The Father of Lieder was a genius with melody, a natural composer who lived his life for MUSIC.

The compositions that survive, most all of them considered great music, number about 1000:

50 chamber works and piano sonatas
many short piano pieces
6 Masses
25 other religious works
nearly 100 choral compositions
17 operas, operettas and opera fragments
9 symphonies
more than 600 songs.*

It is hard to imagine that this phenomenal body of works was the output of only one lifetime. But Franz Peter Schubert did it in his short, troubled life, his genius known only to a small circle of loyal friends.

Schubert's life (see Chronology) straddled both the late Classical and Early Romantic periods. Thus he is considered the first great Romantic - but not in the style of the iconic English poet, Lord Byron. An attractive physical appearance wasn't one of Schubert's assets: bespectacled, he was short (barely over 5 feet tall), stocky (called Little Mushroom by his friends), and shy.

But he lived the Romantic's view of an artist's life: in poverty, bohemian, at times almost nomadic; and he died an early, tragic death at age 31. The romantic spirit is especially evident in the songs for one voice and piano (Lieder) that he composed, half of which were written before he was 20! They contain the most beautiful, inspired melodies (as do most of his instrumental works), which are known to many people even today who may not be aware of their authorship.

Surely, you'll recognize the following melodies?
(Click to listen - Windows Media Player format)
Melody 1
(from a Lied
- sung by BRYN TERFEL)
Melody 2
(from a Lied
Melody 3
(from a symphony
- unknown orchestra)

For Schubert was a genius of melody, perhaps the greatest melodist of all time. But he was not a mere tunesmith who could write 8 songs in one day (or 18 songs, a trio, a chorus, a piece for soprano and orchestra, an operetta, and most of his Third Symphony in one month! Can you imagine what he accomplished in one year?). Behind even the simplest Schubertian melody is a supporting musical structure, at once subtle and complex, that musicologists find utterly fascinating.

Thus it is as much for his Lieder as for his other musical creations that Schubert attained immortality. In fact he is rightly considered to be the father of Lieder, having given life to Lieder as an art form. For although his natural talent was such that he could set anything to music - even a laundry list! - he did not simply provide a nice piano accompaniment to someone else's words. The music he composed was so naturally adapted to the human voice that he could marry it to poetry in the most profoundly expressive way, perhaps because he loved poetry and could grasp the essense of a poem (whether it be by a great poet like Goethe or by a lesser one like Müller). His songs are fundamentally lyrical, instinctively imbued with a sense of drama, in which words and music (singer and pianist) are equal partners so that the compositions become essentially duets for voice and piano: the singer providing the drama and the pianist creating the ambience, adding color and commentary to the words, enhancing the vocal line. And this has been the standard for Lieder ever since. (CLICK HERE for more on Art Songs and Song Cycles.)

The wonder of it all is that the seemingly nondescript boy born in Liechtental, a town near Vienna, to parents of peasant stock could at such an early age produce so much music that turned out to be masterpieces. Living near Vienna, the Schuberts were a musical family. But Schubert's musical education was far from systematic. He learned the violin from his father (a schoolmaster who had his own school) and the piano from his brother Ignaz. He continued his music lessons with the local choirmaster who, as the story goes, often looked in silent wonder at his pupil because when he wanted to teach him something new, the young Schubert "always already knew it." He was a quick study but, not being a virtuoso performer, no one took serious notice. Thus it was taken for granted that he would follow in his father's footsteps and was sent as a choirboy to the best private boys' school in Vienna, the Stadtkonvikt, which entitled him to board, lodging and a free education. There Schubert excelled in music - at age 11 already composing songs, quartets and piano pieces. His most important teacher until 1816 was the Italian composer Antonio Salieri (made infamous as Mozart's villainous archenemy in the Broadway musical/movie Amadeus) to whose amazement Schubert one day presented, unsolicited, a complete fully orchestrated 3-act opera which he called Des Teufels Lustschloss (The Devil's Pleasure Palace).

In 1814 at age 17 Schubert, now an assistant teacher at his father's school, wrote Gretchen am Spinnrade - a song inspired by Goethe's Faust. Even today, theorists wonder by what miracle the shy, inexperienced youth, just out of school, could have entered the complex psyche of Goethe's heroine and produced a masterpiece that musically captured every turn of the wheel as it did every shift in Gretchen's emotions. This miracle was followed by many more, among them the tragic Erlkönig written in 1815 by which time he made the decision to quit as a schoolmaster and earn a living in music. However he could never find gainful employment on a long-term basis nor did he find backing among the nobility as did Mozart and Beethoven before him.

A Schubertiad
A "Schubertiade"
So, for the rest of his life, he lived on the occasional commissions from his compositions and often on the largesse of wealthier friends who, recognizing his genius, became his primary audience as well as the champions and patrons of his works. They organized evening gatherings in private homes where Schubert's songs were sung often by the opera singer Johann Michael Vogl with Schubert himself at the piano. These "Schubertiades" as the gatherings were known foreshadowed the modern song recital. Today the term "Schubertiade" refers to concert or recital programs devoted exclusively to Schubert's works.
The only public concert of his music in his lifetime took place in March 1828. Sadly, Schubert, his immunity irreparably weakened by the syphillis he contracted in 1922, died of typhoid fever on November 19. Following his wish, he was buried near Beethoven, and on his tombstone were etched the words: "The art of music here entombed a rich possession but even fairer hopes." - so descriptive of the Schubert that was and the Schubert that could have been had he lived longer. After his death, previously unheard of works came to be known, and innumerable fragments of unfinished pieces (Yes, there were more than the "Unfinished Symphony") were discovered, and people began to ask the inevitable questions "why?" and "what if...?" And, as so often happens, the miracle of fame that so eluded him in life, came in death. To this day, many chapters continue to be written that ponder and wonder about the miracle that was Schubert. But is not the answer simply this, that he was a gift from heaven! - GBCajipe © FanFaire

*A Schubert scholar has put the number at 708.



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