Program Notes for July 12th, 2009

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert

Music of Franz Peter Schubert
(b. Vienna, 1797; d. Vienna, 1828)

Franz Peter Schubert, master of the German Lied, prolific composer of orchestral music, sacred and secular choral music, piano music, chamber music and opera, was born into the family of an amateur-cellist schoolmaster in a suburb of Vienna in 1797. Enormously gifted, the boy entered into the service of the Austrian imperial court as a singer in 1808. By this time he was already singing first soprano in his parish church choir and receiving violin, piano, organ and singing lessons as well as instruction in improvising at the keyboard. Like his predecessor Haydn, he joined the singers’ training school, an organization whose tradition continues today in the guise of the Vienna Choir Boys.

When Schubert’s boy-choir voice was no longer of service, he took up a teaching post in his father’s school until 1816. Efforts to obtain a further teaching position, a court appointment as Kapellmeister or any permanent conducting position elsewhere were unsuccessful, and Schubert struggled for subsistence throughout his career. Income from publishing success came infrequently and, finally, too late.

Among Schubert’s teachers was Salieri, an important composer and expert in the Italian style who is probably best known today in his casting as Mozart’s arch-rival in Amadeus. Salieri and Schubert remained good friends, and in 1824, when Schubert was composing his Octet, they were across-the-street neighbors. Schubert’s compositional methods remained the same throughout his career, from his first surviving pieces written in his early teens to the works written shortly before his death at the age of thirty-one. A first sketch, written at top speed, contained the melody in full and an indication of the progress of the harmony. The full score came next, after which Schubert either stopped to revise or went on to compose another piece. Such facility at composing sometimes produced several Lieder in a single day, over 600 in a short lifetime. This was quite different from the method of Beethoven, who worked slowly and often made numerous sketches for a single, short passage.

Living in Vienna at the time of Beethoven, Schubert had difficulty establishing himself as a composer. It was only a few months before his death that he was finally able to arrange for a public concert of his own compositions. Most works remained unpublished at his death, many were heard only by his circle of friends, and some were never heard by the composer himself. As a composer of Lieder he did experience some success, with the publication of a third of his more than six hundred songs. Schubert’s posthumous reputation is has fared very well. Among his early advocates were Schumann and Mendelssohn, and Brahms participated in the publishing of an edition of Schubert’s complete works.

Although Schubert’s name belongs high on the list of the greatest composers, his place in the historical development of musical styles has been the subject of much discussion. Inclined to the Classical forms of the First Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, he also displayed a proto-Romantic interest in harmonic coloration and orchestral tone colors.

Octet in F Major, D. 803 (1824)

Schubert composed his Octet in F Major on a commission from Count Ferdinand von Troyer, who was not only an accomplished clarinetist but also a person of high social responsibility, holding the position of chief steward in the household of the heir to the Austrian throne, the Archduke Rudolph. Troyer asked for a chamber music composition to complement Beethoven’s Septet in Eb Major, Op. 20, a twenty-four-year-old piece that had by this time nearly become a thorn in the composer’s side. The enduring popularity of Beethoven’s most frequently performed composition indicated that, while the composer’s style had evolved considerably, his audiences’ tastes had not.

By the year 1824, Schubert was well aware of the difficulty of pursuing a career as a composer in the same city as the most famous of all living composers. Perhaps in order to distinguish his new work from Beethoven’s previous one, Schubert asked for and received permission to add a second violin to his ensemble. He needn’t have worried: there is no mistaking one for the other of these two great works.

Beethoven, in 1800, was nearly thirty years old, but still at the beginning of his career. He had yet to compose his first symphony. When he dedicated his Septet to the Empress Maria Theresa, he signaled his high aspirations and invoked the social circle in which he moved. His Septet is the work of a young composer aiming for the heights. Schubert, in 1824, was younger, only twenty-seven years old, but he was a very experienced composer. He had completed all but one of his nine symphonies. While he once referred to his Octet as a way station to the composing of a large symphony, this was no indication of any lack of experience.

Troyer performed the Octet at his Vienna apartment in the spring of 1824, and there was a public performance in 1827 in the Philharmonic Hall at one of the composer’s favorite establishments, the Red Hedgehog Café. The Octet consists of six movements, drawing it closer to the genre of the serenade than to that of the four-movement symphony or sonata. As was normal with the serenade, there is a kernel of four movement-types: an opening sonata form, a slow movement, a dance-inspired movement (Minuet or scherzo), and a Finale. Here there are two slow movements: an extended Adagio in the manner of one of his most lyrical Lieder and a theme with variations based on a duet from an early opera, written when he was eighteen but never produced during the composer’s lifetime. There are both a Minuet and a Scherzo, to complete the total of six movements.

It could be argued that Schubert looks backward to the age of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven in the Minuet, while he looks ahead in the Scherzo. If could be further argued that in both the Minuet and the Scherzo he followed in the footsteps of Beethoven, who had transformed the Minuet into the Scherzo by keeping the outer form but altering the character by speeding up the progress of the music. Even in the Minuet, however, Schubert shows his own unique style. Phrases have a restless quality, often suggesting a question rather than an answer. No Classical composer would have done this. And the Scherzo has a nervous, driving energy that only Schubert could give it. At the beginning of the Finale, the generally sunny character of the Octet suddenly turns mysterious, but only momentarily. When the main theme of the movement arrives, it brings a toe-tapping quality—one of the many features that have made this work a perennial favorite.

Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.