Franz Schubert:  The Man & His Music

Franz Schubert: The Man & His Music

World renowned cellist Steven Isserlis once said: “How does one explain Schubert? The simple answer is – one can't.”  When Schubert died, at the age of 31, he left behind over 1,500 pieces of music. Of those pieces of music, around 600 of them were Lied (songs). His output includes 21 piano sonatas, string quartets, piano quintets, symphonies and his famed octet. Schubert’s music always holds a number of places in the Top 100 Classical lists. Each year there are many of Schubert’s pieces in the ABC Classics Top 100 (as voted by the listeners). So, what is it about Schubert’s music that touches the soul and enlightens the spirit? 

Schubert was a small, frail man, who loved being amongst his friends. It was Schubert’s music that would change music history and during his very short lifetime, he composed some of the most sublime pieces of music that are loved and adored by all. However, when he was alive his music was only known to a small circle of friends and fans in Vienna (a place he rarely left and resided his whole life). It would have been a rare treat to know of Schubert’s music while he was alive as Schubert himself only ever gave one public performance of his music. Yet after his death, his music has touched the lives of millions of people. 
Schubert led only a short life, dying of typhoid just before his 32nd birthday. He had known for some time that he was ill and this is perhaps the reason why there is such a prolific catalogue of works left behind, all of them transcendent. In Schubert’s music, you can hear a whole life encapsulated in one musical phrase, one gesture, one harmony. It’s all there, laid out for the listener and he invites you into his music and wants to engage with you on a very personal and intimate level. 

Now, you have the chance to hear two of his most iconic works presented by some of the finest musicians from Australia and abroad. Omega Ensemble presents “Schubert’s Trout” in their next concert at City Recital Hall.  Before you attend Omega’s concert and witness two of these sublime works live, here is an introduction and a guide to his music. Get to know some of the most remarkable works from Schubert, who is one of the true greats the late Classical and early Romantic eras.


String Quintet in C Major, D.956 

Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, sometimes called the "Cello Quintet" because it is scored for a standard string quartet plus an extra cello instead of the extra viola which is more usual in conventional string quintets, was composed in 1828 and completed just two months before the composer's death.
From the first three bars of this piece, we are shown Schubert’s full emotional range. Those long, sustained chords, outlining the harmony say it all. Just listen to the first chords and you are thrust into musical heaven, as they beckon you to ‘come with me’ on a journey through this masterpiece. This was Schubert’s final chamber work, and in it, he encapsulates the sublime. He used the key of C major and looked back to Mozart and Beethoven who also wrote String Quartets in C. 

Listen to the sublime Adagio that is the second movement. It shifts between the tranquil and the turbulent, demonstrating Schubert’s ability to shade light and dark effectively. 


Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 664

Schubert composed his Piano Sonata in A major when he was residing in the Austrian countryside, circa 1819. The piece exudes the relaxation of the country and the opening, in A major, breathes the ‘fresh-air’ of the open space. It’s a beautifully lyrical and melodic sonata that is a favourite amongst pianists. The song-like quality of the melody floats over the lush accompaniment. The carefree nature of the work is interrupted by introspective and sad moments, before returning to the fresh air of nature. 


Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, “Unfinished”

Schubert’s Symphony No.8 in B minor is more commonly known as the “Unfinished,” is largely referred to as the first Romantic style symphony in that it creates lyrical impulse and yearning within the context of the classical sonata form. It is one of Schubert’s most loved instrumental works, and there has been much speculation about why he didn’t finish the work. After the premiere of the Symphony in 1865, the music critic Hanslick wrote: 
“When, after a few introductory bars, clarinet and oboe sound una voce a sweet melody on top of the quiet murmuring of the strings, any child knows the composer and a half-suppressed exclamation "Schubert" runs hummingly through the hall. He has hardly entered, but it is as if you knew his steps, his very way of opening the door...”


 “Gretchen am spinnrade", op.2, D.118

This piece is a lied (song), scored for soprano and piano. It was composed just three months before Schubert’s eighteenth birthday. The text is taken from Goethes’ Faust. The piece opens with Gretchen sitting at her spinning wheel, thinking of Faust and his promises. The key of D minor enhances the feeling of Gretchen’s longing and the repeated patterns in the piano signify the spinning wheel going around and around, while the left hand of the piano imitates the foot pedal, entering in a steady rhythm. The piece is extremely dramatic and moving. It develops this drama through changing tonalities and it reaches its climax when Gretchen thinks of Faust’s kiss. The piece ends with the same spinning pattern signifying the monotonous pattern of her chores. This small song has all the drama of a symphony and within contains the utmost reflection of Schubert’s thoughts, feelings and display of his craft. In this song, Schubert makes time stand still, as does most of his music. 

Famed pianist and virtuoso, Franz Liszt, transcribed many of Schubert’s songs for solo piano, and they effectively capture the imagination of Schubert, even without the lyrics. The emotional outpouring is still present, and from the very first opening bars of the spinning wheel, a door opens and we enter Schubert’s musical world. 


Ave Maria

And, of course, where would the history of music be without the famed Ave Maria. When you hear this music, it will pull at your heart strings immediately. It is one of the most popular classical pieces of music and has been sung by every known and acclaimed opera star, with voice and piano alone, chamber orchestra, full orchestra and various other settings. Schubert loved this piece and often performed it. In fact, it was so popular during Schubert’s time that it was one of the only pieces published during his lifetime. 


In just a few notes, Schubert beckons you to enter his world. In just a few notes he put his life on display, with all his feelings and emotions and within just a few notes of music he opens the heavens and reveals, through music, his view of paradise. What sublime magic that transcends. 

There is no better way to enjoy Schubert’s music than in an intimate setting with friends. Appropriately, Schubert’s songs and his chamber music are the closest representation of his personality, and to get close to them in a live performance is indeed a treat for any lover of fine music. Get a glimpse of paradise when you listen to the music of Schubert in all its divine glory, masterfully played by one of Sydney’s most acclaimed chamber music ensembles. On July 27, at the City Recital Hall, Omega Ensemble will present Schubert’s Piano Quintet “The Trout”, and his acclaimed Octet. This is a great opportunity to experience the magnificence of Schubert. 

Samuel Cottell

Samuel Cottell is a multi-verstalie musician (pianist, arranger and composer), writer, music journalist (Leader Writer -Cut Common Mag, Fine Music Magazine, Music and Literature, Jazz Australia and Australian Jazz.org), and biographer. Samuel is also an music educator and currently tutors music theory and analysis in the Arts Music Unit, Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Samuel is currently undertaking his PhD (Musicology) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he is researching the life and music of Tommy Tycho. Samuel has also been published in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and has interviewed world-acclaimed musicians Renee Flemming, Steven Isserlis, Maxim Vengerov, Stuart Skelton and local musicians Daniel Rojas,  Simon Tedeschi and Katie Noonan. As well as these activities Samuel is in demand as a program note writer (Nexas Saxophone Quartet) and gives pre-concert talks for The Grevillea Ensemble and appeared on Radio National's "RareCollections" talking about Tommy Tycho's recording career and contribution to music.