Schubert wrote some of the most famous melodies of all time – some have achieved the status of folk-song. Folk melody was indeed his starting point, but it is often the harmony which makes them memorable. His chords were not new in themselves, but his characteristic progressions, and sudden shifts from one key to a distantly related key, produce heart-stopping moments.
A good but not brilliant pianist, Schubert wrote in a style which did not make huge technical challenges. His piano music is highly original, with some of the finest pieces in the piano duet repertoire. Masterpieces like the F minor Fantasy and Grand Duo display a new soundworld, with frequent ringing high-octave doubling.
Sviatoslav Richter and Benjamin Britten perform Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor
Schubert’s terminal illness distanced him from others. Passages of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony express despair, and alien elements often intrude – such as the violent interruptions in the slow movement of the G major Quartet (D887) and the hysterical outburst in the slow movement of the A major Sonata (D959). Parts of his song cycle Die Winterreise are as nihilistic as it is possible to imagine.
Music without Schubert?
The Germanic line from Beethoven through Mendelssohn and Schumann was tempered when the lyrical and pastoral influence of Schubert was brought to play on Brahms, Bruch, Bruckner and Dvorák – to all of these he showed how to use the long lines of song in symphonic argument.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Alfred Brendel perform Schubert’s Die Winterreise