Franz Schubert – a brief biography

Basic Facts and Life

Born on January 31th, 1797 in Vienna, Austria and died on November 19th 1828, Schubert’s short life fell almost precisely in the transition from the Classical to the Romantic period, and his childhood starts with Beethoven’s middle period, in which he has already changed the Classical sonata form into something free and emotional.

Franz Schubert was the son of a schoolmaster. He got basic musical training from his father and his brother and was an extraordinary talented choir boy. He received an excellent education in a convent and got musical tuition from prominent teachers.

The most interesting fact about his life as a composer is that he is the first western composer who earned his living without patronage. He only gave one public concert during his life, which was well received, even though he was not known as especially virtuous player – still, he was a good player. In times without income, he was sometimes supported by his friends.

At the age of seventeen in 1813/1814, he attended a teacher training college and then was a school teacher for young boys in the school of his father, which seemed for him the only possibility of an income. Nevertheless, he had not much interest in this occupation and showed an indifference towards his job. During that time, in 1814, he was prolifically composing: he wrote a symphony, 6 string quartets, piano pieces, orchestral pieces and over 50 songs. He had an almost Mozart-like gift of being able to write no matter what was going on around him, and what he wrote needed hardly any corrections. During 1815, he wrote more than 200 works, ranging from songs to symphonies, among them his famous and lovely Goethe works “Heidenröslein” and the “Erlkönig”.

In 1816, he gave up school teaching and moved in with one of his closest friend, Franz Schober. His cosmopolitan friend introduced him to a rich but also and frivolous life, which Schubert otherwise might not have met. He became acquainted with a well-known Baritone singer in the Vienna Opera, Franz Michael Vogl, who admired Schubert’s songs tremendously and became their pivotal singer and exponent. Unfortunately, it was also that frivolous lifestyle which exposed Schubert to health dangers: presumably, during frequent visits to brothels he contracted syphilis.

In the post-Napoleon-defeat atmosphere, in a climate of careful observance and drastic measures against potential revolutionary motions due the the Metternich reign – a model of a surveillance state – people started to withdrew into the security and privacy of their homes. People started to live according to comfortable Romantic Bourgeois values, and music was an intrinsic part of it. Almost everybody sang and plaid or listened to music. It may have been also due to this fact that Schubert’s music became valued in private circles, and which vice versa may have influenced the motifs of his songs towards a private and individualistic romanticism? With his music suitable for private occasions together with his outgoing, charming temperament, he was never without a wide circle of friends who valued him and his music – not a little rewarding substitute for a public career.

Still, there is a legacy Schubert himself might nor might not have been happy about: he and part of his music has been now and then associated with the notion of “Biedermeier” – a German idiomatic term for a way of living that puts much value of the convenience and security of the private home, surrounding itself with neat objects and avoiding involvement in public affairs.

An income as composer from the Church was not one of Schubert’s feasible options. Even though Church music was still a way forward for a composer, patronage of the Princess of the Church was still necessary. For the non-religious, agnostic Schubert, religion was not an easy match. So he struggled unsuccessfully in this regard.

But there was high demand for Opera at that time, and it was light Opera and above all Italian opera what people wanted. Schubert wrote 17 German operas. In 1815, we worked on no less than seven operas, but only three of them reached the stage. They all failed, due mostly to poor librettos and the popular competition from the Italians like Rossini. Another opera was commissioned from him, the “Die Zwillingsbrüder”, but it was not performed until 1820, and then only for six performances. Hence, opera could also not be counted as a source of income for Schubert.

An ephemeral income came in 1818, when he was offered the position of music tutor for the daughters of the Esterházy family in their Hungarian summer home. The Esterházys were the life-long employers of Joseph Haydn. This journey to Hungary was as far as Schubert traveled in his life.In 1819, back in Vienna, on a trip with Vogl, he wrote a commissioned work for a local music patron the charming piano quartet “The Forelle”, one his most famous chamber works.

A more stable source of income came after that. After his friends had already made Schubert’s manuscript known to him, one of Vienna’s most significant music publisher, Anton Diabelli, began to publish his works sporadically, which brought Schubert a nice income, but he was generally useless in organizing his finances and other practical issues – another parallel to Mozart. Genius seems to be that concerned with every-day issues.

In the winter 1827, he began one of his greatest works, the song cycle “Die Winterreise”. It was based on the poems of Romantic poet Robert Müller, and Schubert’s great composing make this little stunning piece of poetry quite magical. In 1928, he. was busy with his “Great C-major Symphony”, a string quartet in C major and his unfinished 8th symphony.

In 1828, he experienced the onset of the second state of syphilis, which is contracted in earlier years, presumable due this visits to brothels. Later, while seeking betterment at his brother’s house on the countryside, typhoid fever struck him down, the same illness which killed his mother and from which he died soon later on November 19th 1827, aged not quite thirty-two. Some sources surmise he had tried to treat his syphilis with mercury, the usual treatment for syphilis in those days, and actually died of mercury poisoning.

Musical Education and Influences

At a young age, Franz Schubert’s musical talent was recognized and promoted. His father, a hobby celloist taught him the violin, his brother gave him violin lessons, As a choir boy in the Imperial Court Chapel in Vienna, he become the first soprano due to his beautiful voice and his vocal talent, where his gifts caught the eye of the choir master. He received a place in the Imperial Court Seminary, where he learned about the Overtures and symphonies of Mozart and those of Haydn.

His later to become prolific production of “Lieder” was mainly influenced by the ballads of German composer Johann Rudolph Zumsteeg, which Schubert imitated as teenager.

In the seminary, Schubert was occasionally allowed to lead the orchestra. It was due to this circumstance that Vienna’s Court Composer Antonio Salieri was impressed by the genius of Schubert’s compositions, and he gave the young Schubert private tuitions in composition and in counterpoint. Salieri also introduced Schubert to Christoph Wilibald Gluck’s music, the most popular German Opera composer of the previous century, which delighted young Schubert. Even later, when Schubert was a teacher at his father’s school, the continued to take technical training from Salieri.

Schubert was a great admirer of Beethoven, but both only met once, and Schubert was nervous on the occasion, so another encounter never came to pass. Beethoven was astounded by the quality of Schubert’s songs, and Schubert had dedicated a piano duet to him. In 1827, Schubert was of many torch bearers at Beethoven funeral.

Towards Mozart, Schubert showed the admiration as a composer who could not reach him, but the work of whom have left permanent impressions on him: “[..] I still here faintly, as if from a distance, the magic echoes of Mozart’s music … O, Mozart, immortal Mozart, how many, how infinitely many inspiring impressions of a brighter and better life have you engraved in our souls[…]” [4]

Schubert’s Legacy

Franz Schubert left an impressive amount of work in his brief life. His musical legacy comprised about 1000 works, the majority of which over 600 songs (amongst them the aforementioned lovely “Heidenröslein”) and song cycles, (the greatest and most profound one being “Die Winterreise”, the “Winter Journey”).

He wrote nine symphonies, two of them incomplete, among them the so-called “Unfinished” Eigths, which is probably the most popular of all – and the fragment of a tenth. His most important and most influential symphony is his so-called “Great Symphony” in C major, D. 944. It is his ninth symphony, listed in newer catalogs as the 8th symphony. It was published only in 1840 after Schubert’s death. Robert Schumann seized hold of the manuscript ten years after Schubert’s died. After a performance by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy in Leipzig, Schumann is reported to have said it be “the greatest instrumental work since the death of Beethoven”. He also hailed it for its “heavenly length”. The symphony’s new emphasis of melodic development influenced Schumann’s symphonic own aspirations, but also of other Romantic composers. Indeed, listening to Schubert’s Great Symphony, you are reminded even of composers like Bruckner, something which does not occur when listening to Haydn’s, Mozart’s and Beethoven’s symphonies. Furthermore, Schubert left 30 chamber works – for example his famous “Forellen Quintett” (“The Trout”) and the mesmerizing and influential “Der Tod und das Mädchen” of 1824 (“Death and the Maiden”), which gained much admiration and praise from Robert Schumann as well.

Concerning Church music, a category in which Schubert engaged in his last years, he composed six masses (for example, the “German Mass”).

He created about 18 operas, half of which he completed; the most known is the commissioned work “Die Zwillingsbrüder” (“The Twin Brothers”) mentioned earlier.

Last but not least, he left a great number of solo works for the piano, amongst it 21 piano sonatas.

Since Schubert works were rarely published during his lifetime, most of them do not bear opus numbers. Only in 1951, Otto Erich Deutsch created a chronologically catalog of Schubert works, assigning them “Deutsch Numbers”, a number prefixed by the letter D.Notwithstanding his immense output, unlike Beethoven, Schubert was almost unknown as composer during his lifetime. Contemporary music critics did not even mention him. In the eyes of the public his reputation was that of a song writer and therefore not that of a serious composer. When his music got serious it was not understood though. Yet, he was well valued and understood by his close circle of friend, among whom many of his manuscripts and copies were circling and who later preserved his works, so that they were gradually published after this death.

Schubert had many social gatherings and musical parties with his wide circle of predominantly artist friends, with recitals of his works, his songs and waltzes. So it came that during his lifetime, his music was predominantly performed in those private occasions, which after Schubert’s death came to be called those “Schubertiaden”. Presumable, it is this fact in combination with the Romantic poetry he set into this music which founded his popular reputation among the broader public as Romantic song composer – an image not at all living up to his sweeping genius recognized in musically privy circles.


(1) Composer Biographies, GroveMusic:

(2) Wikipedia, Franz Schubert:

(3)  Schubert: 20 facts about the great composer:

(4) Christopher Nupen, Documentary “The Greatest Love & The Greatest Sorrow”:

(5) Wikipedia, String Quartet No. 14 (Schubert):

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