There are some artists whose gifts are so great, even by the standard of genius, that they seem the result of direct divine intervention. Franz Schubert was such an artist. Dead at 31, he left behind about 1500 compositions many of which are among the greatest pieces of music ever to issue from the mind of man. How Schubert found the time to just write down the notes in his short life, much less to achieve an unsurpassed level of art, is a wonder. His autograph scores, like Mozart’s, seem as if they came from the copyist. There were few chances for him to revise. He must have worked out every detail in his head before he put pen to paper.
Mature Schubert starts at age 17. During the last 18 months of his life, a period characterized by Benjamin Britten as the greatest period of sustained creativity in musical history, he wrote music that is beyond great. It is so well wrought that words cannot describe its unique character. When discussing innate genius the only comparison to Schubert that I can think of is to the Indian mathematician Ramanujan who died at about the same age as the Viennese composer. Great music seemed to pour out of Schubert like a torrent the same way numbers seemed to be at complete disposal of the Indian genius.
Schubert’s oeuvre is so vast that a listener likely will not encounter all of it in a span twice as long as as its creator lived. Below are seven examples of Schubert’s work written during the final 14 years of his life.
He was just 17 when he wrote Gretchen am Spinnrade. Its from Part 1 of Goethe’s Faust. The German text and an English translation is here. Schubert was the same age as Gretchen, or even younger, when he wrote this song; his first masterpiece. He perfectly depicts the agitation and emotion that a teen aged girl feels when she initially encounters first love. The spinning wheel is in the right hand while the left imitates the treadle. How a teenager could have the insight of this song is as mysterious as is virtually everything surrounding Schubert’s genius. The singer on this recording is the late Jessye Norman.
A short time after Gretchen, Schubert wrote a song of unparalleled drama and virtuosity – Der Erlkönig. Someone said that Schubert could do it three minutes what it took Verdi and Wagner three hours to do – in the latter’s case considerably longer. This song is a perfect example of this skill. There are four speakers – a narrator, a father, the Earl King, and a the young son who is sick and delirious. Goethe’s text with and English translation is here. The piano accompaniment is familiar to just about everyone. In a little more than four minutes, Schubert tells a story as intense as a supernova. Note how Fischer-Dieskau, the singer on this recording, delineates the four different speakers.
When the composer was 22 he wrote a piano quintet in which the fourth movement is based on his song Die Forelle (The Trout). The quintet is unusual in that instead of a second viola it has a double bass as the fifth instrument. The movement is a set of variations on the song. The quintet was not published until after the composer’s death. It is now part of the standard chamber music repertoire and is played frequently. Variations on other songs are the basis for some of his most performed chamber pieces. If you notice the rather prominent violin part on this recording, it’s because Anne-Sophie Mutter decided to take a start turn on what should be entirely an ensemble work.
The last year and a half of Schubert’s life was plagued by bad health and inspiration beyond perfection. His second set of four Impromptus for piano come from this period as do the rest of the examples which follow. Number 3 in B-flat is a theme and variations. It’s lovely and full of grace, but at the 5 minute mark a variation of stunning beauty and feeling appears. It’s a melody unique to Schubert. His melodic gift and harmonic invention were decades ahead of his time. When the music world realized what he was up to composers had caught up to his harmony. No one, however, could match his melodies.
Schubert’s last three piano sonatas were composed during the last few months of his life. It took until the 20th century for their true worth to be realized. Which is that they are on the very short list of the greatest works in this form, likely only matched by the best of Beethoven’s. The Andantino of the second of these three sonatas is in F# min and in ABA form. The ‘A’ melody is of poignant beauty it then moves to a fantasia like free form and harmonically adventurous second part which after a tonal world tour moves back to F# min and the somewhat altered original melody which is perhaps even more haunting. Only Schubert could have written this.
Die Winterreise (The Winter’s Journey) is a cycle of 24 songs set to verses by Wilhelm Müller. It is clearly the greatest song cycle ever written. The final proof of the cycle were corrected by the composer days before his death. Originally written for a tenor, all ranges sing it. Its tale of despair and disappointment are at the core of the lieder corpus. The final song “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”) is erie and bleak. There’s nothing like it in the entire song repertory. The singer again is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Back of the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man, cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. His begging bowl is always empty; no one listens, and the dogs growl at him. But his playing never stops. “Strange old man. Shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?”
Finally, The incredible C Major String Quartet completed about two month before Schubert’s death. It’s so powerful and sublime that one could easily argue that it’s the greatest work of chamber music ever written. Violinist Joseph Saunders had the second theme of the first movement carved on his tombstone. The second movement is so beautiful that musicians have literally wanted to die to it. The nineteenth-century cellist Alfredo Piatti asked for it be played during his dying hours. Artur Rubinstein’s wished to have this movement played at his funeral. The quintet is atypical in that it’s the cello rather than the conventional viola that’s doubled. After Schubert’s death a large collection of his unpublished manuscripts were sold to Diabelli & Co. Decades passed before the quintet was performed, but eventually the public realized it for its true worth. Liszt made numerous piano transcriptions of Schubert’s songs. he thought him the most poetic musician ever.
There’s nothing left to say, even though I haven’t mentioned any of Schubert’s orchestral compositions. This kind of genius come no more often than once in a millennium.