Franz Schubert (1797-1828): A Life of Longing

Think for a moment about Schubert in 1828, the last year of his life.  He is 31 and for six years has had bouts of illness due to syphilis, contracted in 1822.  He has lived in Vienna his whole life, very much in the shadow of the titanic and hugely famous Beethoven.  Unlike the older master, his public performances are few and far between — mostly of songs, choral and chamber music.  Not one of his symphonies did he hear performed in his lifetime.  Some songs and piano pieces and chamber music were published, but the bulk of the music that we now know and love was published and publicly performed only after his death.  (The beloved “Unfinished” Symphony had to wait until 1865 for its first performance).

Think of Schubert who, although he had a circle of friends with whom he met in the cafes of the city and who helped promote his music through “Schubertiades” in private homes, never had, as far as we know, a significant romance.  Is it any wonder that the themes of wandering and longing ('Sehnsucht' in German) imbue so much of his music?  And though there is music of great charm and delight (think “Trout” Quintet), even much of the early music has a melancholy cast: imagine the 17-year-old Schubert writing his first undisputed masterpiece, the remarkable Gretchen am Spinnrade, setting the Goethe poem which says: "My peace is gone…my heart is heavy…I shall never find peace…never again.

Think of how Schubert in his short life, in spite of infrequent public performances and recurring illness, was nevertheless incredibly prolific.  In 1815 alone, he composed more than 150 songs of what would eventually be a total of over 600.  And the last year of his life was no less productive.  Most of the second half of Der Winterreise and more than 30 other songs, were composed that year, which also saw the completion of the “Great” C Major Symphony, and the composition of the Mass in E-flat Major, the String Quintet in C Major, and three great four-hand pieces, including tonight’s searching and poignant Fantasie.

Think of Schubert in September of 1828 moving into the three-room apartment of his brother and family on Kettenbrückengasse in Vienna — seeking comfort and care as his illness progressed.  And think of how, in that month alone, he composed three large-scale piano sonatas, the last and most transcendent of which will be performed tonight.  Think about Schubert, on his good days, still going to musical soirees and performances and, less than a month before his death on November 19, walking a mile each way for a counterpoint lesson!  

And think about Schubert, in one of his very last pieces, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen ("The Shepherd on the Rock," also on tonight’s program), setting a text by the poet Wilhelm Müller about longing for love.  And think also about Schubert choosing to insert two stanzas by another poet in the middle of the work which say, in part, "...with deep grief I am consumed…my joy has gone…abandoned by earthly hope…so lonely am I here."

And think, finally, of Schubert, just weeks before dying, returning to the Müller poem to conclude the work:  "Springtime will come, springtime my joy, now I must make ready to wander forth.” —Victor Rosenbaum