Read the words ‘musical prodigy’ and which name comes to mind? Ten to one you’re already thinking of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: composer of his first symphony at the age of eight and his first opera at 11, performing at the Court of Louis XV at seven, and going on to enrich just about every important musical genre with significant masterpieces before dying at the obscenely early age of 35. But – and granted the range of his success isn’t as stupefyingly broad as Mozart’s – I’d like to suggest that the achievement of Franz Peter Schubert is every bit as prodigious. Perhaps, dare one say it, even more so?
Schubert wrote no concertos and very few display pieces in any form; as a pianist he was more than competent but no virtuoso. And while some of his operas have begun to be reappraised in our time, they’re still far from being standard repertory. But the best is unsurpassed – and there’s so much of it. There are two of the most dazzling gems of 19th-century orchestral music (the Unfinished and Great C major symphonies), four profoundly original string quartets and an even greater string quintet, a wealth of glorious piano music, some of the most original choral works of the Romantic era, and an awe-inspiring legacy of well over 600 hundred songs – the latter not so much a treasure chest as an immense vault one could spend a lifetime exploring. Not that Schubert had much of a lifetime to compose them: he was dead two months before his 32nd birthday.
Of course, the teenage Schubert’s public musical career wasn’t anywhere near as comet-like as Mozart’s. But in terms of solid, lasting musical achievement, his output is just as remarkable. Mozart’s first unshakeable repertory pieces – the ‘Little G minor’ Symphony (No. 25) and the cantata Exultate, jubilate – date from his 17th year; at the same age Schubert composed both his wonderfully vital Symphony No. 2 in B flat and Gretchen am Spinnrade (‘Gretchen at the Spinning-wheel), one of the defining masterpieces of the Romantic Lieder tradition.
How could a 17-year-old boy from a cosy middle-class Viennese background have achieved such empathy with a passionate young woman, painfully aware that she is about to be betrayed? In the words of the influential Austrian critic Richard Heuberger, Schubert created ‘something new, of unprecedented power, the first composition in a hitherto unknown form, the first modern German song’. Something new, of unprecedented power – you could hardly say that of Exultate, jubilate, deliciously charming though it is.
What is it that’s so new about Gretchen am Spinnrade? Well for one thing the piano part is no simple accompaniment. Its rapidly turning, flowing right hand is the movement of the wheel clearly enough, but it also catches something of Gretchen’s agitation. The repeated da-DA rhythm in the left hand could be the action of the treadle – but it could also be Gretchen’s anxiously beating heart. All these elements combine to form a kind atmospheric image in sound – specific, yet intriguingly ambiguous at the same time. On top of this floats a wonderful vocal line, combining the melodic fluency of great folksong with the heightened expression of recitative. The climax, at the words ‘ach, sein Kuss!’ (‘ah, his kiss!’), can be a shock in performance even today.
This is only the beginning: after Gretchen comes a torrent of masterpieces. Nähe des Geliebten (‘Closeness of the Beloved’), written the following year, looks at first like a simple strophic song, with four verses set to the same melody – though what a melody! But the piano’s two-bar introduction is a little miracle: a soft pulsating triplet figure rises ardently, performing one of those deft harmonic turns-on-a-sixpence (from B flat major to G flat) for which Schubert is famous. It makes the voice sound as though it is coming from another, better world.
From this can be charted a compelling journey of enrichment and consolidation to the final set of masterpieces in Lieder form: the six settings of poems by Heinrich Heine that mark the high point of the collection published posthumously as Schwanengesang (‘Swansong’). Just to pick out two of these songs: ‘Die Stadt’ (‘The City’) conveys the hallucinatory imagery of the poem with rippling, harmonically ambiguous piano figures that – most drastically of all – fail to resolve at the end; then there’s the profoundly unsettling pre-Freudian ‘Doppelgänger’, with its oppressive slow-building piano chords, and the singer-protagonist’s terrified cry as he recognises his own ghostly double, mocking the agonies of his old unrequited love. No composer of solo song in any language had achieved anything like this before Schubert.
It took him a while to reach the comparable levels of originality and expressive intensity in his orchestral and instrumental works. The first six numbered symphonies contain plenty of beguiling, even thrilling music, but the formal debt is still to the classical masters, Haydn and Mozart. Indeed, occasionally one senses Schubert is using their structural devices as musical water wings. But with the famous Unfinished Symphony (1822) Schubert bids farewell to safety and slips into the open sea. No classical symphony began with anything like this: a dark-toned, at first almost inaudible figure rising and falling on low cellos and basses.
But perhaps the greatest of all Schubert’s musical assets was his phenomenal melodic gift. Hearing the achingly beautiful theme for the two cellos in the first movement of the String Quintet, or the instrumental song that sets the F minor Fantasy for piano duet on its dream-like course, one can experience a lifting of mood that feels almost physical. We can only be grateful for what this modest, otherworldly man left with us – an outpouring as prodigious as anything in the history of artistic creation.
Stephen Johnson is a critic and writer for BBC Music Magazine, with work also published in The Independent, The Guardian and Gramophone. He is a regular contributor on BBC Radio 3, 4 and the World Service, and has presented programmes and documentaries on Bruckner, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams.