Schubert was born in Vienna on 31 January 1797 son of a schoolteacher and his wife who had many children, more than half dying in infancy. His first lessons in violin and piano came from his father and a brother respectively. By the age of seven, though, he was receiving instruction from a local organist and choirmaster. In 1808, he won a scholarship that earned him a place with the imperial court chapel choir and an education at the Stadtkonvikt, the principal boarding school for commoners in Vienna which had its own orchestra. By the age of 14, encouraged by the violinist Joseph von Spaun, Schubert was already composing various types of music, quartets, piano solos and duets, and even part of an opera.
In 1812, Schubert’s voice broke. No longer of service to the choir, he found little interest in further academic schooling and soon left the Stadtkonvikt to focus on composition. He took private lessons with Antonio Salieri, but under pressure from his family, he also went to work in his father’s school as a teacher from 1814. During this period, he wrote many Lieder (a kind of German song of the Romantic period usually for solo voice and piano), church works and symphonies. In 1818, he left his teaching work to concentrate on music, in part inspired by a first public performance of one his works, Italian Overture in C Major.
Although Schubert and his compositions were becoming increasingly popular, he had trouble earning a living. Compositions for two opera houses were not a success; and music publishers were afraid to take a risk on such a young composer, his music being far from traditional. By the early 1820s, he was offering his songs on a subscription basis, and across Vienna the wealthy began hosting concert parties -
In late 1822, Schubert fell ill, biographers suggest this was because of syphilis. Nevertheless, he continued to compose prolifically, producing masterpieces, the song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, the Eighth (Unfinished) and Ninth (Great) Symphonies, Octet in F Major and the Wanderer Fantasy. By the late 1820s, Schubert’s health was failing and he even confided to friends that he feared being near to death. Some of his symptoms are known to have matched those of mercury poisoning (mercury being a common treatment for syphilis). He died in November 1828, aged but 31. Only in the decades after his death did interest in, and appreciation of, Schubert’s music spread, as many other 19th century composers began to champion his works. Further information is available at The Schubert Institute, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Franzpeterschubert.com, Wikipedia, or Bio.com
Schubert appears to have kept a diary only once or twice during his short life, and only fragments have survived. One fragment, in particular, covering the period 13-16 June 1816, has been much studied by biographers. Christopher H. Gibbs, for example, writing in Current Musicology (no. 75, spring 2003) says the 16 June diary entry is ‘notorious’, and ’has long played a role in accounts of Schubert’s life’. He goes on in his essay - entitled Writing Under the Influence?: Salieri and Schubert’s Early Opinion of Beethoven - to analyse the diary entries in some detail. Gibbs also notes: ‘Schubert’s only other known diary, or rather fragments from it, dates from 1824 and survives only in copies by Eduard von Bauernfeld that may well be incomplete and inaccurate [. . .]. Given so little from Schubert himself, a problem compounded by the fact that so few of his letters survive, each word assumes extraordinary weight.’
Henry Frost’s 1881 biography Schubert (available at Internet Archive) gives a little more information: ‘Whether Schubert was averse to letter writing there is no evidence one way or the other, but very little of his correspondence remains; and so one great asset which we find in the study of the lives of Mozart and Mendelssohn, and to a lesser extent of Beethoven and Weber, is denied to us. The remnants of his diaries that are still with us barely compensate for this loss.
It appears that he kept a daily record of his thoughts and experiences in 1816, but owing to that wanton carelessness with which Schubert’s precious manuscripts seem to have been generally treated, only a small portion of these remain. Aloys Fuchs, in his Schubertiana, tells the story thus: “Some years ago I found at an autograph dealer’s in Vienna the fragment of one of Schubert’s diaries in his own handwriting, but several of the pages were missing. On my asking the reason of this, the wretched owner of the relic replied that he had for a long time been in the habit of distributing single pages of this manuscript to hunters of Schubert relics or autograph collectors. Having expressed my indignation at this vandalism, I took care to save what was left.” ’
The following translation of the extant fragment of Schubert’s diary can be found online at Internet Archive in The Life of Franz Schubert by Kreissle Von Hellborn (volume 1) as translated by Arthur Duke Coleridge (Longmans, Green, and Co, 1869).
13 June 1816
‘This day will haunt me for the rest of my life as a bright, clear, and lovely one. Gently, and as from a distance, the magic tones of Mozart’s music sound in my ears. With what alternate force and tenderness, with what masterly power did Schlesinger’s playing of that music impress it deep, deep in my heart! Thus do these sweet impressions, passing into our souls, work beneficently on our inmost being, and no time, do change of circumstances, can obliterate them. In the darkness of this life, they show a light, a clear, beautiful distance, from which we gather confidence and hope. Mozart! immortal Mozart! how many and what countless images of a brighter, better world hast thou stamped on our souls! This quintett may be called one of the greatest amongst his smaller works. I too was moved on this occasion to introduce myself. I played variations by Beethoven, sang Göthe’s “Rastlose Liebe,” and Schiller’s “Amalia.” The first met with universal, the second with qualified applause. Although I myself think my “Rastlose Liebe” more successful than “Amalia,” yet I cannot deny that to Göthe’s musical genius must be attri-buted in a large measure the applause which greeted the song. I also made acquaintance with Mdlle. Jenny, a pianoforte-player with extraordinary powers of execution; but I think her wanting in true and pure expression.’
14 June 1816
‘After the lapse of a few months, I took once more an evening walk. There can hardly be anything more delightful than, of an evening, after a hot summer’s day, to stroll about on the green grass: the meadows between Währing and Döbling seem to have been created for this very purpose. I felt so peaceful and happy as my brother Carl and I walked together in the struggling twilight. “How lovely!” I thought and exclaimed, and then stood still enchanted. The neighbourhood of the churchyard reminded us of our excellent mother. Whiling the time away with melancholy talk, we arrived at the point where the Döbling road branches off, and I heard a well-known voice issuing as though from heaven - which is our home: the voice came from a carriage which was being pulled up. I looked up, and there was Herr Weinmüller, who got out and greeted us with his hearty, manly, cheerful-toned voice. How vainly does many a man strive to show the candour and honesty of his mind by conversation equally sincere and candid! - how would many a man be the laughing-stock of his fellow-creatures were he to make the effort! Such gifts must come naturally; no efforts can acquire them.’
15 June 1816
‘It usually happens that we form exaggerated notions of what we expect to see. At least, I found it so when I saw the exhibition of pictures of native artists, held at Saint Anna. The work I liked best in the whole exhibition was a Madonna and Child, by Abel. I was much disappointed by the velvet mantle of a prince. I am convinced that one must see things of this sort much more frequently, and give them a longer trial, if one hopes to find and retain the proper expression and impression intended to be conveyed.’
16 June 1816 [After returning home from Salieri’s jubilee festival]
‘It must be pleasant and invigorating to the artist to see all his pupils collected around him, every one striving to do his best in honour of his master’s jubilee fete; to hear in all their compositions a simple, natural expression, free from all that bizarrerie which, with the majority of composers of our time, is the prevailing element, and for which we are almost mainly indebted to one of our greatest German artists; free, I say, from that bizarrerie which links the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the odious, the heroic with whining (Heulerei), the most sacred subjects with buffoonery - all this without discrimination; so that men become mad and frantic instead of being dissolved in tears, and tickled to idiotic laughter rather than elevated towards God. The fact that this miserable bizarrerie has been proscribed and exiled from the circle of his pupils, so that their eyes may rest on pure holy Nature, must be a source of the liveliest pleasure to the artist who, with a Gluck for his pioneer, has learned to know Nature, and has clung to her in spite of the most unnatural influences of our day.
Herr Salieri celebrated by a jubilee his fifty years’ residence in Vienna, and an almost equally long period of service under the Emperor. His Majesty presented him with a gold medal; and numbers of his pupils, both male and female, were invited to the ceremony. The compositions of his pupils, written specially for the occasion, were produced seriatim [i], according to the date of admission of each pupil, as he had received them when sent to him. The music concluded with a chorus from Salieri’s Oratorio, “Jesu al Limbo” (“Christ in Hades”). The Oratorio is worked out in the true Gluck spirit. Everyone was interested in the entertainment.
To-day I composed the first time for money - namely, a Cantata (“Prometheus “) for the name-day festival of Herr Professor Watteroth von Dräxler. The honorarium 100 florins, Viennese currency.
Man is like a ball between chance and passion. I have often heard it said by writers: “The world is like a stage, where every man plays his part. Praise and blame follow in the other world.” Still, every man has one part assigned him - we have had our part given us - and who can say if he has played it well or ill? He is a bad theatrical manager who distributes amongst his players parts which they are not qualified to act. Carelessness here is not to be thought of. The world has no example of an actor being dismissed because of his bad declamation. As soon as he has a part adapted to his powers, he will play it well enough. Whether he is applauded or not, depends on a public with its thousand caprices. In the other world, praise or blame depends on the Grand Manager of the world. Blame, therefore, is balanced.
Natural disposition and education determine the bent of man’s heart and understanding. The heart is ruler; the mind should be.
Take men as they are, not as they ought to be.
Happy is he who finds a true friend. Happier still is he who finds in his own wife a true friend. To the free man, at this time, marriage is a fearful thought; he confounds it either with melancholy or low sensuality.
Monarchs of our day, you see this and keep silence! Or do ye not see it? Then, God, throw a veil over our senses, and steep our feelings in Lethe! Yet once, I pray, draw back the veil!
Man bears misfortune uncomplainingly; and, for that very reason, feels it all the more acutely. For what purpose did God create in us these keen sympathies?
Light mind, light heart: a mind that is too light generally harbours a heart that is too heavy.
Town politeness is a powerful hindrance to men’s integrity in dealing with one another. The greatest misery of the wise man and the greatest happiness of the fool is based on conventionalism.
A noble-minded unfortunate man feels the depth of his misery and intensity of his joy; just so does the nobly prosperous man feel his good fortune or the opposite.
Now I know nothing more! To-morrow I am sure to know something fresh! Whence comes this? Is my understanding to-day duller than it will be to-morrow? Because I am full and sleepy? Why doesn’t my mind think when my body sleeps? I suppose it goes for a walk. Certainly, it can’t sleep!
I hear everyone saying;
We can’t venture here on an answer,
We must bear it all patiently.
Now good night
Until ye awake.’