join the Imperial Chapel, into which he was accepted in October 1808, as a chorister now allowed to study at the Akademisches Gymnasium, boarding at the Stadtkonvikt, his future education guaranteed.

During his schooldays Schubert formed friendships that he was to maintain for the rest of his life. After his voice broke in 1812, he was offered, as expected, a scholarship to enable him to continue his general education, but he chose, instead, to train as a primary school teacher, while devoting more time to music and, in particular, to composition, the art to which he was already making a prolific contribution. In 1815 he was able to join his father as an assistant teacher, but showed no great aptitude or liking for the work. Instead he was able to continue the earlier friendships he had formed at school and make new acquaintances. His meeting in 1816 with Franz von Schober allowed him to accept an invitation to live in the latter’s apartment, an arrangement that relieved him of the necessity of earning his keep in the schoolroom. In August 1817 he returned home again, when room was needed by Schober for his dying brother, and resumed his place, for the moment, in the classroom. The following summer he spent in part at Zseliz in Hungary as music tutor to the two daughters of Count Johann Karl Esterházy von Galánta, before returning to Vienna to lodge with a new friend, the poet Johann Mayrhofer, an arrangement that continued until near the end of 1820, after which Schubert spent some months living alone, now able to afford the necessary rent.

By this period of his life it seemed that Schubert was on the verge of solid success as a composer and musician. Thanks to his friends, in particular the older singer Johann Michael Vogl, a school-friend of Mozart’s pupil Süssmayr, Leopold von Sonnleithner and others, his music was winning an audience. He lodged once again with the Schobers in 1822 and 1823 and it was at this time that his health began to deteriorate, through a venereal infection. This illness overshadowed the remaining years of his life and was seemingly the cause of his early death. It has been thought a direct consequence of the dissolute way of life into which Schober introduced him and which for a time alienated him from some of his former friends. The following years brought intermittent returns to his father’s house, since 1818 in the suburb of Rossau, and a continuation of social life that often centred on his own musical accomplishments and of his intense activity as a composer. In February 1828 the first public concert of his music was given in Vienna, an enterprise that proved financially successful, and he was able to spend the summer with friends, including Schober, before moving, in September, to the suburb of Wieden to stay with his brother Ferdinand, in the hope that his health might improve. Social activities continued, suggesting that he was unaware of the imminence of his death, but at the end of October he was taken ill at dinner and in the following days his condition became worse. He died on 19 November.

During Schubert’s final years publishers had started to show an interest in his work. He had fulfilled commissions for the theatre and delighted his friends with songs, piano pieces and chamber music. It was with his songs, above all, that Schubert won a lasting reputation and to this body of work that he made a contribution equally remarkable for its quality as for its quantity, with settings of poems by major and minor poets, a reflection of literary interests of the period. His gift for the invention of an apt and singable melody is reflected in much else that he wrote.

Der Teufel als Hydraulicus, D. 4: Overture
Der Spiegelritter, D. 11: Overture

It was natural that any young composer would have ambitions in the field of opera in a period when the theatre offered the height of success. In 1811 his friend Josef von Spaun, whom he had known when the latter lodged at the Stadtkonvikt and ran the school orchestra, took him to see Josef Weigl’s Singspiel Das Waisenhaus (The Orphanage) and he saw the same composer’s Die Schweizerfamilie (The Swiss Family). It was probably in December of the same year that Schubert embarked on his first composition for the theatre with August von Kotzebue’s Singspiel Der Spiegelritter, D.11 (The Looking-Glass Knight), completing the dramatic overture and music for the first act, before abandoning the attempt. The Overture starts with a slow introduction, going on to a histrionic Allegro vivace. It was perhaps in 1812 that he wrote an Overture to Albrecht’s comedy Der Teufel als Hydraulicus, D. 4 (The Devil as Engineer), a composition remarkable enough as the work of a boy of fourteen or fifteen, and scored for an orchestra of flutes, clarinet, bassoon, horns and strings, while the former includes both oboes, trumpets and timpani.

Overture in D major, D. 12
Overture in D major, D. 26

The same years brought two concert overtures, the Overture in D major, D. 12, and the Overture in D major, D. 26, both of which include three trombones. The second work is dated 26 June 1812 and was later revised by the composer. The first of the two starts with an ominously dramatic introduction, before proceeding to the customary Allegro, an effective demonstration of Schubert’s growing maturity. Both suggest ambitions beyond the confines of the Stadtkonvikt orchestra or, indeed, of the amateur resources otherwise available, while reflecting the influence of what he would have heard in the theatre where in 1813 he attended a performance of Gluck’s Iphigenie auf Tauris with Milder in the title-rôle and Vogl as Orestes, which moved him to tears and, according to Josef von Spaun, set him studying any score of Gluck that he could find.

Des Teufels Lustschloss, D. 84: Overture

Between 30 October 1813 and 15 May 1814 Schubert tackled another Singspiel by Kotzebue, Des Teufels Lustschloß, D. 84 (The Devil’s Pleasure Castle), revised later in the latter year and presumably written under the guidance of Salieri, with whom Schubert had been taking lessons since 1812 and was to continue to do until 1816. The Overture, scored again with trombones, leads straight into the action which deals with the love of the impoverished knight Oswald for his wife Luitgarde, put to the proof by her rich uncle, a plot that has something in common with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in its testing of virtue and the magic of the enchanted castle.

Der vierjahrige Posten, D. 190: Overture

In May 1815 Schubert returned to the theatre with a version of the one-act Singspiel Die vierjähriger Posten, D. 190 (The Four-Year Sentry Duty) by Theodor Körner, a young poet who had accompanied Spaun and Schubert to Gluck’s Iphigenie auf Tauris, and shared their enthusiasm. Körner, house-dramatist at the Burgtheater, joined Lützow’s Free Corps and was killed in August 1813 in a battle at Gadebusch near Mecklenburg. In Körner’s comedy a French soldier, Duval, is left on sentry duty in a German village, when his regiment withdraws. He settles down, falling in love with the daughter of a local judge, but when, after four years, his regiment returns, he is in danger of being shot as a deserter. He avoids this fate by donning his old uniform and seeming to continue his sentry duty, claiming that he must be properly relieved before anything else. A kindly general eventually pardons him and all ends happily. The Overture opens in idyllic pastoral tranquillity, leading to a lively Allegro that also finds a place for a military element.

Claudine von Villa Bella, D. 239: Overture

In July 1815 Schubert completed his music for Goethe’s three-act Singspiel Claudine von Villa Bella, D. 239. The music for the second and third acts was burnt by the servants of Josef Hüttenbrenner in his absence from Vienna in 1848, a fate that also befell the score of the second act of Des Teufels Lustschloß. Published by Goethe in 1776, Claudine von Villa Bella centres on the attraction that Claudine, the betrothed of Pedro, finds for the unreliable Crugantino, who turns out to be Pedro’s brother, allowing Claudine and Pedro to be happily re-united. The Overture gently sets the romantic scene, before launching into a vigorous Allegro.

Die Freunde von Salamanka, D. 326: Overture

The same year brought music for his school-friend Albert Stadler’s play Fernando and in November and December Schubert composed music for Mayrhofer’s two-act Die Freunde von Salamanka, D. 326 (The Friends from Salamanca). Don Alonso, with the help of his friends Fidelio and Diego, plans to rescue Countess Olivia from an attack staged by the two accomplices, thus proving his heroism and merit as Olivia’s lover, while thwarting the designs of Count Tormes, who hopes to win the hand of Olivia, whom he has never met. The plot is successful and means are found to pair off Fidelio and Diego with other girls, while Count Tormes alone is left disappointed. The plot is derivative, with heroine and gull suggesting Shakespeare’s Olivia and Malvolio from Twelfth Night. The Overture opens with an effective sonata-form movement, aptly setting the scene.

Overture in B flat major, D. 470

The Overture in B flat major, D. 470 has been dated to September 1816 and suggested as the possible overture of the Cantata in Honour of Josef Spendou, D. 472. Canon Spendou was Chief Inspector of Elementary Schools and in charge of the fund for teachers’ widows. The Overture, perhaps originally for string quartet, is scored without flutes and clarinets, its opening Adagio maestoso leading to an energetic Allegro, a fitting introduction, whether to a comedy or a serenade.

Overture in D major, D. 556

Schubert wrote his Overture in D major, D.556 in May 1817. It is scored for woodwind, horns, timpani and strings, but, unusually, without trumpets, the usual companions of drums. It opens with an Allegro maestoso leading to an Andante sostenuto, which returns after the Allegro vivace, providing the substance of the work that has the necessary theatrical quality to serve as the introduction to a play.

Overture in D major, D. 590, “im italienischen Stile”
Overture in C major, D. 591, “im italienischen Stile”

The Overture in D major in the Italian style, D. 590 was written in November 1817, with its companion Overture in C major in the Italian style, D. 591, the descriptive titles known in Schubert’s time but not to be attributed to him. One of the overtures, perhaps the first of the pair, had a public performance in March 1818 and was welcomed by critics, with praise for the work’s ‘youthful fire’. Both reflect the influence of Rossini, whose operas increasingly fascinated the Viennese public. 1816 had brought performances in Vienna of L’inganno felice and Tancredi, followed in 1817 by L’Italiana in Algeri, and the fashion was to continue into the following decade, exciting the jealous opposition of composers writing in the German classical tradition. The first of the two new overtures starts with an Adagio that leads, after the opening chords, to an Italianate theme. The strings introduce the principal theme of the Allegro giusto, which, in its course, seems to make direct reference to Rossini. The second overture takes on an increasingly Italian air, particularly with the Allegro and its contrasting themes. Schubert arranged both overtures for piano duet, and the Overture in C major for two pianos, eight hands, to be performed in this version in March 1818 in a private concert.

Die Zauberharfe, D. 644: Overture

Schubert’s music for Georg von Hofmann’s play Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp) was written in the summer of 1820 and the spectacular melodrama was briefly staged at the Theater an der Wien in August, when it excited bad reviews and only mixed praise for Schubert’s contribution. The Overture, however, is much better known as the Overture to Rosamunde, D. 644, substituted by Schubert for his original borrowing from his music for Alfonso und Estrella. In modified sonata form, the overture has an Andante introduction, followed by a Vivace in apt popular style.

Die Zwillingsbrüder, D. 647: Overture

From the same year, in which Schubert had also tackled Mayrhofer’s Adrast and Johann Philipp Neumann’s Sakuntala, Hofmann’s Singspiel Die Zwillingsbrüder, D. 647 (The Twin Brothers) had its staging in June at the Kärntnertor-Theater, with music commissioned from Schubert in 1819. Based on the French Les deux Valentins, the piece seemed to offer a good rôle to Vogl, who played the parts of the brothers, but won no success, although the overture and other contributions by Schubert have great charm.

Overture in E minor, D. 648

Schubert wrote his Overture in E minor, D. 648 in February 1819 and it had its first public performance at the Redoutensaal in November 1821. The work is scored for the usual woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings, and marks an important stage in Schubert’s orchestral writing in its dramatic handling of these instrumental forces.

Alfonso und Estrella, D. 732: Overture, “Rosamunde”

1821 also brought a collaboration between Schubert and his friend Schober in a grand romantic opera, Alfonso und Estrella, the subject of their attention during a summer holiday that took them to St Pölten and the countryside at Ochsenburg. With hopes for a production, Schubert continued work on the opera, completing the music in February 1822, but it had to wait for many years before it had a performance, given in Weimar in 1854 by Liszt, who revered Schubert but was well aware of the defects of the work. The overture, however, served initially as an Overture to Rosamunde, D. 732, later to be replaced by the overture to Die Zauberharfe. Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern (Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus), staged at the Theater an der Wien in 1823, was the work of the blue-stocking Helmina von Chézy, who had provided the complex libretto of Euryanthe for Weber, with equal lack of success.

Die Verschworenen (Der hausliche Krieg), D. 787: Overture

The Singspiel Die Verschworenen (Der häusliche Krieg), D. 787 (The Conspirators / Domestic Warfare) was the work of Ignaz Franz Castelli, who had published it as a challenge to composers. Schubert wrote his music for the work in April 1823, but no performance proved possible and it was first heard in 1861. His setting had, in any case, been anticipated elsewhere. Based on the Lysistrata of Aristophanes transposed to a medieval Crusading context, the work elicited music that contains a military element, suited to its subject.

Fierabras, D. 796: Overture

The same year saw the setting by Schubert of Fierabras by Josef Kupelwieser, brother of his friend, the painter Leopold Kupelwieser, and at the time secretary of the Kärntnertor-Theater. The three-act opera is set in the time of Charlemagne, a pseudo-historical romance in which the noble Moorish knight Fierabras is eventually enlisted in the ranks of the Emperor’s Paladins, to his apparent satisfaction. Parts of the work were heard in Vienna after Schubert’s death and the Overture, scored for an orchestra with four horns and three trombones, provides an imposing and dramatic introduction to a work remembered, if at all, for its music rather than its text.

Keith Anderson