Even a Divine Spark
Has a Short Life


Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)

Austrian composer, whose songs are among romantic masterpieces in that genre and whose instrumental works reflect a classical heritage as well as 19th-century romanticism. Schubert was born on January 31, 1797, in Vienna. The son of a parish schoolmaster, he became a choirboy in the Imperial Chapel in 1808 and began studies at the Konvict, the school for court singers. He played violin in the school orchestra.

Earliest Works

His first songs, among them “Hagars Klage” (Hagar's Lament, 1811) and “Der Vatermörder (The Patricide, 1811), greatly impressed his teachers. When his voice changed in 1813, Schubert left the Konvict and began teaching in his father's school. The following year, he wrote his first opera, Des Teufels Lustschloss (The Devil's Pleasure-Castle); his first mass, in F major; and 17 songs, including such masterpieces as “Der Taucher” (The Diver) and “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel).

In 1815 Schubert completed his second and third symphonies and wrote two masses, in G and B-flat major, other sacred works, some chamber music, and 146 songs, including “Erlkönig” (Erl King), based on a mythological figure of death. That year, he also worked on five operas. In 1816 he wrote his Symphony in C Minor, known as the Tragic Symphony, the Symphony in B-flat Major, additional sacred music, an opera, and more than 100 songs. About this time Schubert gave up teaching, devoting himself exclusively to composition. Not a success with the general public during his lifetime, Schubert was recognized as a composer of genius by a small circle of friends, among them the poet and playwright Franz Grillparzer and the singer Johann Michael Vogl.

Later Works

In 1820 Schubert wrote music for Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp), a melodrama, and Die Zwillingsbrüder (The Twin Brothers, 1820), an unsuccessful operetta. He also composed sacred music such as the Twenty-third Psalm and the unfinished oratorio Lazarus. A group of his songs was published in 1821. In 1822 he wrote the Symphony in B Minor, known as the Unfinished Symphony, and the Mass in A-flat. His song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (The Miller's Beautiful Daughter) was composed in 1823 and the Octet and Songs from Sir Walter Scott in 1824. For the next two years Schubert wrote constantly, producing the song cycle Die Winterreise (Winter's Journey) in 1827. The Seventh Symphony in C Major, the Mass in E-flat Major, the String Quintet in C major, his last three piano sonatas, and his last and greatest collection of songs, Schwanengesang (Swan Song), were written in 1828. Schubert died on November 19, 1828, of typhoid fever.


Schubert's early instrumental works, which follow the patterns used by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn, are marked as romantic by a new sonority and a harmonic and melodic richness. In his early piano sonatas, Schubert worked to free himself from the influence of Ludwig van Beethoven. Although he cast his symphonies and sonatas in classical outlines, in their development sections these works rarely achieve the dramatic tension that is the core of the classical sonata form; instead they tend to emphasize expansive melody and evocative harmonies.
Schubert's instrumental works show development over a long period of time, but some of his greatest songs were composed before he was 20 years old. In Schubert's songs the literary and musical elements are perfectly balanced, composed on the same intellectual and emotional level. Although Schubert composed strophic songs throughout his career, he did not follow set patterns but exploited bold and free forms when the text demanded it. His reputation as the father of German lieder (“art songs”) rests on a body of more than 600 songs.

"Schubert, Franz Peter," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnall's Corporation.

Friends, acquaintances and contemporary comments

Eduard von Bauernfeld

Yesterday afternoon Schubert died ... The most honest soul and the most faithful friend! I wish I lay there in his place. For he leaves the world with fame! [from his diary 20 Nov 1828, quoted in the Docs]

Ludwig van Beethoven

Truly, in Schubert there is a divine spark.

Wilhelm von Chézy

Unfortunately Schubert, with his liking for the pleasures of life, had strayed into those wrong paths which generally admit of no return, at least of no healthy one. [from his autobiography, quoted in the Memoirs]

Ludwig August Frankl

Schubert then let himself go to pieces; he frequented the city outskirts and roamed around in taverns, at the same time admittedly composing his most beautiful songs in them, just as he did in the hospital too (the " Müllerlieder ", according to Hölzel), where he found himself as the result of excessively indulgent sensual living and its consequences. [Written notes of a conversation with Schober, June 1868, quoted in the Memoirs].

Franz Grillparzer

The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even far fairer hopes. [Inscription on Schubert's tomb]. Sketches which were rejected:
Wayfarer! Hast thou heard Schubert's Song? Under this stone he lies.
He was placed near the best ones when he died, and yet he was scarcely half-way in his career.
He gave to poesy tones and language to music, Neither spouse nor maiden, it is as sisters that the two embrace above Schubert's head.

Anselm Hüttenbrenner

Towards the fair sex he was boorish and, consequently, anything but gallant. He neglected his appearance, especially his teeth, and smelt strongly of tobacco and so was quite unqualified to be a gay Lothario. [Notes to Luib, 1st April 1858, quoted at length in the Memoirs]

Leopold Kupelwieser

Once when Schubert was playing the Fantasia, Op. 15, to a circle of friends and broke down in the last movement, he sprang up from his seat with the words: "Let the devil play the stuff!" [Notes for Kreissle von Hellborn, about 1860, quoted in the Memoirs]

Wenzel Ruzicka

This one's learnt it from God. [Quoted in the Docs]

Antonio Salieri

Franz, you are my pupil, and you are going to bring me much further honour. [quoted in Kreissle von Hellborn]

He can do everything, he composes songs, masses, operas, quartetts whatever you can think of. [Quoted by Ferdinand Schubert in his "From Franz Schubert's Life", published in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 23 April - 3 May 1839, which is given in full in the Memoirs].

Ignaz Schubert

I was much astonished when, after only a few months he informed me that he had now no further use for my teaching and would be quite able to get on by himself. And indeed he went so far in a short time that I had myself to acknowledge him as a master far surpassing me and no longer to be caught up (by me).

Moritz von Schwind

I have wept for him as a brother, but now I am glad for him that he has died in his greatness and has done with his sorrows. The more I realize now what he was like, the more I see what he has suffered. [letter to Schober, 25th November 1828]

(who) asked by a Viennese lady what Schubert looked like, answered in his devastating way: "Like a drunken cabby!" [From the article 'Das Schubert-Monument', by Ludwig Speidl, 25 May 1866]

Josef von Spaun

I am of the opinion that, in the field of instrumental and church music, we shall never make a Mozart or Haydn out of him. [Letter to Eduard von Bauernfeld (who was preparing a biographical note), early 1829.]

One day ... he looked me frankly in the eyes and said "Do you really think something will come of me?" I embraced him and said "you have done much already and time will enable you to do much more and great things too". Then he said quite humbly: "Secretly, in my heart of hearts, I still hope to be able to make something of myself, but who can do anything after Beethoven?". [Notes for Luib 1858, quoted in the Memoirs]

Schubert ... who in money matters was as innocent as a child and was content with every little sum he was offered [From 'Some observations on the Life of Schubert by Herr Ritter von Kreissle-Hellborn" (1864), quoted in the Memoirs].

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