‘Things that are done, it is needless to speak about. Things that are past, it is needless to blame’, wrote Confucius. Well, he may be right. Certainly, I don’t wish to apportion blame for anything that happened in my life. Quite possibly there is nothing more to say about me anyway. But after so many attempts by other writers, please now allow me my turn. If I am to understand myself, I need to tell my story in my own way.
Don’t expect from these pages any analysis of my music – or every little detail of my life. My intention is solely to journey through my life, trying to find out, if I can, where I took the right turning, and where I went wrong. There were without doubt some successes – but equally, there were many resounding failures. Fortunately none of it matters now, as the great sage said, but it will be a worthwhile journey nonetheless.
There will be extracts from my letters on the way. Like the musical compositions, they reveal my state of mind at the time of writing. This is not vanity on my part – I would never claim to have been a writer of great note or profundity – but these letters have been saved so I will use them. They may help shed some light on that complex personality which was Franz Schubert.
First, some background information:
I was born on Sunday, 31st January 1797, the twelfth of fourteen children born to my parents, Franz and Elizabeth. I was the fourth of only five to survive infancy. I had three brothers, Ignaz, Ferdinand and Karl, and one sister, Theresa. My parents had been brought up in the northern provinces of Austria and came to Vienna in search of work. I grew up to love and respond to the stimulation of the big city, its mixture of gaiety and melancholy; I was also at times irritated by her superficiality and triviality. It seems that I was born with a deep and searching soul – or, to put it another way, there was a serious side to my nature – and the Viennese never understood that. All they ever wanted from me were my songs and dances; maybe this was understandable, because the early years of the 18th century had been clouded by the devastation of warfare and occupation. That demon Napoleon had brought nothing of any value to Vienna, only a good deal of misery. So when the city was finally liberated, what she craved was peace and entertainment, and this I gave her. Sentimentality was not unwelcome, but nothing harrowing, nothing tragic. In my friendly, cheerful way I gave them what they craved because I loved them – of course I loved them. From them came my circle of friends – they were my very lifeblood and the source of my inspiration. But ultimately it was a shallow world and it left my heart aching. I became frustrated and unhappy; like a hopeless lover I was always looking for some ideal – but that ideal proved to be beyond my reach in the world I was born into, the world of my family, my friends and my city. Fortunately I could express myself through music, and that ultimately was my only consolation.
But I am jumping ahead – typical of me, restless man that I am! So I will return to the story.
My father was a physically strong, determined and ambitious man, and he worked hard as a schoolmaster all his life. He was 22 when he married, and his wife, Elizabeth, was 29. In 1786 he was appointed Headmaster of an elementary school in the Lichtenthal district, a northern suburb of Vienna beyond the city walls. Our house in the Säulengasse served as both home and the schoolhouse, where my father was responsible for more than 200 day pupils. The school had a poor reputation, but he turned it round through sheer tenacity and hard work. Ours was a life of constant struggle against poverty, but despite that, Father continually gave shelter and generous help to his siblings as well as his wife’s, whose own stories were also ones of poverty and hardship. I admired my father, and I inherited my capacity for hard work from him. I entered the school when I was six and being a bright boy I always came top of the class. Later, as you will hear, I followed in the footsteps of my older brothers, Ignaz and Ferdinand, to become a teacher there – but it was definitely not the life for me, and that was to cause huge problems later on. You see, I wanted nothing other than to lead the life of a musician. I couldn’t help it. I lived and breathed music. But Father was a stern man of strict, conventional Catholic morality – hardly one to allow his youngest son to mix with the effete Viennese society of men, known for their moral laxity and disordered living.
Now I will tell you about my mother. She was quiet and extremely reserved, a woman much respected: God-fearing, and a good mother. I recall her with great affection as being warm-hearted, generous in her love for her husband and children, as well as for her own brothers and sisters who came to live with us. But she held me in special affection. I was a sturdy, sensitive little boy and she was always anxious for my health and survival. She nurtured and sheltered me with special care as I watched and tried to keep up with Ignaz and Ferdinand. I suspect that she longed for the open spaces of her childhood, the natural beauty and the mountain air of the countryside she loved – cooped up as we were in an overcrowded room, in unhealthy conditions in a climate too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. She would tell us stories of the countryside she had known, as well as of her early life – and this sowed in me the seeds of my passion for the mountains, rivers, streams and lakes which later took musical shape in my early songs.
Before I talk about our family life, I must say something about Vienna at this time. She did have a particular reputation which was by no means to everyone’s taste. When Chopin came here in 1829, and again in 1831, he was disgusted by the superficiality of Viennese taste. And later, when Schumann thought of settling here, he was shocked that a city which was supposed to be so in love with music should in fact be so indifferent to it. What the Viennese loved was bravura display, in the opera house or on the concert platform. When the virtuoso violinist, Paganini, came to play, the city went Paganini-mad. Can you believe that they even named food and clothes after him? But whenever serious music, like Haydn’s Creation, was performed, the public would stay away.
The typical bourgeois Viennese citizen of our period could be described as contented, domesticated, well-fed, a bit smug, caring little for politics, pleasure-loving and not interested in anything beyond his or her somewhat limited horizon. The Viennese had a talent for turning their backs on their troubles, which then included all the hazards faced by the inhabitants of any large European city. Infant mortality was high and life expectancy low. Many women died in childbirth, so second and third marriages were quite common. To illustrate, my father married twice and had nineteen children, only nine of whom survived; my brother Ferdinand, who also married twice, had twenty-eight children, sixteen of whom died young.
We were essentially a happy family, united in our love for music. Ignaz, the oldest, was born in 1784. Ten years were to elapse before Ferdinand, the next one to survive, appeared on the scene. In 1796 came Karl, who was destined to be a painter of some renown, and a year later it was me. Four years passed, then in 1801 the last child, Theresa, was born. Our first house, situated on the Himmelpfortgrund (which means ‘the ground of the heavenly gate’) was called ‘The Red Crayfish’ and it was situated in the north-western part of the city. More than one family shared the house, so conditions were incredibly cramped as it had to provide accommodation as well as schoolrooms. But under my father the school acquired a good reputation so when I was four, our family was able to move into the house called ‘The Black Horse’ in the nearby Säulengasse, as I mentioned before.
My brother Ignaz gave me my first piano lessons and my father showed me how to play the violin. But I only needed a little initial guidance, because from then on my native genius took over. How it happened I don’t know, but very quickly I was able to teach myself. Whenever I was shown anything about music theory, composition, singing, piano or violin, I seemed to know it already. Music for me was as easy and natural as breathing.
Fortunately, my father recognised my talent and took me to the local professional musician, Michael Holzer, choirmaster of the nearby Lichtental parish church, for singing, piano and organ lessons. So impressed was Holzer that he recommended my father introduce me to the great Antonio Salieri, Count Kapellmeister (or music director) to Emperor Franz. By then I had started composing so I took along some of my pieces – I was barely ten – and sang for him, played the piano and the violin. Salieri must have been impressed because he advised that as soon as I turned eleven I should be entered for an exam, from which the new choristers for the Imperial Chapel choir would be selected. When the time came, I passed with flying colours. That was the start of my career: a great and wonderful new musical world was beckoning!
In truth I have to say I was a very lucky boy. I was offered a choral scholarship which carried with it a free place at the Imperial and Royal Seminary, otherwise known as the Konvikt. I was assured of the finest musical and academic education the city could offer. Also, I had never worn such impressive clothes as the uniform of the court chorister, so I felt for the first time smart and respectable. In some ways life was fairly spartan: the buildings were cold and the food was meagre and of poor quality, but this, remember, was Vienna during and immediately after the Napoleonic wars when conditions were generally very hard and there was little money for basic comforts, let alone luxuries. The director, Dr Innocenz Lang, had a somewhat severe and gloomy personality, but he was at least a fair man and a keen musician. If we didn’t exactly love him, we certainly respected him. From my point of view, I was beginning to fulfil my destiny: I blossomed musically and started to make new friends. Music and friends: that combination was to be my lifeblood from now on.
During the year of 1811, when I was fourteen, I composed a piano duet, a string quartet, an overture for string quintet and my first song, Hagar’s Lament, for soprano voice and piano. I played second violin in the orchestra, but was soon promoted to the first desk. Before long I became orchestral leader, then its deputy conductor. I had never even heard a symphony orchestra before so you can imagine my excitement at being able to join in its rehearsals. The orchestra had been formed by a law student, Joseph von Spaun. He was about eight years older than me, but we quickly became the firmest of friends. He always encouraged and supported me – he even supplied me with manuscript paper for my compositions, and then invited me to be his orchestral assistant at the rehearsals. This meant I had to string the instruments, light the tallow candles, put out the parts and make sure the instruments and music were kept in tiptop condition. To some this might have seemed tedious, but for me, shy and timid as I was, it was a position which gave me a feeling of importance and responsibility. It also served to deepen my friendship with Spaun, a friendship which lasted my entire life. In fact, his attachment to me was unfailing. In later years, as he climbed up the political ladder, he never forgot me, the impoverished composer. Busy man of affairs that he was, he continually helped me and always had time to write letters to me.
Spaun, more than any of my friends, was responsible for starting that little coterie known as the ‘Schubertians’. He introduced me to several music students, such as Albert Stadler, a pianist and composer who later became a barrister; Anton Holzapfel, a cellist and singer; Johann Michael Senn, a poet who played horn in the orchestra; and Georg Franz Eckel, who was born to become a distinguished vet. For his unswerving loyalty to me I am forever indebted.
The first real sadness of my life was the death of my mother when I was only fifteen. It was that dreaded disease, typhus, which took her from our family. I was heartbroken. She had been a sweet mother to me, yet didn’t live to enjoy my growing fame and popularity as a musician. And now my poor father was left to cope with a growing family as well as three hundred schoolchildren; for the school had expanded considerably. Happily, within a year, he had married again. His new wife was Anna Kleyenbok, the daughter of a silk manufacturer. She was only thirty years of age to his fifty, but it was a successful union, and she fitted into the family perfectly. Although I was to go my own way eventually, leaving Ignaz and Ferdinand to follow in Father’s footsteps as teachers, even so she loved and took pride in me. In truth, I don’t believe either she or Father ever really understood me, but I am sure they both grew proud of me in time.
I was without doubt an unusual child: quiet, uncommunicative, apt to spend my time alone in the music room, completely absorbed in my own thoughts. I had this inner life of music which I was born with and simply had to respond to. Even when we pupils went out for walks together – and of course I loved their companionship – invariably some musical thought or idea would overwhelm me and I would have to work on it, first with my fingers (which would be clasped behind my back) and then play with it in my mind. It was so delightful to me. From the age of fourteen I composed steadily, and really never stopped from then until the end of my life. And what an angel I must have been in those days! My reports were always exemplary and my ‘moral conduct’ was habitually ‘very good’. But by 1812, although my academic work was still up to standard, my moral conduct had declined to a mere ‘good’. From the shy goody-goody of four years ago I was now developing a mind and will of my own, and was ready to oppose any restrictions I considered were obstructing my musical development. This, as you can imagine, would eventually cause considerable tension within the family.
By now I was regularly conducting the orchestra. As my confidence grew, so I became more relaxed and self-assured with my peers, as well as more determined than ever in my choice of career. Theodor Körner, a well-known Viennese poet, one day gave me the advice I most wanted to hear: ‘You must live only for art; only in music will you find true happiness and fulfilment.’ From this time, I lost all interest in schoolwork. I stopped listening to the lectures in Latin and Greek, and was invariably caught composing when I should have been doing my homework. The start of my sixteenth year produced a great outpouring of music: two string quartets, a song for solo voice, six part songs, two Kyries and the beginning of a long piano duet, a Fantasia in C minor. As I developed the ability to concentrate for hours at a time on my compositions, so I cultivated the propensity for isolation which is vital for any artist. I grew to trust in my own abilities, and gradually became more confident in the company of older university students – stimulated by their conversation, I embraced their wider interests outside music such as poetry, art, politics and philosophy.
Unfortunately, just as my life was developing along the lines I had hoped, I had to leave the Konvikt and enter the College of St Anna to train as a teacher. Hateful! But, as my father very reasonably pointed out, what prospects did I have for earning a living through music? The family needed money – and the only way of making any money that my father knew was by teaching. So in November 1813, about three months before my seventeenth birthday, I entered upon a ten-month period of training, to be followed by a teaching career. Not my wish at all, but the only alternative was conscription into the army, which would have been an even less suitable calling for such an undersized, clumsy, plump, short-sighted teenager as myself – hardly worth the price of a uniform. So I did my duty.
While studying at the college, I travelled in from the Himmelpfortgrund to the Annagasse in the inner city six days a week, often walking with my brother Karl, who was then studying at the Academy of Fine Arts, housed in the same building as the training college. He had entered the Academy to study landscape painting two years previously just after his 16th birthday. Among his friends and associates was a very talented art student, Leopold Kupelwieser. He was living with his brother Josef, four years his senior, who was employed in a low-paid position in the theatre. Josef could not support his younger brother financially, so Leopold had to learn quickly how to earn money through his art. Karl soon introduced me to Leopold, and we quickly became good friends.