So great was the shadow cast by Beethoven over the musical landscape of Vienna (and so great the popularity of Rossini among the masses) that it nearly obscured another, perhaps even more tortured, musical genius roaming its streets and haunting its taverns. Franz Schubert was born, lived and died in Vienna. He studied with Salieri, idolized Mozart in his early years and fell completely and totally under the sway of Beethoven later on. He composed his first symphony at 16 and took his last breath at 31. And over the 15 years in between he turned out some of the most brilliant music of his age, some 900 works, 600 of which were songs. If you are looking for where the three-minute pop song began, look no further: Schubert’s song-cycles are his calling card for posterity. Schubert’s great gift to musical history is nothing less than the fusion of poetry and music. Without Schubert, there is no Bob Dylan.
The idea, of course, was not a new one. The Greek choruses of antiquity sung their poetic lines. The Church commissioned hymns of stunning beauty even as Martin Luther sought to connect tones to syllables to make the words more comprehensible. But Schubert sought to connect music to emerging Romantic poetry of the day–Goethe in particular–so as to better express the turbulent emotions coursing through his soul.
As a young man, Schubert was drawn into a circle of Viennese intellectuals called the Bildung. Here, a young poet named Johann Mayrhofer inspired Schubert’s development as a songwriter. The two eventually shared an apartment until they fell out spectacularly in 1820. Much rank speculation and rumor-mongering has ensued about the nature of Schubert’s relationship with Mayrhofer. That said, it is a pity that Schubert did not finish his opera Adrast, which was based on Mayrhofer’s score and which contained a same-sex love aria. What would 19th century European society have made of that?
Following his split from Mayrhofer, Schubert flung himself into two years of debauched existence, emerging in 1822 with both a renewed sense of purpose and what history has judged to be an ultimately fatal case of syphillis. He was only 25 at the time. Inevitably, my favorite works of Schubert come from the last six years of his life, when he was living under a death sentence.
So, where to begin for this composer dubbed “the most poetic musician who ever lived?” With a song, of course. Here’s one everyone knows. It is one of the most famous songs ever written.
Franz Schubert, Ellens dritter Gesang, D. 839.
Schubert’s gift for melody is undeniable, but he has also taken lessons from Beethoven–rhythm plays an undeniable and central role in his songs. The best example is Der Erlkönig, which is based on this very dark and brooding Goethe poem:
ho rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.”
“Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
For many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, ’tis thy fancy deceives;
‘Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”
“Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
‘Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight.”
“I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”
The father now gallops, with terror half wild,Johann Wolfang von Goethe, Der Erlkönig (translated)
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread, –
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.
Goethe’s poem was a significant source of inspiration for Schubert. He first composed this song as a teenager, revisiting it several times before publishing the final version in 1821–coming at a time where Schubert’s emotions were at their most turbulent in the wake of his falling out with Mayrhofer. Using the piano as much for its percussive force as for its tonality, Schubert transpartently conveys the father’s terror and, tthrough its sudden asbsence, the dread of the ending.
Franz Schubert, Der Erlkönig, D. 328, Op. 1:
Schubert’s song would have a profound effect on the coming Romantic period. Liszt transcribed it for piano:
Franz Liszt, Der Erlkönig, (aft. Schubert), S. 558 No. 4:
A more recent transcription for violin, building on the Liszt transcription, is even more dramatic.
Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, Erlkönig for solo violin, (aft. Schubert), Op. 26:
As the above demonstrate, Schubert’s music is capable of remarkable transformations, moving from voice to piano to violin seemlessly. His music also scales. For example, consider the following basic song:
Franz Schubert, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D. 494:
Schubert later rewrote the setting for four voices, two tenors and two bases:
Franz Schubert, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D.538:
Not satisfied with this quasi-barbershop quartet on steriods version, Schubert scaled it up again for eight voices (four tenors; four bases) and added multiple string parts:
Franz Schubert, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D. 714:
The poem is, of course, Goethe’s (Spirit Song Over the Waters):
The soul of man
From heaven it cometh,
To heaven it soareth.
And then again
To earth descendeth,
Down from the lofty
Streams the bright flood,
Then spreadeth gently
In cloudy billows
O’er the smooth rock,
And welcomed kindly,
Veiling, on roams it,
Tow’rd the abyss.
Oppose its progress,–
Angrily foams it
Down to the bottom,
Step by step.
Now, in flat channel,
Through the meadowland steals it,
And in the polish’d lake
Wind is the loving
Wooer of waters;
Wind blends together
Spirit of man,Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (translated)
Thou art like unto water!
Fortune of man,
Thou art like unto wind!