How did he do it?

Almost 1,000 works in less than 20 years (and he died younger than Mozart). Bayan Northcott assesses the legacy of Schubert on his 200th anniversary...

It is when one checks the dates of Schubert's compositions that the mystery really intensifies. This, after all, was no Mozartian prodigy hustled into productivity by an ambitious musician father. Born into respectable but straitened circumstances in the Viennese suburbs, the boy learnt the rudiments of string and keyboard playing from his schoolmaster father and older siblings, and in due course graduated to the family string quartet in which, like Haydn and Mozart before him, he preferred to take the viola part. But not until he became an Imperial Chapel choirboy at 11 did he really get the chance to explore the orchestral repertory in the school orchestra and to study counterpoint with Salieri. He was already 13 by the time of his earliest piano piece, and 14 when he began attempting string quartets for performance en famille and wrote his first song.

How to explain, then, that by his 18th birthday, and when he was teaching full time in his father's school, he had completed not only his First Symphony, but a setting of Goethe's Gretchen am Spinnrade so original and mature as virtually to reinvent the German lied; that, over the next 12 months, he was to complete some 150 more songs, including the revolutionary Erlkonig; and that, by the age of 20, his output ran to four further symphonies, a string of singspiels, quantities of church music and dozens of further songs, amounting to some 500 items in all? And so it was to continue. Over the next five years, he was to complete the Sixth Symphony, the "Trout" Qintet, a succession of sonatas and the "Wanderer" Fantasia for piano, and yet more theatre music culminating in the full-scale opera Alfonso und Estrella. Not even the catastrophic onset of syphilis around his 25th birthday in the winter of 1822-23 could stop him, for it was then that he composed the "Unfinished" Symphony and Die Schone Mullerin, following these up, on his partial recovery, with another grand opera, Fierrabras, and the Rosamunde incidental music.

At 27, he went on to produce the Octet, the A minor String Quartet and the Grand Duo for piano, four hands. Between 28 and 30 came the String Quartets in D minor ("Death and the Maiden") and in G major and, scholars now believe, the vast score of the "Great" C major Symphony. At 30 he composed Winterreise and the two delectable piano trios. And, in that fevered final year of 1828, he completed the symphonic Mass in E flat, the songs later gathered as Schwanengesang, the ineffable String Quintet and those haunted last three Piano Sonatas - all these interspersed with the usual part-songs, piano pieces, church settings, dances, and so on to the end. And among his papers, though long unrecognised, lay substantial sketches for yet another symphony - his 10th. A creative career, even if one includes juvenilia, of a mere 18 years, yet running to 998 works in the catalogue of Otto Deutsch. Surely no composer in Western music - not Purcell, not even Mozart, who lived those few precious extra years into their mid-thirties - packed quite so much uniquely characteristic or sheerly great music into so short a span.

And, by an irony of history, perhaps no comparable composer of the last 250 years has taken so long to be truly understood and fully valued - if he is even now. Not that he was ever in danger of passing into the semi-obscurity that dogged Bach and most of his predecessors. Thanks to the publication of some 200 of his songs during his lifetime, Schubert was already recognised well beyond Vienna as the most fertile and moving song-composer of his generation; indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the great German lied tradition through Schumann and Brahms to Mahler, Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss could ever have evolved without his exemplary achievement. The other items of his output that had found ready publication were his shorter piano pieces - Impromptus, Moments Musicales, sets of waltzes. And these, too, rapidly proved seminal to the development of the Romantic character-piece - the Songs without Words of Mendelssohn, Schumann's suites of miniatures, Grieg's Lyric Pieces and those sublimations of the genre, the intimate and concentrated late piano pieces of Brahms. Yet only a handful of his sonatas and chamber works had been printed by the time of his death, while his entire orchestral and theatre music remained in manuscript - and publishers like Diabelli, to whom such pieces were posthumously assigned, showed no hurry to get them out. Not until 1853 was the String Quartet made available; not until 1865 was the manuscript of the "Unfinished" Symphony diplomatically extracted from Schubert's old friend Anselm Huttenbrenner and given its world premiere.

There is another paradox here. During his short career, Schubert's music had tended to appeal more to amateur musicians and lay listeners than to his fellow professionals; the young friends who flocked to his Schubertiades were more often poets, painters, civil servants. Yet, for many decades after his death, he became virtually a composers' composer. It was not so much the critics who published articles in his praise as Schumann and Dvorak; not so much the musicologists who edited and pushed the manuscripts at publishers as Schumann and Brahms. Few singers did so much to promote the songs as Liszt in his more than 60 transcriptions of them for piano. Beyond all this, one gets the impression of several generations of 19th- century composers almost covertly appropriating Schubert's innovations, so that the spaciousness of his later religious music sometimes now sounds to our ears strikingly prescient of Bruckner, the minuet of the A minor Quartet uncannily like Brahms, and Der Doppelganger sung in Russian becomes pure Mussorgsky. Even Wagner was prepared to concede a few Schubertian turns in Die Walkure.

But he also dismissed Schubert, with Mendelssohn and Schumann, as "minds of second, third or fourth rank", reminding one that, for many of the era's analysts, critics and performers, Schubert remained an indulgent, diffuse child of nature who could hardly hold a candle to the mastery and power of Beethoven. The history of the "Great" C major is symptomatic: probably completed in 1826 and copied into parts the following year, it lay neglected until Schumann disinterred it in 1839, raved about its "heavenly length" and persuaded Mendelssohn to conduct its (heavily cut) premiere in Leipzig. Yet attempts at performances in Paris and London over the next few years were scuppered by the derisory reaction of the players to its technical difficulties. Even in the 1890s, when it had edged into the repertory, Bernard Shaw was still asserting that "a more exasperatingly brainless composition was never put on paper". Nor was this the end of the misunderstandings. It is only a decade or so since Charles Mackerras realised that all the printed editions had the wrong initial time-signature, and that Schubert intended not a slow introduction but an opening at the same beat as the rest of the first movement; and scholars are still puzzling over the exact meaning of certain dynamic markings in the manuscript. Listeners and commentators, meanwhile, might continue to wonder how it is that a work so obsessively dependent upon rhythmic and thematic repetition somehow sounds ever new, and why it has often been the maturest interpreters (Sir Adrian Boult, Gunter Wand) who have found the most meaning in this ultimate expression of Schubert's youthful ambition.

And yet, compared with the recent Mozart and Purcell anniversary jamborees, the bicentenary of Schubert's birth on 31 January looks like proving a relatively quiet affair. True, there are to be celebrations at the Wigmore Hall and, in the autumn, on the South Bank, the year-long ministrations of Radio 3 and the imminent completion of Graham Johnson's great enterprise to record, at last, all the songs for Hyperion. But one might also have hoped at least for an updated reprint of Otto Deutsch's vastly informative classic Schubert: A Documentary Biography. And where are the symposia of new research and comment? After all, Schubert's very psychology has been in question ever since the New York scholar Maynard Solomon argued in 1981 that he was "the central figure in a coterie of homosexual and bisexual Viennese artists". And the fact that the late sonatas, which many musicians genuinely felt to be thin in substance and awkward in technique until Artur Schnabel began championing them between the wars, now strike us, under the fingers of a Brendel, as profoundly, in their very different way, as the late Beethoven sonatas, suggests a shift in sensibility that demands explanation. There still seems so much to learn from, not to say about, the nondescript little man who briefly brought forth such mysterious abundance almost two centuries ago

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project