Franz Schubert

“I give to the world what I feel in my heart.”1

Vienna’s streets before the turn of the 18th century reflected a widening gap between social classes that was to affect artists dramatically. Unwashed crowds teemed to watch bears fight with well-trained dogs or to cheer screaming criminals chained to a wheel, while concert halls and musical festivals burgeoned with huge new audiences of middle-class music lovers. The era fostered the unsociable, and usually unknown, artists who created “for infinity, for posterity, for some ideal audience that would someday understand and appreciate them; or who wrote for a little circle of kindred spirits.”2  By the time of the French Revolution (1789) and the falling away of royal patronage, Western classicism had taken firm root. Music, in particular, “imposed an iron rule of balance, structure, and restraint upon expression.”3

In 1816, the Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini arrived in Vienna and infused everything before him with his infectious melodies. That same year, a struggling composer, the 19-year-old Franz Schubert, was turned down for a college music director post, perhaps in part because of the shy, uncommunicative nature he had inherited from his mother, Elisabeth. He was still living at home with his father, Franz Theodor, who supported Prince Metternich’s crackdown on anyone who might utter irreverent words against his regime or the Church. Schubert, to whom friendships were paramount, was drawn to intellectuals and artists, despite his father’s objections. These creative people fertilized his mind with the cultural currents of the dawning age to become known as Romanticism.

In deference to his father’s wishes, Schubert took another teaching job, but he also embarked on a self-taught composition apprenticeship, stealing an hour here and there to create hasty drafts without time to polish them. Finally, in frustration, he moved out. Over the next several years, he shared lodgings with one male friend after another.4  Franz von Schober, a law student who was impressed with Schubert’s music, offered him free rent and introduced him to a baritone, Johann Michael Vogl. Within weeks, Vogl and Schubert were performing together for Viennese society. Another friend, Josef von Spaun, introduced Schubert to the learned revolutionary poet Johann Mayrhofer. The two men moved in together, sharing cramped quarters. In mutual admiration for each other’s work, Schubert composed in the mornings and Mayrhofer wrote poetry in the afternoons. Over the next several years, Schubert set dozens of Mayrhofer’s poems to music, exploring themes of sweet grief and tragic pessimism.

Most of Schubert’s life appears to have been quiet and reflective, spent in the company of pleasure-loving friends. His prolific pen flowed with spontaneous-seeming compositions, including the dozens of masterpieces that would define the German art song, the lied. Musically, Schubert had little theoretical training. Mozart was his guiding light: “O Mozart, immortal Mozart! What numberless consoling images of a better, brighter world have you engraved upon our souls!”5  From the admired precedent of Beethoven’s music, which verged on Romantic ideals, Schubert yielded to the sensual creativity that was to define Romanticism.

In 1822, Schubert contracted syphilis. Deep depression set in, with periods of unpredictable behavior, now thought to be manic-depressive disorder. He extravagantly spent money he did not have, abused drugs, rode roughshod over beloved friends, and indulged in sexual activities that disgusted them — all while claiming to be omniscient. He longed to be other than what his disease made him. Some musical passages he wrote during this time sound as though he were trying to exorcise demonic forces, while others are exquisitely lyrical.

Dark as the last six years of his life became, with repeated hospital stays and debilitating treatments,6 Schubert never stopped composing. “His soul, musical through and through, wrote notes where others resort to words.”7  Each melody, for Schubert, was the pure and noble essence of human love, “a chance for the soul to take a fresh breath.”8  He chose complex poems by Mayrhofer, Goethe, and Novalis and animated their dimension and meaning with his music. His name is identified with expressive, sensitive melodies that hold the listener rapt with their nuanced modulations and powerful drama.

Mass in E-flat Major

“Pain sharpens the understanding and strengthens the mind, whereas joy seldom troubles about the former and softens or trivializes the latter.”9

During the last year of his life, Schubert composed a phenomenal amount of music, including the pieces on tonight’s program. His Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major was composed for the same Viennese church in which he had served as one of Beethoven’s pallbearers. This mass was intended for concert, not liturgical use, and it reverberates with Beethovenesque architecture and Schubertian lyricism.10  Schubert omits an occasional passage of the traditional text of the mass, and on several occasions he takes phrases of the traditional text out of order and/or repeats text for dramatic purposes. The scoring is unique, giving an active role to the three trombones, emphasizing the lower woodwinds and brass, and making hypnotic use of the timpani. Schubert uses a block-like treatment of the orchestra’s three instrumental families, which play together in “symbolic expression of the working of the Trinity.”11

The Kyrie, a movement in 3/4 time, sets the calm, lyrical tone of this mass with gently blended wind instruments in dialog with the chorus over a brooding ostinato in the bass. The Gloria begins with a jubilant choral exclamation, then explores the themes of blessings, praise, and grace, and finally explodes into the Cum sancto spiritu, a triumphant choral fugue.

The Credo begins quietly with a timpani roll, setting the stage for a reverent expression of faith. Schubert’s gift of melody is given full voice by three soloists (two tenors and one soprano) in the exquisite Et incarnatus est, which is followed by a homophonic and harmonically rich expression by the chorus of the Crucifixus. Schubert then returns to the Et incarnatus est, which gives way a second time to the Crucifixus. As at the beginning of the Credo, the timpani introduce the Et resurrexit, but this time they lead to a robust accompaniment by brass and full orchestra. The structure of the fugue (first used at the end of the Gloria) returns at the end of the Credo in the Et vitam venturi for a joyful acclamation of the life to come.

The Sanctus portrays an ever-increasing distance between heaven and earth, as the violins move upward and the cellos and double basses move downward. The Benedictus floats us upward on uplifting prayer, energized by the fugal Osanna. The turbulent Agnus Dei dramatically slows to a 3/4 tempo in the dark key of the relative minor, setting the stage for the happy return to the home key of E-flat major in the Dona nobis pacem. Not quite letting us off the hook, Schubert brings back the Agnus Dei, this time in E-flat minor, before finally letting peace overcome all, in the home key of E-flat major. “When it comes to manipulating his listeners’ expectations, leading them on through a movement only to sweep all their preconceptions aside as deftly as a magician, Schubert is second-to-none.”12

At the time of his death, Schubert’s lieder were being published across the German-speaking countries, but several years would pass before appreciation would dawn for the ardent introspection that energizes his music. “His melodies are shot through with dazzling harmonic color: that is to say, an awareness of the relationships between keys that gives known material new insight and reverberation . . . and enables a singing line to soar like a bird.”13

— Carol Talbeck

  1. Schubert, quoted on the DVD The Greatest Love and the Greatest Sorrow, BBC/Opus Arte, U.S. & Canada, 2005.
  2. Our Musical Heritage: A Short History of Music, by Curt Sachs, Prentice-Hall Music Series, 1955.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Biographers and music scholars have tried to determine whether Schubert was homosexual. During his time, same-sex friendships were common, intense, and deep; but any sexual component was well hidden from the public eye to avoid criticism.
  5. Schubert, quoted on website
  6. Treatment of syphilis in Schubert’s day was secretive to avoid scandal. The symptoms that marked his last five days — dizziness, nausea, exhaustion, and headaches — were diagnosed as typhoid fever.
  7. Franz Schubert and the Essence of Melody, by Hans Gal, Crescendo Publishing, New York, 1974.
  8. Charles Rosen, quoted in Franz Schubert: An Essential Guide to His Life and Works, by Stephen Jackson, Pavillion Books , London, 1996.
  9. Franz Schubert: A Biography, by Elizabeth Norman McKay, Clarendon Press, Oxford, U.K., 1996.
  10. “Mass for soloists, chorus and orchestra in E-flat major, D. 950,” by University of Indiana music professor Blair Johnstone on website
  11. From Hans Jaskulsky’s liner notes for the Vienna Philharmonic’s 1986 recording.
  12. Franz Schubert: An Essential Guide, above.
  13. Ibid.