Famous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 online

. (page 16 of 32)
Online LibraryVariousFamous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 → online text (page 16 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

composer there was outside of his own town. "I write every morning," said
Schubert, "and as soon as I have finished one thing I begin another." This
regularity was simply an outcome of the fact that the fount of inspiration
was never dry. It was not because it was work done for much needed money,
for the larger part of Schubert's work never brought him any money. It was
primarily because singing was as spontaneous with him on first awaking as
with a bird; sometimes he could not wait to get up and dress, but seized
a sheet of music paper and jotted down his first exuberant thoughts while
still in bed. After a piece was finished, he sometimes heard it sung or
played, and sometimes did not; in either case it was apt soon to be tucked
away in a cupboard drawer and forgotten; there are several anecdotes of
his listening to old songs of his own without recognizing them.

After working till two o'clock in the afternoon, Schubert used to dine,
and then visit friends, or take a walk, or sit in a café over his schoppen
of wine or beer. At such times, as we have seen, the sight of a poem, or
perhaps some interesting incident, would call forth a sudden outburst of
song. Some of his noblest masterpieces came from the beer garden. He does
not seem to have been in the habit of drinking anything stronger than beer
and wine. Of these light beverages he was very fond, and as his head was
easily affected, an opinion has found currency that this appetite was a
weakness with Schubert, - perhaps his only assignable weakness. The fact,
however, that he was always up early and quite fresh for the morning's
work, is clear proof that it could not have been a serious weakness. Among
friends with whom he was well acquainted he was genial and jovial, and
liked to sit and talk; but he habitually entertained a due respect for
to-morrow morning.

The compositions for the three years 1818-20 were about a hundred in
number. There were some noble church works, the fourth mass in C and the
fifth in A flat, a Salve Regina for soprano voice with string orchestra,
four hymns by Novalis, the twenty-third Psalm to Moses Mendelssohn's
version, and the Easter cantata "Lazarus"; also the operetta "Die
Zwillingsbrüder" and the fragment of an unfinished opera, "Sakuntala";
an overture for orchestra, quartetts, quintets, canzoni, many dances for
piano, and many songs.

The year 1821 marked a new era with Schubert; in that year some of his
compositions were first published. Some of his friends were determined to
have a group of his songs engraved, among them the Erl King which had now
often been heard in private concerts. They applied to two or three of the
most enterprising music publishers in Vienna, but without success. There
was no profit in such publications, said the sagacious men of business.
The composer was so obscure that his name would carry no weight; and as
for the songs, they were strange affairs, the melodies too difficult for
anybody to sing, and the piano accompaniments quite impossible for any one
to play! As the publishers thus proved unmanageable, some of Schubert's
friends had the Erl King engraved and printed by subscription, and about
the same time the song was first heard at Vienna in a public concert,
with the accompaniment played by the composer himself. It was in this
year, as already observed, that Vogl began giving concerts in which these
songs took a prominent place. In the course of a few months seven groups
of Schubert's songs were published on commission, and their success was
such that publishers were afterward ready to go on at their own risk. Of
new compositions this year saw the completion of the beautiful "Gesang
der Geister über den Wassern" for four tenors and four basses, with
accompaniment of two violas, two 'cellos, and double-bass. There was also
the seventh symphony, for the most part a sketch, but so full of clues
that it would not be difficult to complete it according to the original
intention. It looks as if the composer had some other work upon his
mind at the same time, perhaps the Alfonso and Estrella presently to be
mentioned, and could not for the moment wait to fill out all parts of the
score, but made very complete indications so as to be sure of recovering
his former thoughts on returning to it. Among this year's songs are some
that rank very high, as the two Suleikas and the "Geheimes" to Goethe's
words, the "Lob der Thränen" and "Sey mir gegrüsst." All these are
outdone, however, by the "Frühlingsglaube," written in 1822, to Uhland's
words, a song which for artistic perfection is absolutely unsurpassed.

The rapid development of Schubert's maturity in 1822 is exhibited in the
two movements of his eighth symphony in B-minor, now commonly called the
Unfinished Symphony. It was written for the Musikverein at Gratz, which
had lately elected him an honorary member. Why it was presented to the
society while still half-finished does not clearly appear. The first two
movements were completed and the scherzo partly sketched. It is now more
often played and better known than any of his other symphonies except
the great tenth, in C major, presently to be mentioned. There is greater
conciseness of expression, and in the opinion of some critics, even more
grandeur and beauty in the Unfinished Symphony than in the Tenth. Here
for the first time in an orchestral work Schubert appears as a completely
independent master. In his earlier symphonies, as in Beethoven's first
and second, one always feels the dominant influence of Haydn and Mozart.
In his sixth symphony, composed in 1817, we begin to see the influence of
Beethoven, for whom he was already coming to feel the love and adoration
that never ceased to occupy his mind even upon his death-bed. In the
Unfinished Symphony he takes a new departure, as Beethoven did in his
third or Eroica; but this new departure, while it profits by Beethoven,
is peculiarly Schubertian; the composer's individuality is as completely
expressed in it as in his songs.

We have already had occasion to mention operas or operettas in the lists
of our composer's works from year to year. His insatiable yearning to
express himself in music was excited whenever he happened to come across
an available dramatic poem, good or bad, and sometimes he was fain to
content himself with a wretched libretto. Hitherto his music for the stage
had been of much less importance than his other compositions, though
it hardly need be said that it abounded in beautiful and interesting
conceptions. But the increase of maturity just noticed in his orchestral
music was also shown in the production of his first grand opera, "Alfonso
and Estrella," in 1822, followed by his second and last such work,
"Fierabras," in 1823.

[Illustration: Fac-simile of manuscript of first sketch of the Erl King,
showing that the change of the right-hand accompaniment into triplets was
an afterthought.]

In the autumn of 1821 Schubert and his friend Schober took a bit of
vacation among the Styrian Alps, where something suggested a subject
for the romantic opera, "Alfonso and Estrella," and Schober wrote a
libretto so much better than anything our hero had yet had to work with
that it quite made his eyes sparkle. It may be doubted if Don Quixote's
housekeeper would have kept back even this libretto from the flames,
but of many a musical drama that has solaced the weary mind we may say
that it was not made to be analyzed. An opera should be judged not by
the element that would instantly evaporate in a logical crucible, but by
the opportunities it affords for dramatic situations. In this respect
the Schober libretto, though better than Schubert had ever worked with,
had its shortcomings; the situations were given, but not wrought up with
sufficient dramatic power, so that, in spite of the undeniable dramatic
genius of the composer, the general treatment was felt to be more
lyric than dramatic. The opera was also regarded as too long, and the
accompaniments were pronounced impossible by the orchestras at the Vienna
theatres. For these reasons it proved impossible to get it put upon the
stage. It was first performed at Weimar in 1854, under Liszt's direction,
but was coldly received. At length it was curtailed and simplified by
Johann Fuchs, and brought out at Carlsruhe in 1881, and since then it has
been performed many times with marked success. The overture, a superb
piece of orchestral writing, is often performed at concerts.

This opera was the occasion of a little tiff between Schubert and
Weber, who came to Vienna in 1823 to conduct his opera "Euryanthe." On
hearing that work performed, Schubert said that along with many beauties
in harmony and in dramatic treatment it was wanting in freshness and
originality of melody, and was on the whole quite inferior to its
predecessor, "Der Freischütz." Probably few would dissent from this
judgment to-day, but when it was repeated to Weber it naturally irritated
him, and he is said to have exclaimed, "The dunce had better learn to
do something himself before he presumes to sit in judgment on me."
This hasty remark was tattled about until Schubert heard of it, and
forthwith, armed with the score of "Alfonso and Estrella," he called upon
the famous northern composer, to prove that he had not spoken without
knowing how operas ought to be written. After looking through the score
Weber ungraciously observed, "You know it is customary for people to
drown the first puppies and the first operas!" Poor health was already
making Weber irritable, and this remark was only an expiring flicker of
peevishness. He did not regard "Alfonso and Estrella" as a puppy opera,
but admired it, and afterward tried, though unsuccessfully, to have it
performed in Dresden. The relations between the two composers seem to have
been friendly. Indeed Schubert never bore malice to anybody, and it was
impossible for any one to harbor an unkind feeling toward him.

Of "Fierabras" it need only be said that the libretto was a bad one, the
scene was Spain in the days of Carlovingian romance, the score filled
one thousand manuscript pages, and the opera was never performed. The
romances, entr'actes, choruses, and ballet music, written this year for
the drama of "Rosamunde," rank among the composer's most beautiful works,
and are often performed as concert-pieces, though the drama itself has
been lost.

During part of this year 1823 Schubert was ill and obliged to go to the
hospital. Yet besides all this quantity of operatic music, he composed
the cycle of twenty songs known as "Die schöne Müllerin," to the words of
Wilhelm Müller, containing the exquisite "Wohin?," "Ungeduld," "Trockne
Blumen," and others scarcely less beautiful. Some of these were written in
the hospital. As if this were not enough, the same year's list contains
"Du bist die Ruh," and "Auf dem Wasser zu singen"; as well as the piano
sonata in A minor, Op. 143.

The year 1824 was marked chiefly by piano compositions, - two sonatas and
an overture for four hands, besides a vast quantity of dance music, and
the "Divertissement à l'hongroise," suggested by an air hummed by the
kitchen maid at the Esterhazys' country house, where Schubert spent the
summer to recruit his health. There was also a string quartet, and the
celebrated octet for strings and wood which is now so familiar. This
activity in the sonata form seems to have culminated next year in the
ninth symphony, which was almost surely finished about August, 1825, but
which has quite disappeared from sight. There were three piano sonatas,
besides the fragment of a fourth. Of these the sonata in A minor, Op.
42, must probably be pronounced the greatest of Schubert's works for the
piano, showing along with its wealth of inventiveness a mastery of form
almost as complete as the best of the songs. Among the grand songs of
this year must be mentioned "Die junge Nonne," and the group of seven to
Scott's "Lady of the Lake," of which the most famous is the "Ave Maria."

[Illustration: SCHUBERT'S MONUMENT IN VIENNA. - From a photograph.]

Our composer's progress toward perfect achievement in instrumental music
is marked in 1826 by the two string quartets in G and D minor. The latter
is not only Schubert's greatest work in chamber music, but is hardly
surpassed by the work of any other composer in this department. At the
same time came the piano sonata in G, Op. 78, of remarkable breadth and
grandeur. The Shakespeare songs already mentioned belong to this year.

Among the works of 1827 the most memorable was the second grand cycle
of songs to words by Wilhelm Müller, - the immortal "Winterreise." These
jewels of lyric art, what lover of music will fail to know them, so long
as art endures? But a more sombre tone prevails in them than the songster
had sustained at such length before. The note of unsatisfied longing,
of the strange contrast between the glow of aspiration and the chill
reality, is most decisively struck in "Frühlingstraum." In the last of the
cycle, the pathetic "Leiermann," the sadness is only heightened by the
indescribably delicate and playful humor which hovers about the phrases.
To us it may seem as if these lyrics contained a premonition of the end
that was not far off; but probably Schubert did not suspect it. His
grandest outburst of creative power was yet to come; he was studying his
art more earnestly than ever, and in the true spirit of artist or scholar,
as if all eternity lay before him, though the dread summons might come
to-morrow; in the sweet words of the old monkish distich: -

"Disce ut semper victurus,
Vive ut eras moriturus."

Of worldly sources of strength and comfort this great spirit had so few as
to put to shame such weaker mortals as complain of the ways of Providence.
Of what is called business and its management he was as innocent as a babe
in arms. His reticence, his unwillingness to intrude upon others, often
prevented his friends from realizing the straits to which he was reduced.
There can be little doubt that even at this later period of life he
sometimes suffered from cold and hunger, and it has been thought that his
death was hastened by such privations. Salaried positions that he might
have creditably filled were given to men with more self-assertion. His
attempts at the more marketable forms of music, as opera was then deemed
to be, failed from various untoward conditions; and he would sometimes
sell for the price of a frugal breakfast a song destined to bring wealth
to some publisher. The genial musician, Franz Lachner, declares from
personal knowledge that half a dozen numbers of the "Winterreise" were
written in a single day and sold for a franc apiece! If Schubert had
lived longer there would probably have been an improvement in this state
of things. The greatness of his posthumous fame is liable to make us
forget that his life was ended at an age when the most brilliant men are
usually just beginning to win their earliest laurels. From 1822 to 1828
his reputation was increasing rapidly, and before long would have become
so great as probably to work some improvement in his affairs. With time
the recognition of his genius was to seize the whole musical world as it
seized upon Beethoven.

The story of the relations between these two artists is touching. It seems
singular enough that Schubert and Beethoven should have lived in the same
city for thirty years without meeting more than once until the very end.
By his twentieth year, if not before, the feeling of Schubert for the
older composer had come to be little short of adoration. But Beethoven was
absorbed in work, and stone deaf withal, and not always easy of approach,
and his adorer was timid. Sometimes he came into the café where Schubert
was dining and sat down at another table. For a man of the world to get
up, step across the room, and open a conversation with the demigod, might
seem no very difficult undertaking; for Schubert it was simply impossible.
But in 1822 a meeting was at length brought about. His "Variations on a
French Air" were published by Diabelli and dedicated to Beethoven, and
Diabelli took Schubert with him to the master's house to present the
offering in person. Beethoven received the visitors graciously, and paper
and pencil for conversation were handed to them as usual, but Schubert
was too confused to write a word. Most likely it was Diabelli who handed
to Beethoven the Variations and called his attention to the tribute of
admiration printed at their head. On looking over the music Beethoven
stumbled upon some daring or questionable innovation of style, and in
his most kindly manner turned to Schubert to inquire his reason for it,
or perhaps to make some mild criticism quite proper from an artist of
fifty-two years to one of twenty-five. At this the poor fellow simply lost
his head, and with some incoherent exclamation fled into the street. Ah,
what chagrin when once safely alone, and the very thing he ought to have
said, so neat and telling, popped into his head! But to go back, or to
speak to the great man again seemed more than ever impossible.

It was during Beethoven's last illness in 1827 that he first came to
know Schubert. Beethoven's friend and biographer Schindler brought him a
parcel of Schubert's songs, including the "Schöne Müllerin" group, "Die
junge Nonne," and others. Beethoven's astonishment and admiration knew
no bounds. He studied the songs with most profound interest, declared
that their composer was destined to become a great power in the world,
and expressed deep regret that he had not known more about him. Scarcely
a day passed without his reverting to the subject, and it must of course
have been this that led Schubert to visit him twice. On the first occasion
there was some affectionate talk between them; on the second the dying
man was no longer able to speak, but only made some unintelligible signs,
and Schubert went away bowed down with grief. At the funeral he was one
of the torch-bearers, and on the way home from the graveyard he stopped
with Lachner and another friend at the Mehlgrube tavern, and they drank a
glass of wine to the memory of the mighty master who had left them. Then
Schubert proposed a second glass to that one of themselves who should be
the first to follow. It was to be himself, and very soon.


From a photograph.]

An instance of the rapidly growing interest in his music was furnished
by the success of a private concert which he gave for his own benefit
early in 1828. The programme consisted entirely of his own compositions,
the audience was large and enthusiastic, and the sum, equivalent to one
hundred and sixty dollars, which that evening brought him, must have
given him an unwonted sense of wealth. It was his first and last concert
of this sort. For creative work this last year of his life was the most
wonderful, and indeed it would be difficult to cite from the whole history
of music a parallel to it. The one orchestral work was the colossal tenth
symphony in C major, which showed so unmistakably upon whose shoulders the
mantle of the dead master had fallen, that it used sometimes to be called
"Beethoven's tenth symphony." But there is no imitation of Beethoven
or any other master in this work; it is as individually and intensely
Schubertian as the Erl King. It was first performed in Vienna about a
month after its composer's death, but its technical difficulties caused it
to lie neglected and forgotten until 1838, when Robert Schumann carried
the score to Leipsic and studied it with Mendelssohn; and it was again
given to the world, under Mendelssohn's direction, in the following year.
Since then it has been one of the best known and most thoroughly loved of
all the symphonies written since Beethoven's, and it ranks undoubtedly
among the foremost ten or twelve orchestral masterpieces of the world.

Side by side with this symphony sprang into existence the mass in E flat,
the most finished and the most sublime of Schubert's masses, and standing,
like the symphony, in the foremost rank of all works of its kind. And
along with this came the master's first and only oratorio, "Miriam's Song
of Triumph," a noble work, in which, however, Schubert only supported
the vocal score with an accompaniment for piano; so that it must be
regarded as in this sense incomplete. It has often been performed with
orchestration by Lachner, but still needs to be completed by some master
more capable of entering into the composer's intention.

Outdoing his earlier self in all directions at once, Schubert wrote in
this same year his quintet in C major for strings, which among his works
in chamber music is equalled only by the D-minor quartet of 1826. And so,
too, with his piano music; besides many other works poured forth at this
time, we have three superb sonatas, of which the one in B-flat is dated
September 28, less than eight weeks before his death. From all his piano
works it would be hard to select one fuller of his peculiar poetical
charm. Among the sonatas its only peers are the A minor, Op. 42, and the G
major, Op. 78.

In some of the songs of this year the genius of the composer reached a
height scarcely attained before. Besides a few others, uncounted drops
in this ocean of achievement, there were fourteen, not obviously intended
as a cycle, but published in a group, soon after Schubert's death, with
the publisher's title, "Swan Songs." It is enough to mention that this
group contains the "Serenade," "Aufenthalt," and "Am Meer," matchless for
intensity of emotion as for artistic perfection of form. Whichever of this
group he wrote last was truly his swan song; it is commonly believed to
have been the "Taubenpost," dated in October.

During this last year of marvellous creative activity Schubert had
suffered frequently from headache and vertigo. Such cerebral excitement
entailed an excessive rush of blood to the head. Early in September
he moved from his lodgings with Schober to a house which his brother
Ferdinand had lately taken. The situation was near the open country and
thought to be more favorable for air and exercise. Unfortunately the
house was newly-built and damp; very likely the drainage was defective.
Schubert evidently had no suspicion of his dangerous condition, until
on the last evening of October, while supping with some friends at the
Rothen Kreuz inn, having taken some fish from his plate he suddenly threw
down his knife and fork, saying that food had become as odious as poison.
This somewhat alarmed his friends, but he was as full of plans for future
work as if his health had been robust. On November 3, he took a long walk
to attend the performance of a Latin requiem composed by his brother
Ferdinand, the last music he ever heard. He had lately begun studying the
scores of Handel's oratorios, and had thus become impressed with the fact
that in counterpoint he had still much to learn. Though greatly fatigued
with his walk on November 3, he went next day to see Sechter, a famous
teacher of counterpoint, and made arrangements for taking a course of
lessons; the text-book and the dates were settled upon. It is doubtful
if Schubert ever went out again. The disturbance of the stomach, which
prevented him from taking food, continued, and his strength ebbed away. A
letter to Schober on the eleventh says that he can barely get from the bed
to a chair and back again; he has been reading the Last of the Mohicans,
the Spy, the Pilot, and the Pioneer; and if Schober happens to have
anything else of Cooper's, or any other interesting book, he would like
to have him send it. Something like typhus fever was setting in. After
the fourteenth he was confined to his bed, but was still able to correct
the proofs of the "Winterreise." On the seventeenth he became delirious.
The next day he complained of having been taken to a strange and dreadful
room, and when his brother Ferdinand tried to soothe him with the
assurance that he was at home, he replied, "No, it cannot be so; Beethoven
is not here!" On the next day there passed away one of the sweetest and
truest souls that ever looked with human eyes. He was buried in the
Währing cemetery in a grave as near as possible to that of Beethoven. Upon
a monument afterward erected at the head of the grave was inscribed the
epitaph, by Franz Grillparzer: "Music has here entombed a rich treasure,
but still more glorious hopes. Here lies Franz Schubert, born Jan. 31,
1797, died Nov. 19, 1828, aged 31 years." Much fault has been found with
the second clause of this epitaph, and Herr Kreissle does not seem to

Online LibraryVariousFamous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 → online text (page 16 of 32)