Franz Schubert is among the most misunderstood composers. His popular image is of a benign, cheerful, roly-poly figure regaling his friends at night-time parties with songs he'd just dashed off that morning, ignoring miserable poverty and the world's neglect to write tunes that have become among the best-loved of all time. For most of the years since his death at age 31 he was prized - as he was even during his lifetime, not only in his native Vienna but in many parts of the German-speaking world - for his more than 600 Lieder, but even among these only a relatively few were widely known. His piano works come next in terms of sheer number, but again, even now only a small number have entered the standard repertory. Some of his chamber and orchestral works are frequently performed, but of all his music that which involves choral voices is least familiar to the wider public.
Like Mozart, Schubert died on the verge of achieving the success for which he had striven his entire adult life. As a composer he was as precociously talented as Mozart had been, lacking only Mozart's greatest assets: equivalent gifts as a performer, and a father as adept at the promotion of a child prodigy as was Leopold Mozart. Though it is often mentioned that of all the Viennese classical masters Schubert was the only native, even he was only a first-generation Viennese. His parents were working-class immigrants, his father from Moravia and his mother, who before her marriage was a domestic servant, from Silesia. Franz Theodor Schubert made a successful career as a teacher, running successively larger primary schools in the suburbs of Vienna, but the best he could do for his youngest son was to send him, at age eleven, to audition for the Vienna Boys' Choir and its associated boarding school. Here Schubert came into contact with the cream of Vienna 's musical establishment, studying composition with Antonio Salieri himself, and his musical potential was immediately recognized. But composers in those days rose to greatness on the shoulders of their own virtuosity as performers; while Schubert was a violinist of sufficient skill to have been promoted to the concertmaster's seat in the school orchestra during his first year, and as a pianist was able enough in later years to perform his own most demanding Lieder accompaniments and sonatas (though he refrained from playing the Wanderer Fantasy in public), transcendent virtuosity was beyond him.
After his voice broke at fifteen Schubert left school and, following a year's study at a teacher-training institute, went to work for his father. It was while he was putting in long hours as an apprentice teacher that he made his first mature breakthrough as a composer, with the song Gretchen am Spinnrade, from Goethe's Faust, in October 1814. In 1815 Schubert composed - in addition to 145 songs - two symphonies, two masses, two piano sonatas, a string quartet and four stage works (complete or fragmentary) in addition to shorter pieces. It was inevitable that he would make the eventual decision to abandon school teaching for the perilous life of a freelance composer, which he did by age twenty.
All contemporary reminiscences of Schubert testify to his extraordinary diligence, his single-minded devotion to his vocation. Yes, he was convivial at night, enjoyed pubs and parties (and perhaps verged on alcoholism) but during working hours he labored ceaselessly, tersely greeting visitors and then ignoring them in order to return to his desk where (again, contrary to popular imagination) he sketched and worked out compositional problems at length en route to completing larger works. In those days the key to success as a composer was the opera house, and between 1815 and 1823 Schubert dedicated himself to stage works, completing or embarking on fifteen projects, of which Rosamunde was the last. But unlike Mozart, Schubert seems to have had little talent for recognizing quality in either friends or librettists, and many of his projected operas foundered on the weakness of their stagecraft.
Still, by the early 1820s Schubert was well on the way to popular acclaim. His songs and piano duets were finding publishers, he was proceeding in a systematic way toward the composition of, as he put it, "grand symphony" that would emulate and perhaps surpass the achievements of his idol, Beethoven, and a few of his operatic endeavors were accepted for production, with at least their music receiving favorable reviews. It was then, at the end of 1822, that he contracted syphilis. The initial stages of the disease were in Schubert's case quite severe, causing several hospitalizations, the temporary loss of his hair (his friends commented jovially on his wig) and an enforced withdrawal from social contact that impaired his ability to promote himself and his music. Although by 1825 he had to all outward appearance returned to normal, his general health remained precarious; he suffered from frequent headaches, and awareness of his condition and of the probable brevity of his life preyed continually on him. Nevertheless, music continued to pour out without pause and with no loss of energy until just weeks before his death, which may have been caused by typhoid fever, by the effects of syphilis, or from mercury poisoning, mercury then being a standard treatment for venereal diseases. At the time of his death his larger works, such as the piano trios, the Impromptus and Moments musicaux for piano and the song cycle Winterreise, were just beginning to see publication.
Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus was Schubert's last completed work for the theatre. Its playwright, Wilhelmine von Chézy, had recently completed the libretto for Carl Maria von Weber's opera Euryanthe, which, like Rosamunde, contains some of its composer's finest music allied to an absurdly improbable plot. Schubert had met and become friendly with Weber a few years earlier, after the Viennese première of Weber's opera Der Freischütz. He made the mistake of telling Weber that the poor reception of Euryanthe was justified and that he preferred the earlier opera; Weber, who was music director of the Dresden Court Opera, was from then on unlikely to take an interest in Schubert's operas. Despite the experience of Euryanthe and a renewed bout of illness, Schubert accepted a commission to provide incidental music for Chézy's new play. He had only weeks to complete the project and resorted to a variety of gambits to get the work done on time. Of Rosamunde 's nine pieces, Entr'acte No. 1 - in sonata form and of a scale seemingly too substantial for use as a curtain-opener - is thought by many experts to have been intended originally as the finale for what we know as the Unfinished Symphony, which employs an identical orchestration, is also in B minor and was abandoned about a year earlier; Entr'acte No. 2 is an instrumental version of the Chorus of Spirits, and Entr'acte No. 3 shares thematic material with the String Quartet in A minor, which Schubert completed soon afterward and may have begun earlier. Ballet Music No. 1 is based on the same musical material as the first entr'acte. Schubert had no time to compose a new overture for Rosamunde, so he borrowed one that he had written previously for his unperformed opera Alfonso und Estrella. (The work now universally known as the Rosamunde Overture was in fact written for Schubert's earlier melodrama Die Zauberharfe ; its association with Rosamunde dates from a later publisher's attempt to capitalize on the incidental music's popularity.)
Rosamunde vanished from the stage after only two performances. The script disappeared, but the music received positive reviews, and from its late-nineteenth century rediscovery by George Grove and Arthur Sullivan onward has remained among Schubert's most popular works. Performances and recordings of excerpts are common, but performances of the complete set of pieces are rare. In a program that also includes the E-flat Mass a complete performance of the Rosamunde music would be too long; we have chosen a representative sample, omitting only one song and those movements that reprise music that we'll hear in other forms. But there seems to be little reason to preserve an ordering of movements that in the absence of the drama or its plot would be arbitrary; instead, we have constructed a sequence based on strictly musical criteria, beginning with the tightly-constructed "original" overture in the key of D, continuing with the sprightly Hunters' Chorus - also in D - and the deservedly popular Ballet Music No. 2, in the closely-related key of G. The pastoral Shepherds' Chorus and the familiar Entr'acte No. 3 share not only the key of B-flat major, but also their characteristic dactylic rhythms. The mystical and mysterious Chorus of Spirits returns us to the key of D major, and we conclude with Entr'acte No. 1, which after all may well have been planned as a symphonic finale and which is set in the key of B minor, the "relative minor" of D major; for an earlier generation of composers - for instance, Bach, whose B-minor Mass is mostly in D - it was understood as a variant of D.
The Mass in E-flat, Schubert's sixth, comes from the final months of his life, begun probably in June 1828 (he died on the 19 th of November). The fact that Schubert composed so many mass settings, in addition to much other sacred music, indicates little about his religious sympathies; for a composer of his time writing a mass was akin to an artist of the Renaissance painting a Crucifixion or Annunciation: they were standard and widely-known large forms with long histories. In writing a large-scale mass - or a symphony for that matter - a nineteenth-century composer was consciously comparing himself to his predecessors and contemporaries and asserting his own stature among them. While Schubert's first four masses were apprentice works, written for use in local churches, his final two, in A-flat and E-flat, merit comparison to Haydn's last six masterpieces, to Cherubini's, and to Beethoven's Missa solemnis.
Schubert may have believed unreservedly in the basic teachings of Christianity, but unlike Haydn and Mozart he was not a devoted church-goer. Vienna in his day was, in religion if not politics, a reasonably liberal environment, and even a mass that omitted certain lines of text might still be used for the Eucharist. In the E-flat Mass especially Schubert cut and rearranged the text to give priority to the musical setting; it's a thoroughly symphonic work - a five-movement choral symphony - rather than a musical context for the ritual's words. Still, it is notable, and curiously subversive, for Schubert in each one of his six masses to have omitted from the Credo the line "Et in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam" (And [I believe] in one holy, universal and apostolic church): A declaration of (dis-)belief by omission.
The subversion latent in each of Schubert's earlier masses comes to the fore in this, his final one. Many authorities prefer the more overtly dramatic and soloistic A-flat Mass to this one, for on the surface the E-flat Mass seems mostly placid and without undue stress: Schubert's Pastoral Symphony rather than his Eroica. But that surface calm is undermined through musical means at every turn. The opening Kyrie provides an example. In the eighth measure Schubert interrupts the easy-going progress of the introduction with an augmented-sixth chord, a chromatic dislocation that moves us for a moment away from the eventual harmonic destination. This in itself is unremarkable, but the chorus' subsequent entrance ignores that momentary shock, making us wonder about its purpose: we're disturbed, without knowing why. As a contrasting subject Schubert introduces a more lyrical melody, but again undermines its simplicity by having the orchestra accent the third beat in every measure, frustrating our stable sense of meter. Again, we're disturbed through the subtle manipulation of our expectations. After the heightened tension of the Christe, with its powerful outbursts (a tension achieved by, among other means, increasing the speed of the accompanimental notes), we return to the apparent though by now less secure calm of the Kyrie, and all seems well enough. In the coda, though, where most composers would remain in the home key since all that is necessary has already been said, Schubert diverts us to A-flat - the subdominant, a key previously unexplored in the movement - and hurls us with a violent change of dynamic into a Neapolitan-sixth chord, like the augmented-sixth a chromatic alteration of a normal progression but in this context sounding like a radical shift of perspective. As if to underline the jarring juxtaposition Schubert repeats it before at last returning us to the home key. The result of all of these diversions is to sabotage the security we would normally feel in the overt regularity of phrase lengths and the basic simplicity of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic language.
In the Gloria and Credo Schubert shapes the text to conform to a symphonic structure, in both movements placing a contrasting middle section between matching outer pillars, before concluding with the traditional fugue. In the Credo such a procedure is more usual, but Schubert combines the normally oppositional Incarnatus and Crucifixus into one complex, as if to emphasize that the Incarnation occurred only for the purpose of the Crucifixion. Where the Resurrection is commonly celebrated with an ecstatic outburst Schubert returns to the ominous drumrolls of the Credo 's opening.
The closing Agnus Dei is the most perplexing movement of all. Schubert begins with music reminiscent of the Domine Deus from the Gloria, closing a symphonic circle. The forbidding character of the music is certainly appropriate to the text. But the superficial banality of the succeeding Dona nobis pacem seems at first glance to be beneath a composer of Schubert's quality. An explanation is difficult to find, until we realize that it may be meant as an ironic comment. Peace, of all things, is something Schubert knew he would never see, but even more so, the simple freedom from care that for most people is a longed-for ideal he recognized as an escape from harsh reality. The increased desperation suggested by the faster tempos of the abridged repeats of both sections only serves to amplify the prayer's futility.
It only remains to mention the poignancy of what appears to have been Schubert's critical reaction to his own counterpoint in this mass (especially the "Cum Sancto Spiritu," "Et vitam venturi" and "Osanna" fugues): On the 4 th of November, already mortally ill, the composer of Winterreise, of the B-flat Piano Sonata, of the "Great" C-major Symphony dragged himself to his first lesson with Simon Sechter, the foremost authority on musical fundamentals in Vienna, who was later to teach Anton Bruckner. A sheaf of exercises that Schubert wrote for Sechter was discovered in 1969. It seems that the beloved songs Die Taubenpost and Der Hirt auf den Felsen were not, after all, the last music that Schubert wrote.
- Jerome Hoberman -