Franz Schubert



Not all great artists become famous while they are alive. Franz Schubert – a short, curly-haired, bespectacled musician from Austria – had only his friends to praise his work. He died aged 31 before everyone else realized how special he was.

Schubert was poor all his life. He was the 12th child of parents in Vienna. They taught him some basics of music, and the family played his First String Quartet (written when he was 13): brothers Ignaz and Ferdinand playing violins, the composer on the viola, and their father on the cello.

His talent was spotted by Antonio Salieri, well known in Vienna’s musical life. Salieri gave him private theory and composition lessons. Schubert himself became a teacher, but he didn’t enjoy it and tried to focus on composing. He wanted to marry a soprano called Therese, but the law wouldn’t allow it if he didn’t have enough money to support a family. He didn’t even have enough to support himself! So that was the end of that.

He made friends with musicians, artists, students and poets. They’d have regular parties called ‘Schubertiads’, where Schubert’s new pieces would be sung or played. But they had to be careful: Vienna was alert to any hint of revolution, and anyone forming new ideas was treated with suspicion. Even Schubert was once arrested with his friends and told off. It wasn’t always easy to be creative.

In his short life, Schubert produced nearly 1,000 compositions! 600 of these were songs, but it’s still a big list. He was gifted: he came up with some of the best melodic lines in music, and moulded them into masterpieces. His music sits between the balanced, structured style of the Classical era (c. 1750–1830) and the personal expression of the Romantic era (c. 1810–1910).

Schubert was a serious fan of Beethoven. Apparently he saw him in a café but was too nervous to go and say hello! Beethoven’s funeral in 1827 was witnessed by a huge crowd, and Schubert carried a torch. Then Schubert died only 18 months later and hardly anyone noticed. The two are buried side by side.

Franz Schubert, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Try some of Schubert’s shining melodies…

Octet, D. 803: III. Allegro vivace – Trio

Schubert composed his Octet in 1824 for a large chamber group of clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. This energetic, dance-like third movement has lovely bits for clarinet (e.g. at 0.16).

Performers: Budapest Schubert Ensemble

Taken from Naxos 8.550389

Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667, ‘Die Forelle’ (‘The Trout’): IV. Theme with Variations

Schubert knew how to write really happy music. He used the melody from his song Die Forelle (‘The Trout’) as the theme for this movement from his ‘Trout’ Quintet. The work is for the unusual combination of violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; Kodály Quartet; István Tóth, double bass

Taken from Naxos 8.550658

Erlkönig (‘Erlking’), D. 328

One of Schubert’s first masterpieces (he wrote it when 18), this song sets words by the German poet Goethe about a boy and his father riding through the forest when the ghostly ‘Erlking’ steals the boy’s life. Listen to the galloping piano part: this kind of descriptive power in a song was new.

Performers: Johannes Kalpers, tenor; Burkhard Kehring, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554667

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Schubert wrote how many songs?

a. 800
b. 600
c. 1,500

 Where did Schubert spend his life?

a. Paris
b. Vienna
c. Salzburg

 Which of these did Schubert not write?

a. ‘Eroica’ Symphony
b. ‘Trout’ Quintet
c. Der Erlkönig

 Schubert was in awe of a great composer who lived in Vienna at the same time – who was it?

a. Mozart
b. Beethoven
c. Haydn

 Which of these did Schubert have least success with?

a. String quartets
b. Piano sonatas
c. Operas

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Schubert was only about 5 feet (152cm) tall: his friends nicknamed him ‘Schwammerl’, which means ‘Little Mushroom’!
  2. Schubert’s song-cycles were groundbreaking: the piano part was often descriptive, mimicking a spinning-wheel turning (Gretchen am Spinnrade) or a horse galloping (Erlkönig).
  3. Schubert was often desperate for money. He sold some of his greatest works for very little.
  4. Schubert adored Mozart’s music: ‘O Mozart! Immortal Mozart!’ he wrote.
  5. After Schubert died, great composers like Brahms and Mendelssohn discovered his music; Franz Liszt wrote many piano versions (‘transcriptions’) of his songs.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!


Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D. 485

Written in the autumn of 1816, this is for quite a small orchestra (strings, one flute, two oboes, two bassoon, two horns – no clarinets, trumpets or timpani). It has the same easy, flowing sound as Mozart’s symphonies. If you listen to the start of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 then the start of this, you might be able to tell that Schubert at this time was in love with Mozart’s music!

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550145

Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, ‘Unfinished’

Even though Schubert didn’t finish this symphony, it is classed as a masterpiece. The fact that it’s unfinished has given it a special mystery. So there are two movements, instead of the usual four for a symphony. From the start, we’re drawn into a gentle but sinister theme. Can you hear the pizzicato (plucking) cellos underneath? The clarinet melody joins in the mood, and the scene is set… but then the clouds clear for a songlike melody, begun by the cellos. This, more cheerful, is in a major key. It’s rudely interrupted by more music in a minor key at 1.59. And so the contrasts continue! The second movement, slower and calmer, also has pizzicato strings under the melody.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550145

Symphony No. 9 in C major, ‘Great’

A much longer symphony, this is rich in melody, sadness, happiness… it is judged to be Schubert’s greatest symphony. It was demanding for players of the time, and even when Mendelssohn tried to programme it in Paris in 1842 and London in 1844, he found orchestras that wouldn’t play it. Contrasting with the small orchestra he used for Symphony No. 5, this uses strings, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones and timpani.

Performers: Symphony Nova Scotia; Georg Tintner

Taken from Naxos 8.557234

Chamber Music

Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 114, D. 667, ‘Die Forelle’ (‘The Trout’)

This is one of Schubert’s most popular works, sunny and youthful in mood. He wrote it when he was 22. The fourth movement is based on his popular song, Die Forelle (‘The Trout’), so that is why the whole work has this name: the ‘Theme’ uses the tune of the song, and then each ‘Variation’ has a different instrument from the group in the spotlight to play a new version of that tune. Usually a piano quintet involves a piano plus a string quartet, but Schubert replaces one of the violins with a double bass. It seems to give the work more ‘oomph’!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; Kodály Quartet; István Tóth, double bass

Taken from Naxos 8.550658

String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810, ‘Death and the Maiden’

This is, perhaps, Schubert’s greatest string quartet (for two violins, viola and cello). It is a dark and passionate work, tragic in mood and based on his song Death and the Maiden. When Schubert wrote it in 1824, he had no money, had just suffered a serious illness, and realized that he was slowly dying. The whole work is filled with the darkness of those things, and shows how tragedy can spark great art.

Performers: Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550590

Piano Trio in E flat major, D. 929

This piano trio (for violin, cello and piano) is another of Schubert’s last masterpieces, and one of the few he actually heard performed. Contrasting moods succeed each other as if in battle. This is Romantic music far removed from the polite, emotionally balanced world of earlier 18th-century piano trios.

Performers: Stuttgart Piano Trio

Taken from Naxos 8.550132

String Quintet in C major, Op. 163, D. 956

This is a rather bleak chamber-music masterpiece. The slow movement is unbearably sad. Instead of a second viola to make a quintet, Schubert employs a second cello: this helps to create the sombre sound-world. He completed it two months before he died and it is difficult to avoid thinking it was his goodbye to the world.

Performers: Ensemble Villa Musica

Taken from Naxos 8.550388

Piano Music

Four Impromptus, D. 899

Schubert wrote two sets of ‘impromptus’, four in each. The title ‘impromptu’ began to be used in the Romantic era for a piece in a free form, in character a bit like an improvisation (music made up on the spot). It was the publisher who gave Schubert’s pieces this title. They have become extremely popular with pianists and listeners. The first sounds ominous though ends happily; the second sounds happy but ends in a storm; the third sounds full of regret; and the fourth is light and agile either side of its more forceful, heartfelt middle section. Which one is your favourite?

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553250

Six Moments Musicaux, D. 780 (excerpts)

These popular piano works by Schubert are similar in style to the impromptus. They are also popular – the third, in F minor, particularly so.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550259

Fantasy in C major, D. 760, ‘Wandererfantasie’

This ‘Wanderer Fantasy’ is one of Schubert’s piano masterpieces. It is unusually difficult to play for a Schubert piano piece. ‘The devil may play it,’ Schubert said, since he couldn’t! Liszt was inspired to transcribe it for orchestra. Schubert based the work on his song Der Wanderer. The start makes you sit up and listen, with its big heavy chords. The thunderous final movement shows what a challenge it is to play… but it’s fun to listen to!

Performers: Eldar Nebolsin, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572459

Piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat major, D. 960

A century ago this sonata wasn’t played very much, yet today it is seen as an important, brilliant piano work. Out of the astonishing rumbling at the beginning (0.25 then 1.03), a beautiful melody emerges. The piano seems to wake up, and become more determined. See if you can close your eyes, stay still and quiet, and listen to the second movement. There is a magic about this music – at every point it calls for the world to stop and listen, whether it is the limping, funereal opening theme, or the brave, singing section at 3.00. This whole work is Schubert’s farewell to the piano, and seems to come from someone with great experience of life, with its joys, pains, fears and beauty. But just think, he was only 31 when he died. He was still a young man. What wonderful things might he have written had he lived longer?

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553235


Gretchen am Spinnrade (‘Gretchen at the Spinning-Wheel’), D. 118

A gem from the teenage Schubert! It is based on part Part 1, Scene 18 of Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Gretchen is sitting at her spinning-wheel, expressing her longing for Faust. How does the piano music manage to create the idea of a spinning-wheel?

Performers: Tamara Takács, mezzo-soprano; Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550476

Die schöne Müllerin (‘The Fair Miller-Maid’), D. 795

This great song-cycle, written by Schubert when he was 26 years old, consists of 20 songs. It tells the story of a wandering miller who falls in love with a miller’s daughter. She goes off with someone else and the wandering miller drowns himself. The songs vary from cheery optimism to despair.

Performers: Christian Elsner, tenor; Ulrich Eisenlohr, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554664

Winterreise (‘Winter Journey’), D. 911

Schubert’s last song-cycle, written shortly before his death, is one of the most extraordinary and masterful song-cycles ever written – bleak, atmospheric and remarkable. Although it is in German and so the words may not be familiar to you, you can feel this ‘winter journey’ through the music. Schubert was near to death – a tragedy for anyone at 31 years old, and certainly for this penniless, unsung musical genius. The 24 songs describe an emotional journey that ends with the cold, lonely stillness of a lament for a man who plays the hurdy-gurdy (a folk instrument with strings that produce a sound when you turn a handle): ‘There, beyond the village, / Stands a hurdy-gurdy man, / And with his stiff fingers / He turns the handle as best he can. / Barefoot on the ice, / He sways to and fro / And his little plate / Always stays empty. / No-one wants to listen, / No-one looks at him, / And the dogs snarl / Around the old man…’

Performers: Roman Trekel, baritone; Ulrich Eisenlohr, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554471