Biography of Austrian Composer Franz Schubert: His Life and Music

The composer left a lasting musical legacy despite his short life

Portrait of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder
Portrait of Franz Schubert.

Watercolor by Wilhelm August Rieder, 1825.

Franz Peter Schubert (January 31, 1797–November 19, 1828) was one of the prominent composers of the Classical and Romantic eras. Although his life and career were relatively short, his musical contributions have been long-lasting. After his death, Schubert became one of the best-known and most critically acclaimed composers of the 19th century.

Fast Facts: Franz Schubert

  • Occupation: Composer, musician
  • Born: January 31, 1797 in Vienna, Austria
  • Died: November 19, 1828 in Vienna, Austria
  • Education: Stadtkonvikt (Imperial Seminary)
  • Notable Works: Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 (Trout Quintet); Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 (Unfinished Symphony)

A Musical Childhood

Born in Vienna, Franz was the twelfth child of his parents, Franz and Maria. The family was Catholic. The elder Franz Schubert, who came from a family of Czech peasants, was a schoolmaster in the local parish. Maria, a locksmith’s daughter, had worked as a maid before marrying. Although Franz was the couple’s twelfth child (of fourteen), only five of their children survived infancy.

As a young boy, Franz received piano lessons from his older brother Ignaz. He was enrolled in his father’s parochial school by age six. Within a few years, Franz also picked up the violin. He joined a choir, and impressed local teachers with his prodigious natural talent for music. By the time he was eleven, he was admitted to the Imperial Seminary on a music scholarship. Franz also caught the attention of Antoni Salieri, a prominent and influential composer and musician of the time.

At the Imperial Seminary, Franz received private instruction in music theory and composition from Salieri, who regarded the boy as a potential musical genius. Franz was given the privilege of leading the seminary's orchestra—the first orchestra he composed for. At the age of sixteen, Franz composed his first symphony, his Symphony no. 1 in D Major.

Struggling Schoolteacher

Franz Schubert trained as a teacher and, in 1814, returned home to teach at his father’s school, taking on the youngest pupils in the parish. Although he continued to take lessons from Salieri, Schubert was wildly unhappy.

His misery was only compounded when his first love came to an unhappy end. In 1814, he met a soprano named Therese Grob and fell in love with her. In fact, he wrote several of his works with her in mind, and she sang some of his music in the parish. However, there was a strict law in place at the time that required men applying for marriage licenses to prove they could financially support a family. Schubert's application to a music teaching post in Slovenia had recently been rejected, and he was unable to propose to Therese. She married a baker a few years later.

Musically, 1815 was a prolific year for Schubert, and he continued to make friends among other musicians. However, his years as a schoolteacher were marked by intense unhappiness, possibly rising to the level of depression. Franz von Schober, a fellow musician, invited Franz to move into his lodgings so that he could finally leave his father’s house. Franz accepted, and once he had moved, he began focusing more than ever on his compositions. Along the way, he also met several friends such as Johann Michael Vogl and Joseph Huttenbremmer, who would later become great proponents of his music.

This period did not last long. By 1817, Schubert was teaching again, this time at his father’s new school in a different district of Vienna. He applied for membership in an elite music society, but was rejected on the basis that he was not enough of an amateur to qualify. In 1818, Schubert left his father’s school to serve as a private tutor to the noble Hungarian Esterhazy family. He also took time to return to composing.

Musical Peak

Schubert's compositions in the period spanning 1819-1820 were more mature and musically complex than his earlier work. Although he was able to get the pieces performed for a wider audience, Schubert struggled to get music publishers to take on his compositions. He also tried his hand at composing for the stage, writing nearly twenty operas, but every single one was either rejected or a miserable flop.

Despite the failure of his operas, Schubert's other compositions quickly gained traction. The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, which had previously rejected his application, finally accepted him, which opened up his music to many more performances. Those performances, in turn, gained the attention of some influential members of the group, who also were influential in society as a whole. Their support of Schubert’s work resulted in his continued upward trajectory and wider audience.

This period of Schubert’s career was marked by some of his most praised works: the Mass in A-flat Major, the Symphony in B minor, and a song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin. One of his works also included what would become one of his enduring melodies: the Ave Maria. Schubert lived and worked in Vienna through 1828. Although he and Beethoven had not been close, the death of Beethoven in 1827 affected Schubert and his music profoundly. It was on the anniversary of Beethoven’s death, on March 26, 1828, that Schubert gave his one and only public performance of his own music.

Final Years and Musical Legacy

By the mid-1820s, Schubert’s health started to decline. It is likely that he suffered from syphilis and used mercury, a common prescription at the time, in an attempt to treat it. In late 1828, he began confiding to his friends that he believed he was dying. Many of his symptoms matched those of mercury poisoning or typhoid fever, and he deteriorated rapidly. One friend, Karl Holz, visited Schubert in his final days. At Schubert's request, Holz brought along his string quartet and played a quartet by Beethoven as the final music Schubert would hear.

Schubert died on November 19, 1828, in Vienna. His cause of death was officially listed as typhoid fever. At first, he was buried in a Viennese cemetery near Beethoven’s grave; the remains of both men were later moved to the city’s central cemetery, where they rest near Brahms and Strauss.

Despite his short life, Schubert managed to write over 1,500 pieces of varying lengths. His style was noted for its experimentation with form and emphasis on lovely melodies. After his death, many musicians of the time as well as later generations continued to perform his works, and Schubert’s legacy grew far beyond what he enjoyed during his life. Today, Schubert is considered one of the greatest and most popular composers of classical music.

Sources

  • “Franz Schubert.“ Biography, 12 April 2016, https://www.biography.com/people/franz-schubert-9475558.
  • Gibbs, Christopher H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Schubert. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • McKay, Elizabeth Norman. Franz Schubert: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Schubert, Franz, and Deutsch, Otto Erich. Franz Schubert's Letters and Other Writings. Translated by Savile, Venetia. A. A. Knopf, 1928.