Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The premiere of what is often dubbed “the first opera…” Spoiler alert: it’s not.
Franz Peter Schubert’s parents, Franz Theodor and Maria Elisabeth, were wise to get to church as soon as possible after his birth on January 31, 1797. It was very common for children to die young, as eight of the couple’s eleven elder children had. So the very next day, they rushed to a church in the Viennese suburb of Himmelpfortgrund, where they lived, and had Franz Peter baptized. Maria Elisabeth was 40, and would go on to have two more children—one of whom, Maria Theresia, would survive.
Life in the Viennese suburbs was not how you might imagine it today—not for the Schuberts, at least. His parents had met in the Imperial City, but neither were from there originally: they had both emigrated from the north of the Austrian Empire. Franz Theodor was a schoolteacher: not a well paid profession. The whole family lived in a single room, in a house by the name of “Zum roten Krebsen” (The Red Crayfish) which also housed Franz Theodor’s school.
Franz Peter’s elder brother Ignaz gave him his first piano lessons—not that he had much need for lessons. “After barely a few months, he announced to me that he now had no further use for my teaching and would henceforth continue on his own,” Ignaz later recalled. He similarly outstripped the local choirmaster, Michael Holzer, with whom he also had lessons. “Whenever I wished to impart something new to him, he always knew it already. I was often left gaping at him in silence,” he said, according to another brother, Ferdinand.
It was clear that the Schuberts needed to do more to support Franz Peter’s talent. So in 1804 they went to the famed Antonio Salieri. The young child not only performed for Salieri but also showed him some compositional efforts. Salieri was impressed, and recommended that the boy should become a chorister at court as soon as he turned 11. Entry into the court chapel choir also came with a scholarship at the grammar school. It was the young Franz Peter’s ticket to a brighter future.
You could say the rest was history, except that Franz Peter did not become the spectacular success that might have been expected. On leaving school, he made a sensible though unambitious decision to return home and train as a teacher, not expecting to be able to survive through composition alone. He was soon working at his father’s school.
His career after that progressed in fits and starts. He tired of teaching after a few years and did pursue the life of a professional composer, achieving some success—but not as much as he might have done, and certainly not enough to justify the exhausting, caffeine-and-tobacco-fueled hours he kept at his composing desk. Worse still, he contracted syphilis. Schubert’s friend Franz von Schober attributed his illness to “excessively indulgent sensual living and its consequences.”
That was probably around 1823. He would die, aged a mere 31, in 1828.
Thankfully, he left plenty of music behind him: symphonies, religious music, chamber music, and—of course—songs. There are too many amazing works to mention, but the song cycle Winterreise is a wonderful place to start. So are the “Unfinished” Symphony, or the “Trout” Quintet, or the String Quintet, extracts from which are above and below, with its exquisitely slow, subtle, poignant second movement.