Suddenly Schubert Is The Song On Everyone’s Lips

A Schubertiade -- drawn by Moritz von Schwind, a friend of Schubert, in 1868, from memory -- shows the composer at the piano. (
A Schubertiade — drawn from memory by Moritz von Schwind in 1868 — shows the composer at the piano.
By Rodney Punt

Although the year 2014 is neither a round-numbered anniversary of Franz Schubert’s birth in 1797 nor his death in 1828, it nonetheless yields an unusually large bounty of Schubertiana across North America. Three wide-ranging musical projects and an important publication focus on the composer’s songs and instrumental works as well as his influence on the Romantic era and beyond.

J. Abel portrait, now believed to be young Schubert. (Kunsthistorische Museum Wien)
J. Abel portrait, now believed to be the young Franz Schubert.
(Kunsthistorische Museum Wien)

Though independent of one another, each of these activities at least nods to the bicentennial of a single song, “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” composed by the seventeen-year-old Schubert in 1814. With this work and others to follow, the once obscure German Lied became an important musical genre that infused and changed other musical forms. How it came about is the essential rationale for this year’s special programming.

Vienna was at the center of artistic crosscurrents in the first two decades of the 19th century. On the one hand it was the foremost seat of the sonata form’s rigorous, abstract musical treatment as worked out in symphony, chamber music and piano sonata. On the other hand, the Austrian capital was the first stop north for Italian opera, where lyricism and story-line reigned supreme. These two contrasting styles would find synthesis in Schubert’s works.

Schubert had been trained at Vienna’s Imperial Seminary from age 11. When, at age 15, his voice “croaked its last” he had to vacate both the Vienna Boys’ Choir and the Seminary. But his musical education continued with Hofkapellmeister Antonio Salieri, who took him on as a private pupil in vocal studies. The venerable master (and Mozart rival) instilled in Schubert a love for Italian melodies, at one point declaring of him in Viennese dialect, “Der kann alles” (He can do anything). In turn, the lad was learning how to meld Salieri’s Mediterranean influences with the Viennese traditions he had inherited from Mozart and the brothers Joseph and Michael Haydn.

With help from friends who had been fellow students in the Imperial Seminary, Schubert discovered the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in a Viennese edition of his theatrical drama Faust. It was probably the sweep of the play’s narrative (and his first love affair with a local girl who sang soprano named Therese Grob) that fired Schubert’s motivation to set “Gretchen am Spinnrade” on Oct. 19, 1814. In a single burst of inspiration, this new music captured the obsessive hysteria of Goethe’s young woman at her spinning wheel. The following year, the Goethe ballad Erlkönig, a four-character tragedy of hyper-extended emotions, was propelled by the piano’s horse-gallop in a manner similar to the earlier uncanny depiction of Gretchen’s spinning wheel. Suddenly drama had invaded the simple song.

From 1814 to 1816, Schubert would write a miraculous number of other great songs. In the latter year, the unpredictable Beethoven, not known as an enthusiastic song composer, would produce the first great song cycle in Western music, An die ferne Geliebte, unintentionally challenging the impressionable Schubert to match its model, a task the budding composer would prove more than up to in a few years. The once humble genre of song would become a key factor in the transformation of music and a cornerstone of the dawning Romantic era.

Henceforth, literature and the lyric impulse would exert ever-growing influences on Schubert’s own work and, with wide dissemination of his songs, on later composers. As the ensuing era developed, symphony and chamber music would benefit from Schubert’s songs but not, strangely enough, from his symphonies. Herein lies a tale.

Schubert at 28, detail from an 1825 watercolor by Wilhelm August Rieder
Schubert at 28. (Detail from watercolor, 1825, Wilhelm August Rieder)

Schubert’s symphonies (the subject of a comprehensive survey by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this year) have had a peculiar history. The young composer tossed off his first six between 1813-18 — incorporating style elements of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven as models — almost like child’s play. He then struggled to find a way to reconcile his ripening, self-sufficient melodies with the sonata form’s propensity for malleable motifs (notable in Beethoven’s symphonies). Schubert ultimately left posterity with several sketches but only one more completed symphony and a two-movement torso.

Yet what a legacy those two works turned out to be. At the end of the 19th century, composer Antonin Dvořák observed of Schubert’s B minor (Unfinished) and C major (Great) Symphonies, “What is perhaps most characteristic about them is the song-­like melody pervading them. He introduced the song into the symphony….” The irony is that these unique, successful works had limited impact on later 19th-century symphonies because friends or family of the composer kept them out of circulation after his death. By the time others rescued them from oblivion (Robert Schumann in 1838 for the C major and Johann von Herbeck in 1865 for the B minor), their innovations had become common practice.

Schubert and friends at a wine tavern. (Sketch, M. von Schwind)
Schubert and friends at a wine tavern. (Sketch, M. von Schwind)

What influenced that century’s symphonists more were, surprisingly, instrumental versions of Schubert’s songs, some of his chamber works, and his Impromptus and other character pieces for piano. Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of the songs took Europe by storm. Hector Berlioz, Liszt and others also arranged Schubert’s songs for orchestra. Their elaborate melodies and rich harmonies, spiced with orchestral colors, took hold of creative imaginations in all branches of Romanticism’s new music scene.

While Schubert remained, in formal terms, a symphonic classicist, the influence of his music’s literary associations (and the huge popularity of Romantic literature itself) would impart more radical programmatic agendas in the symphonies of later composers: Mendelssohn’s Italian and Scottish Symphonies, Berlioz’s Fantastique and Roméo et Juliette Symphonies, and Liszt’s Dante and Faust Symphonies. It would only be a step away to the total abandonment of symphonic structure in the programmatic tone poems of Liszt and Richard Strauss.

Schubert festivals and initiatives

Here are four important initiatives this year that shed light on Schubert’s contributions and how they influenced later works and shaped Romanticism.

I. Schubert’s songs celebrated in 2014.

Pianist and song specialist Graham Johnson (© Clive Barda)
Graham Johnson (© Clive Barda)

Production of Schubert’s song legacy is widespread across North America but its center of gravity this year is a powerhouse of incisive knowledge about Schubert Lieder and related genres – the pianist, program impresario, author, and plenipotentiary of art song, Graham Johnson.

He is active on a number of fronts.

—   New Publication: Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs. In April, Yale University Press of London will publish Johnson’s three-volume encyclopedic survey of Franz Schubert’s Lieder and related works. Richly illustrated, it contains more than 700 song commentaries with parallel texts and translations, detailed annotations on poetic sources, biographies of 120 poets, and general articles on accompaniment, singers, tonality, and transcriptions. For performers, scholars, and all lovers of Schubert Lieder, it is a must. Pre-­orders are now being taken.

—  Hyperion Records: The Complete Songs of Franz Schubert. Between 1987 and 2005, Johnson and leading singers of the day recorded all the Schubert songs, piano accompanied part songs, and ensembles in a project for London’s Hyperion Records. The entire series, including additional songs by Schubert’s contemporaries, has recently been re-mastered into a 40­CD edition, with the songs in chronological order. This version, at an attractive price, is an essential companion to the above YaleBooks encyclopedia.

—  Songfest 2014. Johnson annually visits Southern California’s Songfest, a training program for post­-graduate singers and piano collaborators, now housed at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. In last year’s residency, Johnson focused on Schubert, and this year promises more. Running from May 31 to June 28, the program will include public performances, lectures, and coaching sessions open to the public. Specific times and repertoire will be announced in coming weeks.

—  Carnegie Hall Presents Discovery Day: Franz Schubert’s Last Years. Schubert’s final years were fertile in the creation of beloved masterworks. Johnson will direct a program that includes a vocal recital, a dramatic reading and Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. At Weill Recital Hall, March 1.

II. Chicago Symphony Orchestra explores Schubert’s symphonic music

Riccardo Muti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra (© Todd Rosenberg)
Riccardo Muti (© Todd Rosenberg)

Schubert’s 8th (“Unfinished”) and 9th (“The Great”) Symphonies are in continuous performance around the world, but his other symphonies, with the occasional exception of the lyrical 5th, have made infrequent appearances with U.S. orchestras. This year, music director Riccardo Muti and his Chicago Symphony Orchestra are undertaking a major reassessment of Schubert’s complete symphonic output within the span of one season. The  series, which continues through June, began with the Third and Fourth Symphonies and includes the Mass in A-flat and the Italian Overture in C major, as well as four performances of the Trout Quintet with pianist Mitsuko Uchida for orchestral audiences. Lieder recitals with top interpreters have also been featured. It’s a major Schubert festival in Chicago this year.

III. 25th Anniversary of Bard Music Festival presents “Schubert and His World”

Bard Music Festival bannerThe Bard Music Festival (Aug. 8–10 and Aug. 15–17) will explore Schubert as he was known in his own time and as he came to be understood by posterity in the Romantic century and beyond. It will showcase the Biedermeier ­world of music, in the home and in its newly founded music societies and choral associations. Recreated will be the one public concert Schubert presented that was devoted entirely of his own music. Concerts will highlight Schubert’s symphonic and choral works alongside later orchestrations of his music by Liszt, Brahms, and Berlioz, and attempts by 20th­-century composers to complete fragments and music left unfinished.

Schubert’s most ambitious and last completed opera, Fierabras, will round out performances. Just before the Schubert festival, Bard College will also perform Euryanthe by Schubert’s erstwhile friend, Carl Maria von Weber, premiered just as Schubert finished Fierabras. Schubert’s criticism of the Weber opera reportedly caused friction between the two composers.

Epilogue: A program with the Vienna Philharmonic at UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances will examine how 20th-century events violently transformed the Romantic Era.  Concerts of Classic and Romantic era compositions, post­-WWI chamber music and seminars on the rapid transformation of musical culture in the years after 1914 are scheduled for the weekend of March 7-9.  The first work performed under Danielle Gatti will be Schubert’s Symphony in B minor (Unfinished). Three seminars are set to explore “Viennese Modernism Between World War I and World War II,” “Wartime and Postwar Memories Reloaded” (with Nuria Schoenberg-­Nono and Christian Meyer, with music by Berg, Schoenberg, Erich Korngold, Eric Zeisl, and Iván Erőd), and “Making Peace After War.”

Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.


  1. Another Chicago offshoot event with a CSO connection: The Gilmore’s Schubertiade. Opera singers Susanna Phillips and Eric Owens present a Schubertiade, an evening devoted to songs of Schubert in the convivial manner of home concerts during the composer’s lifetime. Myra Huang and Chicago Symphony musicians John Bruce Yeh and Daniel Gingrich will partner the soloists at The Gilmore in Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 5. (More info: )

  2. Thank you, Mr Marin, for your kind remarks. our recordings remain close to our hearts and none more so than those beloved recordings of Schubert. Best wishes, Rodney

  3. Mr. Punt has recalled us a fact that has been enormously transcendent in History of Music, and that probably will not deserve too much atention in the Media in 2014, as is the bicentennial of Schubert’s Gretchen. In any case, during this year – apart from not to leave any opportunity to enjoy a good concert with music by Schubert, and pay attention to Mr. Punt recomendations – I am sure that I will go back to listening to my favorite Schubert CDs: the recordings of lieder by Fischer-Dieskau, Prey, Souzay, Goerne, Schwartzkopf, Ameling, Popp, Baker; the great versions of his piano music by Lupu, Richter, Brendel, Perahia, Leonskaja; his chamber music by the Alban Berg, the Italiano; his symphonies by Furtwängler, Klemperer, Kubelík; and many, many others.

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