The tragically short life of Franz Schubert gave rise to some of the most celebrated and performed music written during that period of history. Schubert, born in Austria, lived from 1789 to 1828.
In this brief period, Schubert was astonishingly active in the musical world composing numerous pieces for piano, hundreds of songs, operas, symphonies, and string quartets, to list but of few of the areas Schubert wrote for.
It is also of interest that Antonio Salieri was Schubert’s tutor for around three years. Salieri heralded the young Schubert as a genius which in itself is not an accolade to be overlooked.
From a stylistic point of view then we can also attribute traits of Salieri in Schubert’s works linking back to the Classical tradition.
Schubert Classical Or Romantic
Given the time in which Schubert was alive, it is easy enough to see he, in a similar way to Beethoven, spanned two musical eras; Classical and Romantic. If we accept the ‘start’ of the Romantic era as being somewhere around 1800, then indeed most of Schubert’s compositions fall into this era of musical history.
There is no doubt about Schubert’s tremendous admiration for Beethoven nor the influence his music had on him. One account tells of the two great composers passing on another on the street with the young Schubert too in awe of Beethoven to introduce himself.
The influence of Beethoven is also key in understanding where Schubert fits into musical history.
Even in the early works of Schubert, particularly his lieder (songs), we hear a romantic edge in the melodic lyricism, his emotional response to the words of poets like Geothe, and indeed his choice of a poet to set.
Listen, for example, to two of Schubert’s early songs: ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ composed in 1814, (Op.2; D118) and ‘Erlkönig’ composed in 1814 (Op.1; D328).
When you think about how young Schubert was when he wrote these songs, they stand as a remarkable achievement and in many ways set the tone of German songs that would greatly influence Schumann, Wolf, and Brahms.
They are certainly not songs that you would anticipate hearing in the Classical era and as such were received with significant praise.
Whilst Schubert extensively employed musical forms from the Classical era, it is evident that his music was already heading in a new direction as the Romantic era began to gain momentum.
Schubert’s popularity in Vienna was supported by his production of songs and allowed him to move away from his work as a schoolmaster and into the professional world of composition.
It was a brave step to take as his financial situation was precarious and even though Schubert was a recognised composer, money was tight.
Schubert’s innovation did not begin and end with lieder. Even though Schuber would eventually compose in the region of six-hundred songs, he was equally active in many other types of music.
Difficult as it is to single out areas of Schubert’s compositional outpouring, his string quartets offer us another window into the world of Schubert. This is particularly true as Schubert’s string quartets, like his lieder, encompass his entire lifetime.
For many scholars, the early string quartets are exemplary of the Viennese style, brimming with echoes of the Classical era. These compositions show a light-hearted charm and wit that was typical of this Viennese style. They are consummate works, cleverly constructed and richly innovative.
As Schubert continued to compose string quartets, we hear his tone shift from the carefree earlier works towards a darker, dramatic, and even morose soundworld. This illustrates the transition Schubert made from one era to another and how important his contribution to the new romanticism was.
If you are interested to hear this then try listening to quartets such as ‘Death and The Maiden’ composed in 1824 (D 810).
This was Schubert’s fourteenth string quartet composed at a time when he realised that he was dying. Interestingly, Schubert took the title from a song he composed earlier in 1817.
Another consideration would be Schubert’s string quartet of 1824 titled ‘Rosamunde’. The inner turmoil Schubert must have experienced at this time with both physical and mental illness coupled with continuing financial instabilities permeates this composition.
By this stage in Schubert’s life the string quartet was no longer simply a remnant of the past era but a vehicle for expressing himself perhaps in the only way he knew how. With this in mind, these later works are deeply romantic in intent and content.
In a similar way to Schubert’s string quartets, his piano works show his masterful transition away from the confines of the Classical Era into the Romantic. Amongst Schubert’s extensive piano compositions are some works that stand out as markers for his evolving stylistic change.
In 1822 Schubert completed his ‘Fantasy in C major’ (D 760). This piano work became known as the ‘Wanderer Fantasy’ so-called is one of the themes Schubert borrowed from his ‘Der Wanderer’ from 1816.
It is a technically virtuosic piece, something that characterised the Romantic era and ingeniously constructed out of a single motif. Schubert himself apparently struggled to be able to play this piece but the composer Franz Liszt adored it and arranged it for piano and orchestra.
The incomplete ‘Sonata in C Major’ (D 840), from 1825, is a further example of Schubert’s mature romantic style.
Even though the title includes the word sonata, a form that evolved in the Classical Era, this work is far removed in structure, harmony, melody, and intent from the works of composers such as Haydn and Mozart.
The Sonata is revolutionary with Beethovian flavours and a dark dramatic undertone. This huge piece was overshadowed by the equally immense Sonata in A Minor (D 845) whose innovations had far-reaching implications for many composers that followed Schubert.
Schubert began with his style firmly rooted in the traditions of Viennese Classical music but in a very short time frame forged his way into the Romantic Era.
His compositions serve as a record of how a musical genius transitioned from one style to another and in so doing paved the way for the emerging romantic era and the developing composers.