On His 200th Birthday --
Franz Schubert: Striving for the Highest in Art

by Stephan Marienfeld

Printed in The American Almanac, November 10, 1997.


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The following article, which first appeared in the German-language weekly, Neue Solidarität Feb. 5, 1997, was translated by Paul Gallagher.
Franz Schubert was born on January 31, 1797. On the occasion of his 200th birthday, numerous concerts, evenings of song and Schubertfests are being arranged this year. Joyfully, there will also be performed many unknown works of this great composer, which will offer a glimpse into the development of the entirety of the work of this gifted personality of art. It will become extremely clear thereby, that Schubert was, in no way, the shallow, Romantic-decorative dreamer, that he is always claimed to be today.

``Schubert has the right mixture of the ideal and the real. The world to him is beautiful.'' So his friend. the poet Eduard von Bauernfeld, characterized him when they met. But the dimensions of his work also show how senseless, indeed how idiotic is all the modern babble about Schubert's alleged ``music of death.'' Contrary to the ``modern'' jangling of words by death-fixated sociologists of music and music critics, the most blooming life springs from every single tone of Schubert's work.

Franz Schubert, who lived only 31 years, composed over 600 songs, six masses, eight symphonies, 15 piano sonatas, numerous piano works and piano pieces for four hands, 15 string quartets, and octet, a string quintet, string trios, piano trios, overtures, polyphonic vocal music and operas.

With his songs and vocal works, beginning with ``Gretchen am Spinnrad'' (``Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel'') and ``Erlkönig'' (``The Elf King''), through the song-cycle of the ``Die Schöne Müllerin'' (``The Beautiful Miller-Girl'') and the ``Die Winterreise'' (``Winter Journey''), Schubert invented a new form of piano song, which up to today, is generally valued as the essence of such song.

His late string quartets and piano sonatas reach the level of Beethoven's late work. His great C-Major Symphony stands full on a par with Beethoven's symphonic works.

Who really was the genuis and poet of tones, Franz Schubert? And how did he reach his artistic mastery so early?

Unlike Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, from Franz Schubert (the only artist of the Vienna Classic circle who was actually born in Vienna), only a few letters, diaries and poems exist, which may communicate an impression of his worldview, and artistic comprehension. But these few artifacts show that in the course of his life, Schubert had intensively explored the philosophical-aesthetic writings of Friedrich Schiller. For his own artistic works, Schubert made Schiller's demand of the artists, his own:

``The destiny of man is given into your hand. Protect and preserve it! It falls with you! With you it will be raised!''

He strove after the highest in art.

Like Schiller, Schubert was firmly convinced that the mediocrity, lack of character, debility and brutalization which ruled men at that time, could only be overcome through true art. Only through the aesthetic knowledge, that the way to the head must be opened through the heart, could judgment and reason, and thereby true freedom, be brought forth.

``You, lovely Art, in so many terrible hours, where I was entangled in life's wild dance, have kindled my heart with warm love, you have carried me to a better world!'' is how it is spoken in Schubert's song, ``An die Musik'' (``To Music'').

Schubert's world was the time of the Napoleonic Wars, in the course of which he had to experience the bombardment and, twice, the occupation of Vienna by the French. The Austrian uprising against Napoleon in 1809, by which the patriotic wave in Vienna hit its high point, ended with the shelling and occupation of Vienna and a catastrophic economic crisis. Only in the successful Liberation Wars of 1813-14 was the Napoleonic yoke finally thrown off.


The Unhappy Congress of Vienna

Yet all hopes of humanist-republican circles for the establishment of sovereign national states were, in 1815, through the unhappy Congress of Vienna, brought to nothing. Vienna became the center of political reaction and restoration in Europe, and all were smothered and suppressed by [Austrian Prince] Metternich's repressive apparatus.

In 1820, Franz Schubert ran into Metternich's system of police and secret services, when his friend Johann Chrisostom Senn was arrested in a house search. Schubert and his friends marched against the police office ``with verbal abuses and insults.'' From then on, Schubert was designated a ``major subject'' in police documents.

But also in the sphere of culture, the musical capital of Europe experienced a clear decline, despite a large number of virtuoso performances in theaters and concert halls. Beethoven complained: ``For the nobleman, the ballet is the main thing; he has a taste only for horses and dancers.... For the good, the powerful, in short, for the true music, nobody has any taste any more!''

In Vienna, the true music was taken into the houses of the citizens and fostered among the educated. Soon Franz Schubert found the path to it, through his art and his friends. In the houses of von Spaun, Burchmann, of the poet Mathaeus von Collin, of the Fröhlich sisters, of the court counsellor and music teacher Kiesewetter, of the lawyer and court officer Dr. Ignaz von Sonnleithner, among others, there were regularly arranged Schubertfests, and which more than 100 guests would find themselves crowded.

There as well, was the highly-trained court-opera singer Michael Vogl, whose friends had gotten him inspired by Schubert's artistry, and who was the first professional singer to become worthy of the heights of Schubert's art of song.

In the year 1818, the 21-year-old Schubert decided to leave his parents' house and give up his school-teaching work. Already two years earlier, he had set down in his diary:

``Natural talent and education, shape a man's mind and heart. The heart is ruler; the mind would be. Take men as they are, not as they would be.''

Now, he followed the inner call of his heart, and dedicated himself entirely to his ``beloved,'' music. He found reception with like-minded friends, with artists and those who appreciated art, who shared his love for art, and strongly and lovingly supported him. At first, he shared lodgings with the poet Johann Mayrhofer, many of whose poems he set to music. For example, ``Die Einsamkeit'' (``Lonliness''), ``Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren'' (``A Boatman's Song to the Dioscuri''), ``Nachtstück'' (``Nocturne''), among others.

Mayrhofer was numbered among Schubert's Linz circle of friends, to which belonged also the von Spaun family, Josef Kenner, Albert Stadler and Anton Ottenwald. The Linz circle had, in 1815, been founded as a club for the youth most interested in literature.

The Linz friends mixed in Vienna with Schubert's circle of friends of that city. They were poets (Schober, Bauernfeld), painters (Schwind, Kupelweiser), musicians (Jenger, Lachner, Hüttenbrenner): they came together several times weekly for evening readings, where the works of Homer, Aeschylos, Goethe, Kleist, Schlegel, Tieck, Heine, among others, were read.


Schubert's Artistic Leadership

The artistic leader of these cicles was, however, Schubert, his musical works gave them their tone, and were the center of the crowded Schubertfests which took place. ``Through Schubert, we were all brothers and friends,'' wrote von Spaun.

Schubert's musical talent, and his extraordinary gift for musical composition, had shown itself quite early. His father taught him to play the violin, until he could play duets fairly well. His brother Ignaz gave him piano instructions, and was astonished, when Franz informed him after a few months, that he would not need his lessons any further and ``could already help himself to advance further.''

The choral director of the parish church, Michael Holzer, an accomplished contrapuntalist, had similar experiences when Franz went to him for singing lessons, and received musical instruction from him. ``If I thought to bring something new to his attention, he had always already known it. As a result, I really didn't give him any lessons, but simply supported him and silently watched him.''

In the Autumn of 1808, Schubert was chosen as a boy-soprano for the court choir of the Kaiser. In the closed boarding school of the Vienna city convent, the court organist and violist Wenzel Ruczicka, who led the orchestra of the convent, gave instrumental lessons, instruction in harmony and thorough-bass. But also Rucsicka soon said of Schubert: ``He had learned it from dear God above.''

As first soprano of the court choir, as first violinist, and as an assistant director of the convent orchestra, Schubert soon learned all the works of significance. Daily, in the convent, symphonies and overtures of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, among others, were played. Quartet playing was also kept up in the convent, just as later in Schubert's house circles, wherein Franz took the viola part.

Antonio Salieri, Vienna's highest musical authority, took great note of Schubert, and instructed him through several years, almost daily. There Schubert learned the fundamentals of compositional technique, from simple counterpoint to the composition of fugues, became knowledgeable in instrumentation and recitative, and learned to know a profound repertory of opera and theatrical music.

More essential for Schubert's later mastery of his art, than the workmanship of composition, which he always mastered in the shortest possible time, were his own arrangements of the great works of Haydn, Mozart, and especially Beethoven. Schubert tried to discover the fundamental idea of a composition, the musical metaphor, to draw it out fully in his own mind, and with his own musical means to formulate it anew.

Schubert proceeded in the same way with the songs and ballads of Johann Rudolph Zumsteeg, Schiller's friend from the Karlsschule, which he learned as a 14-year-old in the convent. Songs like ``Die Erwartung'' (``Expectation''), ``Ritter Toggenburg'' (``The Knight of Toggenburg''), ``Leichenfantasie'' (``Corpse Fantasy''), ``Der Taucher'' (``The Diver''), ``Des Mädchens Klage'' (``The Maiden's Lament''), ``Sehnsucht'' (``Longing''), among others, gripped him very deeply and gave wings to his love for poetry. Of the 13 songs he wrote while in the convent, seven follow models recognizable from Zumsteeg. But with ``Gretchen am Spinnrad,'' composed in 1814 to a poem by Goethe, the 17-year-old Schubert attained the awakening of genius to its own style of song.


Setting Poetry to Music

Schubert set to music the poems of more than 80 poets, among them Schiller, Goethe, Mayrhofer, Wilhelm Müller, Seidl, Rellstab, Heine, and others. But his wish for musical poems cohered, above all, with the ``musical-poetic genius'' genius of Goethe, more than 70 of whose texts Schubert set to music. Admittedly, Goethe took no notice of Schiller's songs.

Josef von Spaun reported how in 1815 the ``Erlkönig'' originated: ``We found Schubert entirely aglow, reading the ``Erlkönig'' out of his book aloud. He walked several times back and forth with the book, suddenly sat down, and in the very shortest time, as quickly as one can write, the magnificent ballad stood upon the paper.''

In his songs, Schubert brings the poetic metaphor, the idea which lies behind the words of a poem, into a terse musical concept. He ennobles the poem, in that he recomposes it on a higher musical level, and in this, he brings to the song, the method of thorough-composition he learned from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But as with song-composition, Schubert proceeded in the same way with instrumental composition, which is bound up not with a poetical, but rather a purely musical idea.

Though Schubert greatly loved Handel, Hayden and Mozart, yet it was Ludwig von Beethoven whom he venerated as a guiding star and held in wonder, and to whom, in 1822, he dedicated his Opus 10 ``Variations on a French Song'' for Piano four-hands. Schubert said of Beethoven:

``With him, art has already become science: he knows, what he can know, and his imagination obeys his unfathomable thoughtfulness ... So can we all, but we can not all yet understand it, and a lot of water will yet flow down the Danube, before this becomes a general understanding. No one conceives Beethoven so truly, unless he have a truly great spirit, and be terribly unlucky in love, or simply unlucky in life.''

Schubert became ever more conscious of his own musical knowledge. In September 1820, he wrote "Der Geist der Welt" ("The Spirit of the World") on the back of a guest-house menu.

- Der Geist der Welt -

Laßt sie mir in ihrem Wahn,
Spricht der Geist der Welt,
Er ist's, der im schwanken Kahn
So sie mir erhält.

Laßt sie rennen, jagen nur
Hin nach einem fernen Ziel,
Glauben viel, beweisen viel
Auf der dunklen Spur.

Nichts ist wahr von allem dem,
Doch ist kein Verlust,
Menschlich ist ihr Weltsystem,
Göttlich bin ich's mir bewusßt.

- The Spirit of the World -

All their folly, leave to me,
Says the spirit of the world.
It keeps them bobbing on my sea
In their little boat with sails
unfurl'd.

Only let them hunt and run
For the distant goal above,
Much to believe, and much to prove,
Once that shrouded trail's begun.

None of it's true, for all of them,
Yet nothing's lost thereby;
Their world-system is known of men,
Mine's known of God on high.

In December of the same year, Schubert composed the movement of the unfinished string quartet in C-minor, in which was already ``announced'' the breakthrough to his late, completed string quartets composed after 1824. Schubert not only sympathized passionately with Beethoven's terrible misfortune, but in 1824 he called himself ``the most miserable, unlucky man in the world.'' Schubert was seriously ill, and doubted if he would ever again return to health.

The reading society sank to a shockingly low level and disbanded.``Who will bring back one hour of the glorious time!'' he cried out, with Goethe, in a letter to his friend Schober, ``that time, when one would inspire another, and so all were animated by a combined striving for beauty.'' Schubert bemoaned the ``idle, meaningless life which marks our time.'' But he was above all unfortunate, in that he had become a solitary traveller in search of the highest in art.

- Mein Gebet -

Tiefer Sehnsucht heil'ges Bangen
Will in schön're Welten langen;

Möchte füllen dunklen Raum
Mit allmächt'gem Liebestraum.

Großer Vater! reich' dem Sohne,
Tiefer Schmerzen nun zum Lohne,
Endlich als Erlösungsmahl
Deiner Liebe ew'gen Strahl.

Sieh, vernichtet liegt im Staube,
Unerhörtem Gram zum Raube,
Meines Lebens Martergang
Nahend ew'gem Untergang.

Tödt' es und mich selber tödte,
Stürz' nun alles in die Lethe,
Und ein reines kräft'ges Sein
Laß o Großer, dann gedeih'n.



- My Prayer -

Deeper longing, fear most holy,
Would reach worlds of greater beauty:

May it fill the dark of space
With love's dream of strength and grace.

Reward your Son, O mighty Father!
And deep pains around him gather;
At last, as the redemption-meal,
Thy love's eternal ray we feel.

See, destroyed in dust is lying
My loss, unheard sorrow sighing,
All my life and martyrdom
Sinking ever nearer home.

Let me die and my begetting,
Fallen to Lethe all-forgetting,
And a pure being, strong and wise,
Let, O Father, then arise.


With his inner eye, Schubert several times saw, his fate, a very likely early death, but he did not yield to it. ``Pain sharpens the reason and strengthens the identity,'' he noted in his diary. In addition, Schubert knew himself in possession of that power of imagination, which he so praised in Beethoven, and which he himself described as ``the highest jewel of mankind,'' and as ``the inexhaustible source from which the artist and the educated individual alike drink.''

Unswerving and unwavering in his art, he wrote on. Already in 1823, Schubert had spoken about ``inventing a new form,'' and had said that he must ``go forward with assurance.'' He would not send mediocrity out into the world, and he could not measure himself with Beethoven. Beethoven himself saw Schubert's significance before it was recognized by many others. Schubert's name emerged often in Beethoven's conversation-book, and in his last days Beethoven showed great satisfaction with Schubert's compositions. ``He has the godly sparks,'' and ``this one will surpass me,'' were the words passed on by Beethoven.''

As he had already in his school years, so all of Schubert's life he treated his compositions as studies, as experiments in the way of mastering art as science. He saw the essential value of his masterful string quartets in A-minor (``Rosamunde'') and D-minor (``Death and the Maiden''), and his octets, in that through them, he would ``prepare the way to the great symphony.''


Striving for the Highest in Art

After his thrilling ``Winterreise,'' his glorious piano works and piano trios, Schubert, in 1828, the year of his death, crowned his ``striving for the highest in art'' through the great C-major symphony, the String Quintet in C-minor, the Mass in E-major, the three piano sonatas and his last songs, posthumously published as the ``Swan Song.''

At the beginning of 1828, Schubert's greatest wish was finally fulfilled, for his own concert, at which only his works would be played. His friend Eduard von Bauernfeld had exhorted Schubert to it:

``Will you have my advice? Your name sounds on all lips, and every one of your songs is an event! You have also composed the most magnificent string quartets and trios ... not to speak of the symphonies? Your friends are overjoyed by them, but no art-seller will sell them, and the public still has no suspicion of the beauty and grace which slumber in these works. So make an attack, conquer your laziness, give a concert in the winter.''

Let us also take this exhortation to heart; go to a concert entirely of Schubert's works, and discover the genius Franz Schubert!


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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.


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