Franz Schubert was born on 31 January 1797 in Vienna. Since his father was a teacher, Franz Peter received his first music tuition at home – a home where there was plenty of music, as his elder brother played too. Vienna was the great metropolis boasting great musicians: the aging Haydn, the revolutionary Beethoven, the brilliant Mozart and his contemporary and rival at the court, Antonio Salieri.
Salieri discovered the young Franz Peter’s talent and gave him tuition. Schubert gained a place in the Imperial Chapel Choir, in which Joseph Haydn had sung as a boy too. The wonder of singing and the potential of the human voice were a revelation to young Schubert, as is witnessed for the whole world by his later production of over six hundred songs.
In his teens Schubert was already composing works in a variety of genres. He spent much of his time with his many musician and actor friends. They rarely had much money, but managed to make enough to live as free artists as private tutors and by giving occasional private recitals.
The musical parties where the friends gathered often lasted well beyond the early hours into the following day, and were referred to as ‘Schubertiads’, as Franz Schubert was a regular feature of them. He could play for hours, and much of what he played was improvised. He later notated some of his improvisations and published them as Impromptus. He also used the occasions to present his latest compositions, both songs and instrumental pieces.
One of the first works he introduced at a Schubertiad was his Sonatina for Violin and Piano in D major.
It is a clear and simple sonata in three movements, without any of the grandiose and heroic trappings used by Schubert’s idol, Ludwig van Beethoven, in his sonatas (in 1805 he had completed 9 of 10). The musical language, more like Mozart’s, is first and foremost an expression of Schubert’s skill in presenting pure music without ‘noise’. The fact that he composed his ‘Tragic’ 4th Symphony at the same time witnesses the diversity of Schubert’s musical capabilities. When Diabelli published the sonata alongside numerous other works after Schubert’s death, he entitled the piece Sonatina in D major.
Schubert’s Moments Musicaux were highly regarded and very popular with pianists, as were his Impromptus. Six Moments Musicaux were published as opus 94 in 1828. When he performed them at a somewhat rowdy Schubertiad, the same doubtless occurred as happens to us on hearing the music: Schubert stops the world and we are suspended in a moment of unspecified duration. All but the music vanishes.
Schubert’s famous> Piano Quintet (piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass) was also first published after his death. He and some friends visited the rich music lover Sylvester Plumgartner in Steyr, west of Vienna, who suggested that Schubert should write some variations on his popular song The Trout. It was not the only time Schubert re-used themes from his lieder in chamber music. Death and the Maiden and the Wanderer Fantasy are further examples.
Before the Trout Quintet we will hear a Piano Quartet by one of the foremost composers of our time. John Harris Harbison is a significant contributor to the American arts, and has composed solo works, chamber music, symphonies and operas. His opera The Great Gatsby, which he wrote for music director James Levine’s 25th anniversary at the Metropolitan, was a great success there in two seasons.
November 19, 1828, is the date of Franz Schubert’s death, and the title of Harbison’s work, which is subtitled Hallucination in Four Episodes for Piano and String Trio. The four episodes are
- Introduction: Schubert crosses into the next world
- Suite: Schubert finds himself in a hall of mirrors
1. Theme 2. Écossaise 3. Moment Musicale 4. Impromptu 5. Valse
- Rondo: Schubert recalls a rondo fragment from 1816
- Fugue: Schubert continues the fugue subject (S-C-H-U-B-E-R-T) which Sechter assigned him.
Text: Erling Dahl Jr.
English version: Roger Martin