Composer Franz Schubert was born on 31 January 1797 in a suburb of Vienna.
Here are a few brief facts about his life:
- Schubert wrestled with health problems throughout his life and died young. He was diagnosed with syphilis in his early twenties, and the effects from it (and likely from the mercury treatment for it) had a huge impact on his life during the 1820s.
- Schubert is especially famous for his lieder (songs for voice and piano) and his chamber music (instrumental music for small ensembles).
- Schubert never became rich or even famous. Many of his works remained unpublished at his death. Most had to be posthumously championed by later great composers like Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, and others.
- Schubert’s music is famous for its elegance and emotion. He was a transitional figure between the restraint of the Classical Era and the effusiveness of the Romantic Era. No other composer balanced those two impulses with more aplomb.
Sound intriguing? Hope so!
We’ve curated eleven representative pieces from Schubert’s career that will make you fall in love with his music, starting with…
Trout Quintet (1819)
The so-called “Trout Quintet” was composed in 1819, when Schubert was in his early twenties. Like so many of his works, it was not published until after his death.
The piece got its nickname because the fourth movement is a set of variations on Schubert’s earlier lied “Die Forelle” (The Trout).
The quintet was written for a wealthy amateur cellist named Sylvest Paumgartner. He happened to be the same person who suggested somehow working Schubert’s “Trout” lied into the new composition.
Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” (1822)
In 1822, Schubert wrote a two-movement symphony. This was eyebrow-raising.
Why, you ask? Symphonies in Schubert’s day followed certain conventions, including being four movements long. It’s unusual for such an accomplished composer to leave two movements unwritten.
It is one of the great mysteries of classical music why Schubert didn’t finish this work. It may have been because he first noticed the symptoms of a syphilis infection during this time.
He sent what he did have of the score to a friend named Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who kept it under lock and key for decades. Hüttenbrenner finally shared the manuscript in 1865.
The Unfinished Symphony is famous for its long, gorgeous melodies that sound almost vocal in origin. Its dramatic flair has mesmerized musicians and audiences for generations.
In 1824, philanthropist and amateur clarinetist Ferdinand Troyer commissioned an octet (a chamber music work for eight instruments) from Schubert.
Octets are one of the most difficult genres of chamber music to write. It’s very difficult on a technical level to balance the instruments, and to give everyone something interesting to do.
However, Schubert more than was up to the challenge.
This work requires a bassoon, a clarinet, a horn, two violins, a viola, a cello, and a double bass. It takes nearly an hour to perform.
The work was premiered in Troyer’s home, among friends, as so much of Schubert’s work was.
String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden” (1824)
In 1823 and 1824, as his syphilis worsened and his mental health deteriorated, Schubert found himself in crisis.
He famously wrote: “Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.”
Although he continued writing cheerful music for his circle of musical friends, some of his work began reflecting his despair.
One example of this is his turbulent fourteenth string quartet, subtitled “Death and the Maiden.”
This evocative nickname was bestowed because – just like with the “Trout Quintet” – Schubert used an earlier lied as inspiration for this work. In that lied, a maiden tells the figure of death to leave her. Ominously, death gently – but firmly – refuses.
Symphony No. 9, “The Great” (1824-26)
Poignantly, Schubert wrote this masterpiece without knowing how he’d ever heard it performed. He didn’t have money to hire an orchestra to play it, so he sent the score to the musical organization Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and dedicated it to them. They sent back a small amount of money in gratitude. A group of amateurs played it over, but they weren’t technically adept enough to do it justice, and the work fell into obscurity.
Ave Maria (1825)
We’ve already seen how important Schubert’s lieder were to him. This lied is likely his most famous one.
Although it’s popularly known as Ave Maria, and the lied does begin with those words, its actual title is “Ellens dritter Gesang” (Ellen’s Third Song).
It’s a setting of a poem from Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake.” In “The Lady of the Lake”, the Scottish character Ellen and her father hide in a goblin’s cave because they refuse to join a rebellion against King James I. While in the cave, Ellen sings a prayer for safety to the Virgin Mary.
The work eventually had Latin lyrics attached to it, giving the work a sacred meaning that wasn’t originally intended.
In his song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), Schubert set 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller about lost love.
In the mid-1820s, Schubert’s salon friends couldn’t help but notice his ill health and depression. A friend remembered that Schubert once said, “Come to Schober’s today and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs.”
The friend also remembered: “He then, with a voice full of feeling, sang the entire Winterreise for us. We were altogether dumbfounded by the somber mood of these songs, and Schober said that one song only, ‘Der Lindenbaum’, had pleased him. Thereupon Schubert leaped up and replied: ‘These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well.’”
It was a poignant prediction. Today this song cycle is recognized as one of Schubert’s most intensely haunting compositions, even being compared to a one-man opera.
Fantasy for violin and piano (1827)
Schubert wrote this twenty-five minute-long duet for violin and piano in 1827. It was meant to showcase the impressive technique of his violinist friend, Josef Slavík, who was one of the most technically accomplished violinists in Vienna, and maybe in Europe.
Schubert also ensured that the piano part was equally difficult. Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky claims it’s actually the most difficult music ever written for piano.
Despite the virtuosity it requires, audiences were not particularly charmed. The work was only published after Schubert’s death.
Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat major (1827)
Schubert’s inclination toward melancholy continued when he wrote his Impromptus for solo piano in 1827.
The first two were published, but the third would have to wait until after his death to see the light of day.
This impromptu ruminates in a restless, deeply intimate fashion. The long, yearning melodies are especially noteworthy, and pure Schubert.
String Quintet in C major (1828)
Schubert’s final work for chamber music is also widely considered to be his most heavenly. Ask any classical musician what their favorite pieces of chamber music are, and this quintet is probably on the list.
It was scored for a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) plus, for additional color, a second cello, making it a string quintet.
Schubert died only two months after it was finished. Consequently, this massive masterpiece languished unpublished for decades. It was finally published during the posthumous Schubert revival of the 1850s.
Piano Sonata in C-minor (1828)
Schubert’s final creative statement came in 1828, when, aware that his health was declining precipitously, he wrote three piano sonatas. One of those final sonatas is the Piano Sonata in C-minor.
Interestingly, it seems as though Schubert viewed his last three piano sonatas as an interrelated set.
These sonatas also make allusions back to former works, including – you guessed it – his lieder.
We wrote a whole article about Schubert’s fascinating piano sonatas.
They are a fitting grand finale to his output.
Franz Schubert became acutely ill in November 1828. He had a headache, fever, and couldn’t keep food down.
Some historians believe Schubert was killed by fatal syphilis, while others believe he was killed by typhus or some other infection. We’ll probably never know for sure.
Schubert was buried close to Beethoven. A friend wrote his famous epitaph: “The art of music has here interred a precious treasure, but yet far fairer hopes.”
Dig deeper into the life and music of Schubert.
For more of the best in classical music, sign up for our E-Newsletter