Schubert's parents met in Vienna, driven there by the financial crises which have ever propelled people from the provinces to seek an improvement in their fortunes in the big city. The composer's father Franz Theodor Schubert arrived in Vienna in about 1783. He came from a farming family in the parish of Neudorf in North Moravia and followed his elder brother Karl who, five years earlier, had taken up the career of a schoolmaster in the Leopoldstadt suburb of the Imperial capital. Franz Theodor found a similar job in the Liechtental district and married at the age of 25; by entering the profession of schoolmaster, he bettered himself considerably. Apart from the fact that his wife was seven months pregnant when he married her, his life seems to have been a model of rectitude and order; he was in every respect a typically God-fearing and law-abiding citizen of the Biedermeier age. The ability of his son Franz Schubert to apply himself to his musical tasks with determination, humility and discipline seems to be the legacy to the composer from that side of the family.
Schubert's relations on his mother's side are perhaps more fascinating. It seems more than likely that the composer's imaginative genius (if such a thing can be said to be anything but a God-given gift) came to him from his Vietz relations—and it is there that we also find the family skeleton in the cupboard. His mother Elizabeth Vietz was born in Zuckmantel in Silesia, a town in the mountainous border country between Poland and Czechoslavakia. She was the daughter of one Franz Johann Vietz, a highly respected locksmith and gunmaker. Two hundred years before, the family had been established as blacksmiths of the town. Johann Vietz was especially proud to have followed a family tradition as head toastmaster to the guild of locksmiths. He was entrusted with the guild's monies, and this led to his downfall. The Seven Years War between Austria and Prussia dealt harshly with the trades of Zuckmantel's citizens and Franz Johann was found with his hand in the till. He was stripped of his office and was lucky to escape torture and execution. The trust and support of the guild was paramount to the master craftsmen of the time and it is not difficult to imagine the utter humiliation of the highly respected Vietz family. Johann fled from his home town and made for the anonymity of Vienna; he died in penury soon after he had arrived there. His wife, née Elisabeth Riedl, Schubert's maternal grandmother, travelled with the three children to join her husband in his uncertain fate. She did not survive the journey. The son Felix became a weaver perforce, and his two sisters settled with him in Liechtental (famous as a weaving district) and were put into domestic service. It was thus that Elisabeth Vietz arrived in Vienna in 1770 at the age of thirteen. She was twenty-eight (three years older than her bridegroom) when Franz Theodor Schubert married her in 1785. There is no record of what she had gone through in the interim to survive without the support of parents, but it seems she bore her fate with cheerful equanimity. Her education would have been rudely interrupted in girlhood, but a reversal of her family's fortunes might have strengthened her fantasy and imagination. Schubert's ability to relate music to words might well have been a Vietz legacy; there is no evidence of this poetic talent in his father whose personality seems to have been prosaic, if always dutiful. Unfortunately we know next to nothing about the composer's relationship to his mother, or the stories that she might have told him in his boyhood. Even more fascinating might have been the 'Songs my mother taught me' in the old country, and which might well have been the first melodies heard by Franz Schubert; certainly an eastern European colour comes easily to his music when he chooses to summon it.
I doubt whether the solid lower middle class schoolmaster Schubert, who ruled over a little world where everyone knew their place, would have allowed his wife to forget her family's disgrace. The grandfather who went to the bad must have been a family parable in the Schubert household—the sort of thing brought out from time to time by the schoolmaster (in private of course, for the neighbours were not to hear) to taunt his wife with the lapses of their sons—'That's your side of the family', whatever 'that' may have been—perhaps the anti-church feelings of the eldest son Ignaz (born in 1785, only seven weeks after the marriage), or young Franz's difficulties in accepting his father's authority. This was an age which did not understand the concept of DNA, but which was very aware of 'bad blood'. Whatever the state of grandfather Vietz's blood, he was an inventive master craftsman, and probably the most gifted of the composer's immediate forbears.
Franz Schubert was born on 31 January 1797, in the twelfth year of the marriage, and a year after his father had moved from Liechtental to the schoolhouse in the Himmelpfortgrund—the site of the present Schubert Museum in the Nussdorferstrasse in Vienna's ninth district. The move was not necessarily for the better and Schubert père tried to find other jobs without success. The school (in reality nothing more than the Schuberts' living quarters daily adapted to classroom use) was in rather a rough district, with few pupils. Franz Theodor had to take in poor students for nothing in order to build up his reputation as a teacher. The visitor of today marvels at the small amount of space for a family (let alone a school) of a large number of children, some of them ill and dying, and some of them orphans taken in from dead relatives. (For a full list of the Schubert children, and the many who died in infancy, see the essay 'Death and the Composer', Volume 11.) In these cramped conditions young Franz grew up. On his fourth birthday (31 January, 1801) a levy was paid by the school for the defence against the advancing Napoleon; the uncertain atmosphere of imminent war and occupation, together with an attendant shortage of food, must certainly been the background of Schubert's early years. From 1801 the family had slightly more spacious accommodation and from the age of six Franz attended his father's school where he received an adequate, if hardly distinguished, education. According to the memoirs of Schubert's father, Franz took his first singing lessons from Michael Holzer, the choirmaster at the Liechtental parish Church.
A signed letter from Antonio Salieri has come to light in the last five years which reveals that 'Francesco Schubert, mezzo soprano' (as Salieri has it) had auditioned as early as 1804 for a place as a singer in the Court Chapel. The distinguished Schubert scholar Ernst Hilmar believes that Franz Theodor had been in touch with Salieri personally about his seven-year-old son. This is a fascinating new piece of information because so little is known about the composer's childhood; it proves that Schubert showed musical promise at an early age, and that he must already have been a competent reader and accomplished singer. The audition over which Salieri presided seems to have been something of a preliminary examination to keep track of talent for the future. The competition proper for a choral scholarship, in which Schubert was one of three successful candidates, took place four years later in 1808. This is fully described in Deutsch's Documentary Biography. The eleven-year-old Schubert became a member of the famous institution known today as the Vienna Boys' Choir—the establishment which was charged with the providing of religious music in the Imperial Household, and which still sings Mass on Sundays in the Hofburg. Scholarships to this Imperial and Royal Seminary, or the Konvikt as it was known, provided a good education for boys from a healthy mix of backgrounds in return for their vocal services. Such a scholarship would have greatly eased the financial burdens in the Schubert household, which perhaps explains the father's efforts to be in touch with Salieri. Early choral training has changed the life of many an aspiring musician. William Walton, also the son of a teacher, was awarded, also at the age of ten, a choral scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford. From then on he found himself in another world of friends and contacts: he was never really at one with his North of England background again. Walton met the Sitwells (Sacheverell and Osbert) at Oxford, and at the Imperial Konvikt Schubert met the Spauns (Max and Josef). Through these brothers, or their friends, both composers met almost everyone else who was to matter in their creative lives. One cannot imagine what direction either composer's career would have taken without this move to another environment at an early age. What would have happened had Schubert not been able to study with Antonio Salieri, had he not had the opportunity to learn about an orchestra at first hand, had he not had the admiring and encouraging ears of young fellow-pupils who were the first to acknowledge his song-writing genius, and had he not laid, in these years, the foundations of a network of friends which was to sustain him throughout his life?
The year 1809 was notable for the re-entry of Napoleon into Vienna in early May, and the death of Josef Haydn on 31st. At the end of Schubert's first year at the Konvikt in October, the report marks him out as a 'special musical talent', commending his singing and piano and violin playing as 'very good'. The non-musical studies, Latin and mathematics in particular, remained his Achilles' heel. By September 1811, Schubert was being singled out for special praise for application to his musical studies by the Lord High Stewart's Office. The piano teacher Wenzel Ruzicka was reputed to have remarked of him 'This one's learned it from God'. The Deutsch catalogue begins to chronicle Schubert's compositions from as early as 1810 (a Fantasie in G for piano duet, D1). By the standards of Mozart and Benjamin Britten, Schubert was hardly an early beginner, but it is possible that earlier works from the pre-Konvikt days have been lost. From 1811 come the first songs, including Der Vatermörder D10 (on this disc), although it is significant that chamber music (a lost string quartet and an overture for string quintet) seemed to interest him more at this stage. The composition of string quartets was to remain the most substantial achievement of these years. Schubert's first visits to the opera house to hear works by Weigl in 1811, and in the following season works by Mozart, Cherubini, Boieldieu and Isouard (see essay 'Schubert and the Theatre' in Volume 9) proved to be a turning point. It seems that it was the sound of actual singers' voices which inspired the composer to turn his attentions more strongly to vocal music. His first opera Der Spiegelritter, D11 (of which only the first act was completed) dates from this time.
In May 1812 Schubert's mother died at the age of fifty-five from Nervenfieber—'nerve fever' was a general term covering a number of illnesses, but in this case it probably meant typhoid. A few weeks later the young composer embarked on a course of counterpoint lessons with Antonio Salieri. This was a sign that the teachers at the Konvikt had decided that Schubert was talented enough to study with the boss. He visited the old maestro twice a week and worked on setting Italian texts in various ways. In July 1812 his voice broke: he wrote at the end of an alto part of a Mass in C major by Peter Winter (1754-1825) 'Schubert, Franz, crowed for the last time, 26th July 1812.' Perhaps as a result of the disruptive effects of puberty, the report for September 1812 has demoted his 'Morals' from 'Very Good' to merely 'Good'. The first extant letter from Schubert was sent to one of his elder brothers (probably Ferdinand who was acknowledged as head of the family after the father) asking for money to buy extra food to make life at the Konvikt more bearable. It is significant that Schubert did not dare ask his father for more money, but his letter to his brother is lively and inventive—it liberally quotes the scriptures in support of his plea for charity (lines from St Paul to the Romans, and St Luke's Gospel) and merrily ascribes them to the Apostle Matthew. Over the Christmas holidays of this year, for the amusement of his chums, he re-fashioned, indeed re-composed, Die Advokaten, a comic trio on the subject of wrangling for money by a composer called Fischer.
The papers from the year 1813 published in the Documentary Biography of Deutsch are mainly bureaucratical exchanges between officials establishing that Schubert was to be permitted to stay on at the Konvikt after his voice broke. There were various scholarships for students who had distinguished themselves during their student years as boy sopranos, and Schubert was judged a worthy recipient of such an award. During the academic year, however, he slipped into the second grade in mathematics. Encouraged by his meeting with the poet Theodor Körner (see introduction to Volume 4) Schubert had decided to dedicate his life to composition, and his school work suffered the consequences. This came to the attention of the Emperor Franz himself who signed a resolution warning that 'singing and music are but a subsidiary matter, while good morals and diligence in study are of prime importance.' Less than a month later, Schubert had resigned his place at the Konvikt. We are not absolutely certain why, although it seems to have flustered and surprised the authorities. It is likely that the composer's father had decided that it was time for the sixteen-year-old boy to think of a proper career as a schoolteacher; the longer young Franz remained outside his father's establishment, the longer Franz Theodor had to pay good money to employ someone outside the family. Accordingly, Schubert was enrolled as a pupil at the Normal High School of St Anna, a type of teachers' training college. How enthusiastic he was at this stage about the life envisaged for him by his father, we do not know. He was perhaps relieved to get away from a tense atmosphere at the Konvikt, where he was in fact on probation to improve his grades in subjects uncongenial to him. Throughout his life, gentle and unassuming as he was in some ways, Schubert became defiant and non-cooperative when he felt even the suggestion of the bullying hand of authority. His ambivalent attitude to religion and the authority of the church begins in this period with the report on his first year at the teaching college where subjects such as spelling, reading and calligraphy are marked as 'good', and religion is the only subject which is unequivocally 'bad'. And yet we are also told that at this time Schubert wrote an ode, in the style of Klopstock, praising God's omnipotence. This has not survived; what has come down to us is a contemplative poem on the subject of 'Time' and the transitory nature of life. In Auf dem Wasser zu singen (Volume 11) and An Schwager Kronos Schubert was to find, and set unforgettably to music, greater poems than his own on this topic. He continued his lessons with Salieri and, apart from the trios and canons written as exercises for his teacher, compositions from the year included the First Symphony in D major (D82), a great deal of church music, orchestral minuets and German dances and a number of songs, including the first setting of Schiller's Thekla, D73—an arresting experiment in recitative (Volume 1)—and the first version of the monumental ballad Der Taucher, D77 with a text by the same poet (Volume 2). The most substantial work of 1813 was the three-act opera Des Teufels Lustschloss, D84, to a text of August von Kotzebue.
After almost a year of mourning, Schubert's father married for a second time on 25 April 1813. His new bride was Anna Kleyenböck, at 29 years of age, twenty years younger than her bridegroom. She was reputedly kind to her stepson Franz, giving him extra money from her housekeeping. In September 1813, Schubert composed a cantata, a trio with guitar accompaniment, in honour of his father's name-day. The poem (Schubert's own, in the rather elevated style of a young man's rhetoric) has a number of classical references; we are reminded that he had had some training at the Konvikt in Latin and Greek even before he came under the influence of the classicist Mayrhofer.
The first half of 1814 seems to have been taken up with studies at the training college for teachers, but many songs were nevertheless written. The composer had already attempted a text by Matthisson in 1812 (two versions of Der Geistertanz, both on this disc) following this with one setting in 1813 (Die Schatten also on this disc), but in 1814 he discovered Matthisson in earnest and composed thirteen settings by this poet who was still very much alive—he was to outlive Schubert—and was the most important literary influence on the young composer before Goethe. It was in May 1814 that Schubert reputedly sold his school books to hear a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at the Kärtnertor Theatre. In September he completed a String Quartet (in B flat, D112) in a matter of four and a half hours—so he proudly tells us at the bottom of his manuscript. In October 1814 Schubert conducted two performances of his first Mass in F major (D105) with Therese Grob, in all probability, as soprano soloist. It was Therese who was the composer's first love and whom he later wished to marry; he was prevented from doing so by his lowly financial prospects. The first performance of the Mass was at the Liechtental parish church, a few minutes' walk from Schubert's home in the Säulengasse. Salieri was present, a measure of the interest that he took in the activities of his pupil. The second performance in St Augustine's Court Church was attended by foreigners who were in Vienna for the Congress which was deciding the future of Europe. Even through the sceptical spectacles of Schubert's father, Franz's future seemed to be rosy; at a very precocious age he had conducted one of his own works in public, and he was preparing for a decent career (most important in the father's eyes) as a schoolmaster. With our advantage of hindsight we can find reason for greater rejoicing: it was in November 1814 that Schubert made his first acquaintance with the poetry of Goethe (the three Goethe settings on this disc, Nachtgesang, Sehnsucht and Trost im Thränen, followed in the train of the immortal Gretchen am Spinnrade), and it was in December 1814, the month that he began his Second Symphony, D125, that he met Johann Mayrhofer, a poet ten years his senior who was to have a marked influence on his life and music.
It is perhaps only after the encounter with Goethe that most people begin to recognise the Schubert that they know and love. It is as if Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkönig announce the birth of a composer perfectly formed and miraculously accomplished. This is of course to misunderstand the genesis of genius. There are those who prefer to meet their composers already perfect, like children who are banished to the nursery until their table talk is convincingly adult. But what is true of one's own children is also true of young composers—a child can only learn to speak intelligently when copying its elders. We all delight in the originality and truths that children begin to contribute to the conversation, their very own spark burning suddenly brighter at the most unexpected times, but we cannot expect instant maturity and independence from ideas borrowed from others. So it is with the early Schubert. Although he astonishes us from time to time in his childhood, he is denied the uncanny mastery of the young Mozart, who establishes an independent voice at a much earlier age. Schubert develops in a way that seems nearer reality. It is a progress that seems more like our own than the incomprehensibility of the Mozartian meteor. The Schubertian miracle is no less profound, but we fancy we can better trace whence it comes.
One of the most amusing things about children is their insistence on being old before their time, modelling themselves on their heroes or heroines in the only way that they know how, by imitation and theft of manner. It is a miracle of music that Mozart seldom seems to have overreached himself in this way. Schubert's case is more typical of most children: he aspires (sometimes with comical results) to the grandeur of adulthood. Translated into the musical world of the early nineteenth century, this means the manner of Beethoven, or whichever other composer was the divinity in the young composer's pantheon. But let us not begrudge Schubert his first contributions to the musical debate. Our patience with and understanding of these early works is amply rewarded when we discover that they were the means whereby Schubert worked through and beyond the stereotypes of manhood. In the greatness of his adult years he no longer needs to wear a false beard. At the end, he is free to give us music that is luminous with all the spontaneity and vulnerability of childhood. It was inevitable and necessary that he should pass through a phase of earnest adult imitation in his early years, and in the first songs we hear a race with his older contemporaries. In essence, he ran before he walked. In the songs of Schubert's full maturity he has achieved his own pace; once he has found his heavenly gait, he walks in a land of his own making. It is said that the child is father to the man, but like a number of the greatest artists, Schubert the adult fostered the child in his own soul. The songs on this disc were first steps in the discovery of the well-spring of eternal youth which irrigates and nourishes even the dark works of the later years, and preserves them for all time in a spirit of child-like wonder.
Graham Johnson © 1991