By Gail Miller Armondino, Ph.D.
On May 21, New England Classical Singers will perform Schubert’s Mass in G Major, D. 167. Study up on Schubert with these fun facts by resident musicologist (and alto) Gail Armondino!
- Franz Peter Schubert was born in Vienna, Austria on January 31, 1797.
- Schubert was one of the few major composers of his time to be born and raised in Vienna. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all moved there as adults.
- During his short lifetime, Vienna was a cosmopolitan city that underwent countless upheavals. For much of his childhood, Vienna was under siege by Napoleon’s army. Following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, conservative politics prevailed; under Metternich’s policies, Vienna was essentially a police state. Growing up in this ever-changing political landscape had a profound influence on the composer.
- Schubert’s father, Franz Theodor Florian Schubert, was a teacher. He met the composer’s mother, Elizabeth Vietz, in 1784 within a year of moving to Vienna. The couple married in 1785. Their quick courtship may have been hastened by the birth of their first child only two months after the wedding. The couple went on to have 14 children, but sadly, only five survived infancy.
- Franz Peter was the fourth of the five surviving children. The five children were (in order) Ignaz (b.1785), Ferdinand (b. 1794), Karl (b. 1795), Franz Peter (b. 1797), and Maria Theresia (b. 1801).
- Until young Franz was four years old, the family lived in a one-room apartment. They moved to a house shortly after Maria Theresia was born. The bottom floor of the house was used as a school, and the family lived on the upper floor. The school grew steadily, and by 1805, 300 students were enrolled.
- As a student in his father’s school, Franz excelled academically. Although music was not a part of the school curriculum, there were ample opportunities for learning music. At the age of six, Franz’s older brother Ignaz gave him his first piano lessons. Franz quickly surpassed his brother’s abilities, telling Ignaz that “he would continue on his own.”
- When Franz was seven, he was sent to audition for Antonio Salieri (yes, the Salieri). Salieri was impressed and included him on a roster of nine singers suitable to sing for services at the imperial Hofkapelle.
- When Schubert was eight, his father gave him violin lessons, and by the age of 11, he auditioned for and was accepted to the Hofkapelle choir, which included a full scholarship to the Kaiserlich-königliches Stadtkonvikt (Imperial and Royal City College), Vienna’s preeminent boarding school for non-aristocrats. He remained a student there for four years.
- After leaving the Stadtkonvikt, Schubert returned home and enrolled in the St. Anna Normalhauptschule to earn his teaching credentials. Teaching became his “day job.” He started out teaching the youngest students, and was known to be strict. He was 16 years old at the time.
- Schubert likely sympathized with students when they protested Metternich’s government’s unjust imprisonment of a fellow student. He was also a central part of a secret society, the Nonsense Society, from 1817–1818. The club was mostly made up of young painters and poets. The Society published a newsletter containing contemporary spoofs of politics, social mores, art, literature, etc. Each member was given a code name, although the composer’s remains a mystery. The Society officially disbanded in 1818, but references to Schubert’s involvement extend to at least 1821.
- He fell in love with the young soprano Therese Grob, who was a year or two younger than Schubert. He wrote several songs for her as tokens of his love. He did not earn enough as a teacher to be able to support them both, so they did not marry. She eventually broke his heart by marrying the master baker Johann Bergmann. Schubert renounced marriage after his romance with Therese ended.
- Schubert did have one other significant relationship. He purportedly fell deeply in love with the unattainable Countess Caroline Esterházy, whom he had tutored (along with her older sister) beginning in the summer of 1818. The two shared a close relationship, but the difference in their social status made marriage impossible.
- He contracted syphilis in 1819. The treatment in those days was mercury, which is now known to be toxic. The diagnosis sent him into a deep depression.
- Schubert died on November 19, 1828, at the age of 31. His official cause of death is listed as typhus, but the actual cause was more likely the late stages of syphilis. He is buried next to Beethoven, per his request.
Bonus: Five Fun Musical Facts About Schubert
- While a student at the Stadtkonvikt, he was invited to join the second violin section of its orchestra. There he was exposed to the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. He was also exposed to opera, and he developed an interest in Goethe’s and Schiller’s poetry as song text.
- Schubert composed over 600 Lieder (German art songs) beginning at the age of 15. He elevated the genre, giving it a central place in vocal performance. His songs masterfully fuse poetry and music. Many of his songs are miniature dramatic works in which the piano accompaniment is an integral character; “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (1814), for example, gives the piano the role of the spinning wheel in this modified strophic work. The other best-known dramatic Lied, “Der Erlkönig,” has three distinct characters, sung by one person. The piano accompaniment takes on the role of the horse.
- Schubert was one of the most prolific composers of the nineteenth century. In addition to Lieder, he composed over ten dramatic works, seven complete symphonies (plus the famous “Unfinished” Symphony), chamber music, solo piano works, four complete Mass settings, and countless unfinished pieces.
- He wrote many of his Lieder and soprano solos in larger choral works for Therese Grob, including the soprano solo in the Mass in G Major. He also composed Lieder for Caroline Esterházy.
- Although Schubert’s life was short, his music displayed remarkable maturity. His style bridges the Classical era of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, to the more emotion-laden music of the Romantic era. His influence on later composers ranges extends into the modern era, including harmonies used by the Beatles.