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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Schubert's Last Year

This music [listen] is the final song in Winterreise - Winter Journey - a song cycle composed by Franz Schubert in 1827. Winterreise is one of the supreme achievements in song composition, a cycle of 24 songs portraying with agonising power the desolation of a man rejected by the woman he loves. [I devoted two earlier posts to this cycle, starting here.]

Song-writing was of course one of Schubert's greatest gifts and his more than 600 sings still rank as the pinnacle of that genre, but this cycle was something special, even for him.

Schubert completed Winterreise probably around the start of November in 1827. He was 30 and he had a year to live.

In a recent post I looked at Mozart's last year and shared the incredible journey of creativity he undertook in 1791. This journey gave the world some of the supreme masterpieces of musical art, including his last piano concerto, the clarinet concerto, the last string quintet, The Magic Flute, the unfinished Requiem and so much more. Mozart's death at the age of only 35 certainly robbed us of great things.

I'd long been aware of Benjamin Britten's assessment that Schubert's final year was the most miraculous year in the history of music. In response to this I made a list of the music he composed between the end of Winterreise and his death a year later and I was staggered at what I discovered. I want to share a little of this amazing legacy.

And right at the outset I want to say that I think Britten was right, pace Mozart.

Rieder: Franz Schubert (1825)

In the course of 1827 Schubert had been working on a piano trio, a form he'd paid little attention to until then. After finishing Winterreise he completed the trio which like the late string quartets is on a very large scale, taking about 40 minutes in performance. This trio, in B flat, had only a private performance in his lifetime but it's now regarded as one of the most important works of its kind. [listen]

As soon as he'd finished the B flat trio, Schubert started another, in E flat, which if anything is an even greater work than its predecessor. Both trios are supremely challenging to perform and they show him in complete mastery of his craft. The trios combine the function of chamber music as music for friends to play for pleasure with the place of chamber music as a vehicle for great and lasting artistic expression. The slow movement of the E flat trio begins with one of Schubert's most haunting, and famous, melodies. [listen]

The E flat trio was widely performed almost immediately and it heralded the start of what would have been a new era of fame and recognition for Schubert had he lived, one of a frustrating and tragic series of "what ifs" in relation to his final twelve months of life.

Throughout his creative life Schubert had devoted a great deal of attention to piano music. He was a good pianist, if not a great one. He clearly felt that he didn't have the skill to embark on a virtuoso performing career - as Beethoven had - but he played the piano parts of his songs and chamber music (and, one assumes, the solo works as well) at gatherings of friends, so he was clearly very capable at the keyboard nonetheless.

Klimt: Schubert at the Piano (1899)

The E flat trio, begun in November 1827, was followed by more works which feature the piano. A number of incomplete fragments of piano works survive from that time, but in the December he wrote the four impromptus, D935. An earlier set of four impromptus had been written a few months previously (the D899 set) and despite their title, these works are no trifles. The four impromptus of D935 take well over half an hour to perform; the earlier set isn't much shorter.

It was Robert Schumann who saw in the structure of the second set a cross-over between a set of four piano pieces and a four-movement piano sonata. The four pieces follow a key sequence which would be completely appropriate in a sonata, and they make serious technical demands on the player. [listen]

Written around the same time, and probably Schubert's last work of 1827, was the Fantasy in C for violin and piano, D934. Like the word "impromptu", "fantasy" may imply a light-weight work but again nothing could be further from the truth. Here he created a massive single movement in six connected sections which lasts nearly half an hour, and the technical demands on both violinist and pianist are considerable. The musicologist Alfred Einstein maintained that this piece is of such importance, and such weight, that it completely compensates for the fact that Schubert never wrote a violin concerto. [listen]

Having reached the end of 1827, and having looked at two months in which Schubert wrote several major works on a large scale, the question begs to be asked: why was he doing this?

Part of the problem with the composer is that so little is known about the details of his life. Schubert biographers have precious little to go on and it's no wonder that the field of Schubert scholarship is littered with myths, theories and occasional outrageous speculation.

But the evidence seems to indicate that while Beethoven was alive, Schubert - who never doubted his own talent for a moment - felt overshadowed by the most famous composer in Vienna, and probably in Europe. But with Beethoven's death in March of 1827 it seems that Schubert was wasting no time in seeking to stake his claim to be Beethoven's successor as the greatest living composer. To do this he had to write major works, get them performed, and above all get them published. Writing Winterreise seems to have been part of this plan, and the music of late 1827 shows that - in chamber music and piano music as well as song - Schubert was hanging out his shingle for all the world to see in works they couldn't possibly ignore.

It's clear that he was seeking to tackle every form in which Beethoven excelled. As well as this, he continued to write copiously in the forms in which he himself excelled but which Beethoven rarely tackled, such as lieder and music for piano four hands.

Music for piano four hands had, like two-hand piano music, been a constant in Schubert's life since his teenage years. In early 1828 he turned 31, and he produced two works in this form, one little-known today, the other very well known. The former is a set of eight variations on a theme from an opera called Marie by Ferdinand Hérold. Marie had been performed in Vienna in December 1827 and was a real hit with the public. Schubert's variations were written two months later and published quickly to capitalise on the opera's popularity. They seem to have sold well and were reviewed favourably in the press. [listen]

Schubert's variations are rarely heard today, but another work for piano four hands written at exactly the same time is one of his best-loved works: the Fantasy in F minor. As with the two piano trios, in the F minor Fantasy he managed to transcend the usual context for piano duets - convivial music-making at home - to create a sumptuously expressive work. He was perhaps the first composer to treat four-hand piano playing as a viable genre for artistic expression far beyond the usual domestic environs for such music. [listen]

Taking his cue again from Beethoven, Schubert planned to present - for the first time in his career - an entire concert of his own works in March of 1828. Originally scheduled for the 21st, the date was changed to the 26th so that it fell on the first anniversary of Beethoven's death. The event was quite a success both professionally and financially for Schubert and it included songs, part of the late G major string quartet and the entire E flat piano trio.

He also composed a work specially for the occasion, a song for voice, horn and piano called Auf dem Strom (On the River). [listen]

Schubert composed very little vocal music in the first half of 1828, but one such work does stand out as completely unique. Composed around the same time as Auf dem Strom is Miriams Siegesgesang (Miriam's Song of Victory). This setting of a lengthy poem by Franz Grillparzer wasn't performed until after Schubert's death and the reason for its composition remains a mystery. At nearly 20 minutes' duration, it's more a cantata than a song, scored for solo soprano, chorus and piano. The solo soprano part is dramatic and demanding; indeed at the first performance a suitable soprano couldn't be found and a tenor was substituted.

The poem describes the triumph of the Israelites as they cross the Red Sea and witness the destruction of the armies of Egypt, a well-known story from the Bible, and like many works from Schubert's last year it raises the tantalising question of what he might have done further in this vein had he lived. There is a body of opinion which suggests that the accompaniment was intended to be orchestrated, but the piano part is no mere reduction or sketch; the effects are very pianistic and attempts to arrange the accompaniment for orchestra over the years have not been successful. It seems Schubert intended the work for piano after all.

The shadow of the recently-deceased Beethoven hovers over this work, as does that of Handel, who had been dead for more than half a century but whose music was an enthusiasm of both Beethoven and Schubert. Was this a trial run for a proposed oratorio? We'll never know. [listen]

In May 1828 Schubert was again preoccupied by piano music, for two hands and for four. During this single month he produced the three Klavierstücke or piano pieces, D946, and two major four-hand works: the Allegro in A minor (called "The Storms of Life"), D947, and the Rondo in A, D951. The three pieces of D946 are on a large scale; together they take about 25 minutes to perform, and it's hard not to see with the benefit of hindsight that he was preparing to tackle yet another Beethoven stronghold, the piano sonata. Certainly the dark E flat minor opening piece of the set evokes Beethoven at his most turbulent and virtuosic. At the same time, it has a freedom about it which is pure Schubert. [listen]

As for the the two four-hand works, these are no miniatures either. Like the F minor Fantasia, "The Storms of Life" (at around 18 minutes) and the A major Rondo (at around ten) completely transcend the usual domestic context of piano duet music at the time. It's clear that Schubert was intent on forging a new path here as well, with four-hand works which are the technical and emotional equal of virtuoso music for piano two hands. They were in fact his last music for the the piano four hand medium. [listen]

At the beginning of June 1828 Schubert wrote a piece which is unique in his output: a fugue for organ four hands. He and his friend, the composer and organist Franz Lachner, set off on a two-day journey to Heiligenkreuz, where they hoped to hear the famous organ in the Cistercian monastery. En route they spent the night in Baden and Schubert proposed that they each write a fugue to perform on the organ the next day. According to Lachner, by midnight they'd finished, and at 6 the next morning they set off to complete their journey. Both fugues were played in the presence of a number of monks the next day.

Schubert's E minor fugue for organ four hands was published by Anton Diabelli as a work for piano four hands - and it works quite well on the piano - but Schubert's intention was that it be played on the organ. It's full of adventurous chromatic harmonies, again raising the question of what sort of harmonic language he might have developed had he not died less than six months after composing this extraordinary little work. [listen]

Eybl: Franz Schubert (1827)

In the remaining few months of his life, the pace of Schubert's creativity intensified, resulting in the creation of a number of universally admired masterpieces. In June and July he composed his sixth and final setting of the Mass, the Mass in E flat, D950. This lyrical and beguiling work, for chorus, five soloists and orchestra, is on a large scale in the Viennese tradition, taking nearly an hour in performance. The reason for its composition isn't known for certain; it may have been intended for the dedication of a church in the Viennese suburbs. What is certain is that here Schubert yet again broke new ground, managing to blend his own lyrical, tuneful style with the power and scale of the late Masses of Haydn and Beethoven. [listen]

In addition to this large-scale Mass, Schubert wrote a smaller, rather different religious work in July of 1828. As a result of his acquaintance with the Jewish baritone Salomon Sulzer, he produced a setting of Psalm 92, not in Latin or in German, but in Hebrew. It's one of his least-known vocal works and one of many examples of his engagement not only with Vienna's Jewish community but, in general, with viewpoints and traditions other than his own. The unaccompanied psalm setting is scored for solo baritone (intended for Sulzer), solo quartet and four-part choir. [listen]

For the first time since finishing Winterreise eight months before, Schubert started to re-engage with song writing in August 1828, setting texts by Rellstab and Heine which, after his death, would be printed as a cycle under the title of Schwanengesang (Swan Song). [I devoted an earlier post to this cycle, here.] The final songs show a consummate ease and economy of expression, and a level of distilled beauty which by now was completely normal for Schubert. [listen]

For a composer who is now regarded as one of the greats, it comes as a surprise to discover that we actually have very little solid biographical information about Schubert. Letters are the best primary source but most of the regularly-quoted reminiscences of his friends date from many years after his death, and they occasionally contradict each other. In his final year he was on the cusp of achieving real fame for the first time in his life, fame which would have gone far beyond his small circle of friends and admirers in Vienna. Had he lived, it's certain that biographical information about his first 30 years would have been collected and published. As it stands, there's very little to go on.

Even the nature and timing of his final illness is open to conjecture. It seems inconceivable that a man as creative and productive as Schubert was in his final years could have been ill, let alone fatally so. Yet most biographers seem to conclude that he contracted syphilis, probably in 1822. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that even among his closest friends, there was an understanding that he had a dark side; appetites and needs which many found distasteful. The theory, often put forward, that he was gay has very little to support it. On the other hand, the likelihood that he frequented brothels when drunk has much more corroborative evidence.

Whatever the cause and nature of his final illness - and tertiary syphilis seems the most likely - by late August 1828, after writing the Rellstab and Heine songs, he began to suffer more of the giddiness, headaches and nausea he'd experienced the previous summer. He'd been sharing an apartment inside the city walls with his friend Schober but on his doctor's advice he moved to stay with his brother, who lived just outside the city proper. It was felt the cleaner air would be better for him. Sadly, it was probably this move which hastened his death, as his brother's apartment was very damp and mouldy.

Schubert was still socially active, meeting friends as he always had, despite his illness. And he still composed. Actually, "still composed" is the understatement of the century. The following month, September 1828, saw him produce four massive works, every one of them an undoubted masterpiece. The composition of the last three piano sonatas and the C major string quintet in a single month under such circumstances has to be considered as one of the most staggering musical achievements of all time.

The final three sonatas rank as technical and intellectual challenges for any pianist. They each last around 40 to 50 minutes and they were clearly designed to continue Schubert's task (since the death of Beethoven the year before) to challenge Beethoven's legacy in every possible musical form. He'd done so in the piano trios, the solo piano works and the E flat Mass. Now he did so in the final piano sonatas, massive masterworks which can stand alongside Beethoven's own late sonatas.

The three sonatas are those in C minor, D958, A major, D959 and B flat major, D960. The C minor and A major sonatas support the notion that Schubert was declaring himself to be Beethoven's successor. Each movement seems to take a challenge from Beethoven's own works and then meet it head on. There are also moments where Schubert seems to peer into the abyss, to quote one writer. The demonic "death hunt" finale of the C minor sonata (a term coined by Dame Mitsuko Uchida) is a case in point. [listen]

In the final sonata though, the B flat, Schubert seems to leave Beethoven's world behind and move into new territory. The massive first movement - more than 20 minutes long and accounting for roughly half the entire sonata - is an exercise in unhurried, contemplative ecstasy. It's also ferociously difficult to make work in performance. [listen]

The fourth masterwork Schubert composed in September, after the three piano sonatas, was the C major string quintet. Here yet again we have a work of immense ingenuity, inventiveness and power on a large scale - it takes about an hour to perform - and for many people it's the greatest piece of chamber music ever written. As his last chamber work it more than fittingly crowns his achievements in this genre. But what would he have written in the years ahead had he lived…? [listen]

October 1828 saw Schubert compose his last works. On the 6th the composer, his brother and two other friends set off on a three-day walk to visit Joseph Haydn's tomb at Eisenstadt. Given his fragile health we can only assume that this 50 km round trip left Schubert exhausted. Yet on his return he was occupied with the composition of at least five new works.

The beautiful showpiece for soprano, clarinet and piano called Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) was written at this time. It was intended for the Berlin-based soprano Anna Milder-Hauptmann. This little operatic scene again crosses boundaries, with a mixture of sublime melody and operatic showiness. The opening is the perfect example of the former, while the ending provided Madame Milder-Hauptmann with the opportunity to display her coloratura abilities. [listen]

The October of 1828 saw Schubert also produce his last two sacred works, a setting of Tantum ergo and an Offertorium, Intende voci. The Offertorium is scored for tenor, choir and orchestra, with a prominent solo oboe part. Again, its purpose isn't known, but interestingly, like the E flat Mass, the orchestra doesn't make use of flutes, which may indicate a particular feature of the available instruments in a local church. It displays the apparent ease of Schubert's melodic writing in his final works, but like many of his sacred works is rarely heard today. [listen]

Schubert's last-completed symphony had been the one now known as the "Great" C major symphony. Its date of composition isn't known for certain but it might have been begun around 1825 and finished as late as 1828. But if we assume that his incredible efforts to write major works in the genres favoured by Beethoven were designed to place himself at the forefront of the musical world after Beethoven's death, then we might expect that he had more symphonic projects on his mind in his final months. After all, Beethoven had revolutionised the symphony and already in 1828, the year after his death, his symphonies were casting long shadows over musical Europe.

After the "Great" C major symphony Schubert was indeed planning a new symphony, one that in its own way would be completely new and move beyond Beethoven's models. He started work on a new symphony, in D major, at the end of his life, but only sketches remained. What these might have become is anyone's guess, but it seems that he was planning for this work to be in three movements, in which the third combined aspects of both the scherzo and the finale. It's believed by many authorities nowadays that the D major symphony (sometimes called "No 10") was the last new music Schubert was working on before he died.

The composer, pianist and academic Brian Newbould has worked extensively on the various unfinished symphonic sketches Schubert left and has written a realisation of the D major sketches to give an idea of how they might have sounded. Newbould himself is the first to admit that we have no idea what changes Schubert might have made to the sketches or how his ideas might have developed. But his realisation gives us a tantalising glimpse of what he did leave, and of what might have been. [listen]

At the end of October Schubert fell seriously ill after eating fish at a tavern. Many medicines were prescribed and he was increasingly confined to bed. Amazingly, despite all the music he had written and his obvious talents, he felt he needed to take lessons in counterpoint. On 4 November he had the first of what he expected would be a series of counterpoint lessons with Simon Sechter, a composer, conductor and organist a few years younger than Schubert who had already developed a reputation as an excellent teacher of theory and counterpoint. (Sechter was later famously to teach Anton Bruckner for six years.) It was the only lesson they had together.

Simon Sechter (1840)

On 12 November Schubert confessed in a letter to Schober that he hadn't eaten or drunk anything for 11 days. In his words, "I totter feebly and shakily from my chair to my bed and back again". He couldn't keep anything down and he increasingly lapsed into periods of delirium. The famous Schuppanzigh Quartet, who had premiered Beethoven's late quartets, came to play by his bed on the 14th. They played Beethoven's late C sharp minor quartet, very likely the last music Schubert heard.

In his final days Schubert's mental state oscillated rapidly between delirium and complete lucidity. When he wasn't delirious he worked on correcting the proofs for the publication of Part 2 of Winterreise. But soon he couldn't do even that. On 19th November he died, two and a half months before his 32nd birthday.

Schubert also wrote one more song in October 1828, his last. Die Taubenpost is a gentle, genial song about a carrier pigeon and thoughts of love. When his final settings of Rellstab and Heine poems were collated by his publisher after his death into Schwanengesang it was found that they totalled 13. It may be that, in order to avoid this unlucky number, the publisher appended Die Taubenpost to the set, even though it seems out of place.

Still, it seems fitting that Schubert's last song should be at the end of this last cycle, even if it isn't a cycle in the normal sense of the term. [listen]

Franz Schubert's final year left the world an embarrassment of musical riches which crown a short life's work which is itself an embarrassment of riches. It's impertinent to ask "what if", as if we aren't satisfied with the nearly 1,000 works he did leave. Yet I can't help wondering (as I do with Mozart and others who died absurdly young): what would another 20 or 30 years have given us?

Then I come to my senses and realise we should be grateful for the miracles we have. It seems to me that Schubert's music itself is described at the end of his final song:

Sehnsucht!...Die Botin treuen Sinns.

Longing!...The messenger of a constant soul.

Schubert's glasses

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2015.

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peter heiman
peter heiman
May 03, 2023

Excellent account of this miraculous year. Britten was certainly correct; in my opinion it’s not even close. I wonder though if Beethoven’s death is the complete explanation.

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