Schubert's Final Year, by Richard Wigmore (Gramophone, March 2012)

James McCarthy
Thursday, January 3, 2013

Franz Schubert (Tully Potter Collection)
Franz Schubert (Tully Potter Collection)

For that passionate Schubertian Benjamin Britten the period of 13 months between the completion of Winterreise in (probably) late October 1827 and the composer’s death in November 1828 was the most miraculous ‘year’ in the history of music. There is competition, of course. Many Mozart lovers would cite 1791, which began with the B flat Piano Concerto, K595, and continued, via The Magic Flute and the Clarinet Concerto, to the unfinished Requiem – and all in a year when Haydn was producing four of his greatest symphonies, Nos 93-96, in London. Hindsight has imbued both 1791 and 1828 with a romantic-tragic aura and ascribed to the frantic activity of both composers a sixth sense that time was somehow running out. Granted, neither was physically robust. Schubert had suffered from uncertain health since contracting syphilis in the winter of 1822-23. But until the illnesses of their final weeks, neither composer could have suspected that death was imminent. The wistful melancholy of the Clarinet Concerto and Schubert’s B flat Piano Sonata should not be sentimentalised into a conscious leave-taking. Nor, perhaps, should the parallels between the two composers be pressed too far. As Alfred Brendel puts it, ‘Mozart lived his life and arrived at a kind of late style. Schubert, on the contrary, was in the middle of a tremendous development when he died.’ 

‘Who can do anything after Beethoven?’ Schubert once asked a friend. A generation later those sentiments were echoed by Brahms as he grappled with his First Symphony. Beethoven’s mighty example remained both an inspiration and an awesome challenge for any 19th-century composer writing within the sonata tradition. Yet the magnificent series of instrumental works Schubert produced after the master’s death in March 1827, beginning with the two piano trios, suggests that the self-effacing former schoolteacher who never dared approach Beethoven in his lifetime (though he was a pall-bearer at his funeral) was eager to establish himself as his successor: one clue, surely, to a surge of creative energy phenomenal even by Schubert’s standards. With a nod to Britten, it is tempting to locate the start of Schubert’s torrential final phase to late autumn 1827. His staunchest friend, Josef von Spaun, remarked on Schubert’s ‘gloomy’ mood while composing Winterreise, and even claimed that work on the songs hastened the composer’s death. Fragmentary evidence (which is all the Schubert biographer has to work on) suggests that at this time he was suffering more than usual from nausea and headaches, perhaps exacerbated by bouts of heavy drinking. But lest we draw too close a connection between life and art – between what TS Eliot called ‘the man who suffers and the mind that creates’ – it is worth remembering that virtually contemporary with the song-cycle of existential despair are the vigorous, life-affirming piano trios. Indeed, of all the larger instrumental works of his last years, the B flat Trio, D898, comes closest to the familiar image of the blithe, companionable, echt-Viennese Schubert. In December 1827 came the second set of Impromptus, D935, more extrovert and ‘popular’ in tone than the earlier set (D899); and the C major Fantasie for violin and piano, D934, an unlikely virtuoso showpiece from this least flamboyant of composers. 

The romantic myth of Schubert’s neglect and isolation from the Viennese musical mainstream dies hard. With the championship of the operatic baritone Johann Michael Vogl, his fame as a song composer had grown rapidly since the publication of Erlkönig as Op 1 in 1821. His songs, partsongs, dances and other short piano pieces were in healthy demand among publishers. In 1827 he had been elected to the committee of the Vienna Philharmonic Society. By then, his social circle included professional musicians, notably the Bohemian pianist Karl Maria von Bocklet, as well as friends such as Spaun, the rich dilettante Franz von Schober (generous, but also fickle and egocentric), the painter Moritz von Schwind and the dramatist Eduard von Bauernfeld. Schubert wrote appreciatively to another musician friend, the pianist and composer Anselm Hüttenbrenner, of a public performance of a ‘new trio’ (probably the B flat) in the hall of the Philharmonic Society on December 26, 1827, by Bocklet, plus the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and the cellist Josef Linke – both members of the famed Schuppanzigh Quartet which had given the first performances of the late Beethoven quartets and (in 1824) of Schubert’s own A minor Quartet, D804. 

Schubert had every reason to be feeling optimistic in the early months of 1828. While he doubtless suffered from the headaches and fits of nausea that had afflicted him intermittently since 1823, until August neither he nor any of his friends mentioned ill health; and, although he was never noted for his reliability or punctuality, he seems to have led an active social life, dominated by musical parties and regular Saturday evening readings at Schober’s house. Having failed as a professional actor, Schober relished declaiming to a captive audience plays, short stories and poems, including Heinrich Heine’s newly published Reisebilder, then all the rage in German literary circles. 

In January the publisher Tobias Haslinger advertised the first 12 songs of Winterreise, citing the composer’s ‘warm feeling’ and ‘bold imagination’. A review in the Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst, Literatur, Theater und Mode praised the songs as ‘well made and beautiful’ – a surprising verdict, perhaps, considering how baffled Schubert’s friends were when he sang through the first part of Winterreise at Schober’s the previous year. 

In February, Schubert was approached by two German publishers, Schott of Mainz and Probst of Leipzig, asking what works he might have to offer them. It is revealing of Schubert’s new ambition to rival Beethoven that his reply stressed large-scale instrumental works, including the quartets in D minor and G major, and the E flat Piano Trio. 

Although dealings with both publishers were to prove frustrating (the quartets were rejected, and Probst eventually accepted the trio for a lower fee than Schubert had requested), their interest confirms his growing reputation outside Vienna. 

Meanwhile, Schubert had begun to plan for a benefit concert in the Philharmonic Society hall entirely devoted to his own music, exactly as Beethoven had done on several occasions: further testimony to the young composer’s confidence that he was ready to assume Beethoven’s mantle. Held on March 26, the anniversary of Beethoven’s death, the concert was the greatest public success of Schubert’s whole career, bringing him a handsome profit of 800 florins, even if critical attention was deflected by the presence in Vienna of Nicolò Paganini. ‘I shall never forget how glorious it was,’ wrote one of Schubert’s friends in his diary. ‘Enormous applause. Good receipts.’ Another friend noted: ‘Everyone was lost in a frenzy of admiration and rapture.’ The concert’s centrepiece was the E flat Trio, surrounded by songs and other vocal works, including the newly composed Auf dem Strom (D943) for tenor, horn and piano. Exploiting the horn’s elegiac and heroic associations, this noble scena is Schubert’s tribute to Beethoven’s memory, enhanced by an almost verbatim quotation from the Eroica Symphony’s Marcia funebre


Confessional longing: the F minor Fantasie

By the time of his triumphant benefit concert Schubert had virtually completed what some would nominate as the greatest of all works for piano duet: the F minor Fantasie, D940 – music that combines an intensely personal, confessional tone with a cyclic structure of revolutionary originality. The four sections, played without a break, are fertilised, directly or obliquely, by the melancholy opening tune, suffused with echt-Schubertian Sehnsucht (‘longing’), and a grimly implacable march theme that, in the finale, spawns a cataclysmic fugal outburst. Like so much of Schubert’s music, the opening also suggests a narrative: a lone figure trudging across a landscape, as in Winterreise or the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. 

Pianists have observed how Schubert’s keyboard works, whether for two or four hands, so often conjure other sound worlds. As Imogen Cooper tells me, the Fantasie often evokes, for her, a string quartet or quintet, even at times a male-voice choir. At the centre of the slow movement is a ravishing colloquy for the two players, an operatic love duet by other means: a reminder, too, that Schubert dedicated the Fantasie to Countess Caroline Esterházy. In the summer of 1824 Schubert had played duets with Caroline when employed as music tutor at the Esterházys’ country estate in Zseliz. According to his friends, he was deeply in love with the beautiful young countess; and in the famous Moritz von Schwind painting Ein Schubert-Abend bei Josef von Spaun, her portrait looks down, like a muse. It is hardly fanciful to hear in the yearning love duet an idealised expression of a relationship which social differences alone made impossible. Another great Schubertian, Mitsuko Uchida, reveals to me her doubts as to whether Caroline could actually have played the Fantasie (‘even on a Graf piano of 1820 it’s bloody difficult!’). But she also notes how in much of Schubert’s four-hand music – including this Fantasie and the works written in Zseliz – the left hand of the primo part and the right hand of the secondo brush each other. ‘The fingers constantly touch. That is Sehnsucht!’ 

Schubert and the aspiring young composer Franz Lachner (who later became a distinguished conductor) played the F minor Fantasie to Bauernfeld in May 1828. Bauernfeld’s laconic verdict (‘wunderbar’) brooks no disagreement. Earlier that same evening Schubert, smitten with Paganini fever (‘I have heard an angel sing,’ he wrote to Hüttenbrenner), had taken Bauernfeld to hear the violinist, insisting on paying for his ticket. When his friend protested, Schubert retorted that he had ‘piles of money’, doubtless as a result of his benefit concert. Bauernfeld would later recall the bohemian attitude to finances among the Schubertian inner circle (Bauernfeld himself, Schubert and Schwind): ‘Whoever was flush at the time paid…Now it happened that from time to time two had no money, and the third – not a penny! Naturally, of the three of us it was Schubert who played the role of Croesus, and who at times used to be rolling in money.’ Far from being the perpetual pauper of romantic myth, Schubert earned a decent, if erratic, income from publications, teaching, dedications, and performances in Viennese salons; and 1828 seems to have been one of his most lucrative years. Yet even more than Mozart, he was unwilling or unable to control his finances, always happier to spend on himself and his friends than look to the morrow – though as a syphilitic he would have known that he was unlikely to reach middle (let alone old) age. 


Invoking the sublime

In April 1828 Schubert drafted several settings of the poet Ludwig Rellstab, two of which (‘Liebesbotschaft’ and ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’) would appear in the posthumously published Schwanengesang anthology. Then in May he wrote the Drei Klavierstücke, D946, impromptus in all but name, the first of which, in the ‘extreme’ key of E flat minor, quotes ‘Comfort ye’ from Messiah: testimony, along with the contemporaneous cantata Mirjams Siegesgesang, D942, to Schubert’s Handelian enthusiasm after he had acquired scores of the oratorios. From the same month date two contrasting masterpieces for piano duet, the volcanic A minor Allegro, D947, known under the publisher’s title Lebensstürme, and the dulcet Rondo in A, D951. 

Schubert the composer of friendship and Schubert the heir to Beethoven commingle in the Mass in E flat, written in June and July at the behest of his schoolfriend Michael Leitermayer, organist of the Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Holy Trinity Church) in the suburb of Alsergrund. Once something of a Cinderella among the great works of Schubert’s final year, the Mass is now acknowledged as a powerful and disquieting masterpiece that marries liturgical grandeur with Schubert’s own subjective romantic feeling. Inspired, perhaps, by the example of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, the Mass invokes the sublime – though when I talk to conductor Roger Norrington, his view is that its melodic atmosphere owes more to Mozart than to Beethoven. ‘It’s a delightful, sometimes awe-inspiring mixture of the traditional and the wildly inventive, with novel orchestral sonorities strongly coloured by the trombones, which Schubert had used with such originality in the Unfinished and Great symphonies. Brahms picked up a lot from the E flat Mass in his Requiem.’ 

Schubert’s religious beliefs have provoked almost as much speculation as his sexuality. His parents, like most of their class and generation, were orthodox, God-fearing Catholics, and raised their children in an atmosphere of strict piety. By 1814, when he wrote his first Mass, he evidently distrusted a Church that reserved salvation for its adherents alone, and left out the words ‘Et in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam’ from the Credo, as he would in all his later Masses; and there are other significant omissions elsewhere, including the reference to the resurrection of the dead in both the E flat Mass and its predecessor in A flat. In adulthood, Schubert’s religious outlook seems to have embraced elements of humanism, pantheism and Romantic Neoplatonism, influenced by his first, ecstatic encounter with the poetry of Goethe and by friends such as the saturnine poet Johann Mayrhofer, for whom an idealised ancient Greece was a refuge from the oppressive reality of Metternich’s Vienna. What is incontrovertible is that, like so many artists in the era of Romanticism, Schubert found the old theological certainties inadequate. At times he tended towards agnosticism. But ultimately he seems to have retained a Christian-humanist belief in a benevolent deity, and in the presence of the divine in man. 

Stylistically the E flat Mass is heterodox, ranging from the pastoral lilt of the Kyrie and the exquisite ‘Et incarnatus est’ (fashioned as a round for two tenors and soprano), to the gargantuan fugues that close the Gloria and Credo: Handelian in inspiration, but twice the length of any Handel fugue. The apocalyptic, harmonically visionary Sanctus is a musical counterpart of the molten canvases of Turner and late Goya, while the ‘Domine Deus’ and the Agnus Dei are unprecedented in their violent intensity, as if Schubert is evoking not only Christ’s Passion but also the catastrophe of his syphilitic illness. The baleful chant motif of the Agnus Dei recalls the C sharp minor Fugue in the first book of Bach’s ‘48’. Its personal significance for Schubert is reinforced by its appearance in the terrifying Heine song ‘Der Doppelgänger’. Consolation comes with the gently tolling ‘Dona nobis pacem’; then, unliturgically but with shattering effect, the anguished music of the Agnus Dei returns, an idea surely prompted by Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. The Mass dies away in resignation. Schubert’s vision of peace remains to the end uneasy and shadowed in doubt.



In 1825 Schubert had spent the holiday of his lifetime amid the mountains of Upper Austria. Three summers later he hoped to replicate the experience. But his finances were again shaky, perhaps partly because of expenses incurred by his consultations with the court physician Dr Ernst Rinna. After completing the E flat Mass he returned to the Rellstab songs begun in April, adding to them six Heine settings to create what Spaun dubbed a ‘garland’ of 13 songs to be dedicated to his friends. Only after his death did Haslinger issue the songs under the commercially canny title Schwanengesang, throwing in the Johann Gabriel Seidl setting ‘Die Taubenpost’ to avoid the unlucky 13. Whereas the Heine songs possess a certain unity, the seven Rellstab settings have no connecting thread beyond the archetypal Romantic theme of the distant or unattainable beloved. In mood and style they range wide. ‘Liebesbotschaft’, with its magical, gliding modulations, is Schubert’s last evocation of the rippling brook. ‘Ständchen’ has survived any number of kitsch arrangements to remain the most bewitching of his many serenades with quasi-guitar accompaniment – though the minor key and the singer’s long-drawn-out sigh on the final ‘Beglücke mich!’ suggest melancholy resignation rather than expectation that his love is requited. 

These bittersweet love lyrics are balanced by three songs in darker vein. The narrative ballad ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ foreshadows Mahler’s songs of doomed soldiers and drummer boys, while ‘Aufenthalt’ and ‘In der Ferne’ are both grandly sombre songs of Romantic alienation in the tradition of the famous ‘Der Wanderer’ of 1816. With typically Schubertian legerdemain, the delicious mandolin-style accompaniment of the final Rellstab song, ‘Abschied’, is cunningly fashioned to evoke both the trotting horse and the twinkling stars. When I meet pianist Julius Drake, who has partnered countless tenors and baritones in Schwanengesang, he confesses that ‘Abschied’ is the hardest of all to play. ‘You’re on your horse, and there are those constant huge jumps in the right hand – though playing it on a fortepiano of Schubert’s period you can see that the composer intended the effect to be less smooth than modern players are tempted to make it.’ 

If the Rellstab settings invest familiar song types with new resonances, the Heine songs are unprecedented in their claustrophobic intensity and power of suggestion. Attracted by the pithiness and emotional directness of this quintessential poet of Romantic disenchantment, Schubert chose six poems from a sequence in Heine’s Reisebilder entitled ‘Die Heimkehr’ (The Homecoming). And if, like other composers (Schumann included), he can miss a note of deflating mockery in Heine’s verses, he encapsulates and heightens all their disillusion and Weltschmerz

‘You can hardly believe that this is the composer of the Trout Quintet and the Octet!’ says Drake. ‘Just as astonishing is the huge difference in style between the Rellstab and the Heine songs. Both are equally great. But the Rellstab poems inspire much richer, warmer piano textures, while Heine’s verses brought out a minimalist bleakness whose only parallels in Schubert are the final songs of the two halves of Winterreise, ‘Einsamkeit’ and ‘Der Leiermann’. ‘Der Doppelgänger’, the poet’s encounter with his own ghostly double, is one of the most extraordinary, frightening songs in existence: those stark single chords, often without the third, repeated like a passacaglia and building to a series of shattering climaxes that remain as bleak as the opening.’ 

Tenor Christoph Prégardien, who has made a series of probing Schubert recordings with fortepianist Andreas Staier, cites three of the Heine songs, ‘Ihr Bild’, ‘Am Meer’ and ‘Der Doppelgänger’, as among the most intimidating ever written. ‘In Schwanengesang Schubert explored new emotional Abgründe – abysses. And in those three songs, especially, you feel artistically naked. In “Am Meer”, for instance, there is a huge psychological gulf between voice and accompanist, between the singer’s sweet, bel canto line and the strange harmonies and empty sonorities of the piano. Many singers agree that Schwanengesang is even more demanding than Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, technically and emotionally. It really needs two different types of tenor, like the two arias in Bach’s St John Passion

‘The heroic despair of “Der Atlas” requires a Heldentenor, while at the opposite extreme “Ständchen” and “Das Fischermädchen” need a light, lyric colouring and seductive charm. The Rellstab and Heine settings are so different in style that I usually prefer to separate them with a group of Seidl settings from Schubert’s last year, including “Die Taubenpost”. In the Heine songs I like to use the poet’s order, rather than Schubert’s, beginning with the optimistic serenade “Fischermädchen” and ending with “Der Atlas” – this creates a logical dramatic development which I can’t find in Schubert’s order.’ 

By the time he completed the Heine songs in August, Schubert was apparently suffering regularly from the giddiness, headaches and gastritis that had plagued him during the previous summer. On September 1 he moved, on Dr Rinna’s advice, from his rooms in Schober’s luxurious apartment to his brother Ferdinand’s house outside the city walls – though any benefit from the cleaner air was more than offset by the dampness of his new quarters. As far as we can infer from fragmentary documentation, Schubert still led an active social life, walking into the city to meet friends at their favourite drinking haunts. Meanwhile, in September – a mensis mirabilis if ever there was one – he completed the three last piano sonatas, and the String Quintet. According to his friends, he played all three sonatas, some two hours of music, at a musical party on September 27: a daunting challenge for anyone, let alone a man in weakened health. 


The final sonata trilogy

The notion of Schubert as Beethoven’s self-appointed successor rings especially true in the case of the C minor and A major piano sonatas, D958 and D959. Both works draw on Beethovenian precedents: for instance, the 32 Variations in C minor at the opening of D958, and (in its structure and textures) the Sonata in G, Op 31 No 1, in the finale of D959. But far more striking are the differences between the two composers. The Beethoven finale is terse, whereas Schubert’s unfolds luxuriantly (‘a daydream of bliss’, in the words of Alfred Brendel). Even at his most vehement, Beethoven retains a magnificent sanity and control. However, in parts of the C minor Sonata and in the eruption in the Andantino of the A major, Schubert peers into the abyss. 

The finale of the C minor Sonata, dubbed a ‘death hunt’ by Mitsuko Uchida, is the culmination of a series of Schubertian night-rides that reach back to Erlkönig of 1815. Andreas Staier, who has made a revelatory recording of the last three sonatas on a fortepiano of Schubert’s day, emphasises the obsessive, nightmarish quality of this finale – a counterpart to the finale of the Quartet in G, D887 (1826). ‘In this sonata, unlike its two companions, Schubert makes the finale the weightiest movement. And it’s the opposite of superficially similar Beethoven movements – the finale of the Kreutzer Sonata, or the galloping finale of the E flat Sonata, Op 31 No 3 – in its expansiveness. Beethoven is a concise composer, telling stories quickly, with abrupt transitions. Schubert, on the other hand, is always a slow composer, even in a fast tempo. He needs many hundreds of bars here – that “heavenly length” that Schumann noted in his music.’ 

For Imogen Cooper who, like Brendel and Uchida, has often played the last three sonatas in a single programme, the A major poses the greatest challenge. ‘Even more than in the C minor, in the first movement it’s difficult to find an organic pulse – what Edwin Fischer called “the long silver chord of tension” – for both the first and second themes. And this movement, especially, often evokes the sounds of the orchestra, as in the opening bars, a summons to attention that is immediately followed by a delicate pianistic response.’ 

Many of Schubert’s late slow movements are built on extreme contrasts of calm and turbulence. But the disruptive violence of the central section of the A major Sonata is without precedent. The remote, melancholy barcarolle is confronted by an increasingly frenzied fantasia that pushes the music to the brink of incoherence. Brendel has described this terrifying, prophetic eruption as the musical equivalent of a nervous breakdown, while for Uchida it is, simply, ‘the greatest mad scene ever written’. Brendel, though, utters a word of caution: ‘Nowadays, one has to defend Schubert against those who try to turn him, musically, into a constant depressive, if not a hysterical madman. I know of little music as frightening as this outburst, or as shattering as “Der Doppelgänger”. Yet this same A major Sonata has a jolly Scherzo and a generously happy finale.’ 

In the B flat Sonata, D960, any Beethovenian influence is at best oblique: there’s a distant recollection of the Archduke Trio, perhaps, in the serene opening; and, in the way the finale’s Hungarian-tinged theme quizzically approaches B flat via C minor, there’s a half-echo of the finale Beethoven wrote to replace the Grosse Fuge in his Op 130 Quartet. But in spirit the sonata is utterly un-Beethovenian. The mysterious contemplative ecstasy of the first two movements is, with the G major Sonata, D894, of 1826 and parts of the String Quintet, the consummation of a quintessential Schubertian experience first glimpsed in his 1815 setting of Goethe’s ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’. 

The soft, deep trill on a dissonant G flat which intrudes on the sublime calm of the opening theme illustrates a crucial difference between Beethoven’s and Schubert’s methods. Where Beethoven would have integrated the trill into the music’s argument, for Schubert it remains something strangely ‘other’, an extreme contrast in sonority and register with everything that surrounds it – and, as Staier stresses, the contrast is even more extreme with the remote, otherworldly colouring created by the fortepiano’s una corda pedal. Just once, in the transition from exposition to development – heard only if the exposition is repeated – does the trill erupt in fortissimo violence. Schubertians are sharply divided on whether or not to play this repeat. For Uchida, who describes this first movement as ‘a glimpse of eternity, where life and death have ended’, it is indispensable to the music’s structure. For Brendel, the trill’s fortissimo appearance in the transition is a rare Schubertian miscalculation – and he notes that in Schubert’s first draft the trill remained in its original pianissimo. Cooper puts it more bluntly: ‘That fortissimo trill is a violation!’ 


‘The whole of Schubert’: the C major String Quintet

Reflecting how Schubert’s piano so often evokes an orchestra, a chamber group, or (as in the finale of D959 or the opening of D960) a Lieder singer, Alfred Brendel has remarked that Schubert’s last three sonatas can seem like veiled string quartets and quintets. In the Andante of the B flat Sonata – another of Schubert’s nocturnal barcarolles – one can imagine second violin and viola floating the melody against pizzicatos from the other strings: a weightless texture akin to the Adagio of the C major String Quintet, which Schubert must have conceived at virtually the same time. 

The Quintet is famous above all for this unearthly Adagio (the music Thomas Mann most wanted to hear on his deathbed) and the first movement’s nostalgic duet for two cellos. Yet despite these moments of transfiguration, the work as a whole is far from serene. Brendel has observed that it contains ‘a very dark core’. Even at the opening, C major, traditionally a symbol of affirmation, is shadowed by diminished harmonies and minor-keyed inflections. In another violent contrast so characteristic of Schubert’s late slow movements, the Adagio’s trance-like stillness is shattered by the tumult of the central section – a disruption fleetingly echoed, with eerie effect, in the movement’s closing bars. 

For Krzysztof Chorzelski, viola player in the Belcea Quartet, the C major Quintet, more than any other work, ‘embraces every side of Schubert: exquisite lyricism, Viennese Gemütlichkeit in the finale’s theme for two cellos, intense pathos and, in parts of the first movement and finale, a titanic sense of struggle. The centre of the Adagio is one of the most tormented outbursts in all music. And the sombre Trio of the Scherzo, with the instruments on their lowest string, is like a funeral procession. The whole work is based on the tense, grating interval of the semitone. And after the finale’s attempts at cheerfulness – which I can never quite believe in – the movement ends with a dissonant D flat hanging in the air, never fully resolved: it leaves a bitter aftertaste, like a tragic resignation to fate.’ 

On October 6, days after finishing the Quintet, Schubert, his brother Ferdinand and two friends set off on a three-day walk to visit Haydn’s tomb in Eisenstadt. We can guess that the round trip of over 50 miles left the composer exhausted. Yet he continued to compose during October: the virtuoso scena with clarinet ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’ for the Berlin prima donna Anna Milder-Hauptmann (further evidence of Schubert’s growing fame beyond Vienna), two short liturgical works, and ‘Die Taubenpost’, incongruously appended to Schwanengesang. It’s somehow touching that his final song for voice and piano is not a grand or tragic statement but tenderly wistful, ‘smiling with a sigh’, to borrow a phrase from Cymbeline

According to Ferdinand, Schubert’s final illness dates from October 31, when he became nauseous after eating fish at the tavern Zum roten Kreuz. ‘After this, he ate and drank hardly anything but medicines.’ But on November 4 he still managed to walk a mile with a friend to the home of the organist and theorist Simon Sechter for the first of a planned course of lessons in formal counterpoint. As Imogen Cooper remarks, ‘You don’t take counterpoint lessons if you know you’re dying.’ A prime incentive for these lessons was surely the craggy contrapuntal mastery of Beethoven’s late works, not least in the Missa solemnis and Ninth Symphony. In October, Schubert had begun to sketch a symphony in D major, whose textures are far more contrapuntal then anything in his previous symphonies. ‘Counterpoint studies produced pedantic results in most 19th-century composers,’ says Andreas Staier. ‘But the signs are that if Schubert had lived to finish the symphony he would have created a new, totally unacademic polyphony. The sketch of the Andante looks forward to ‘Der Abschied’ in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.’ 

These symphonic fragments – another tantalising Schubertian might-have-been – were the last music he set down. On November 12, the composer wrote to Franz Schober: ‘I am ill. I have eaten nothing for 11 days and drunk nothing. I totter feebly and shakily from my chair to my bed and back again.’ Two days later Schubert, now bedridden, was deeply moved when the Schuppanzigh Quartet played for him Beethoven’s C sharp minor String Quartet, Op 131. That day the doctor diagnosed ‘advanced disintegration of the blood corpuscles’. On November 19 he died, two months before his 32nd birthday, and music suffered the cruellest of its premature losses. The cause of his death has provoked endless debate. His immune system had been progressively weakened by the venereal infection he had carried for six years. What actually killed him may have been typhoid fever, or an aneurism caused by a debilitation of the heart vessels. 

In his memorial inscription the poet Franz Grillparzer famously wrote: ‘The art of music has here buried a rich possession but far fairer hopes.’ Just how rich a possession Grillparzer could not have suspected: for though Schubert was celebrated for his songs and shorter piano pieces, the full scope of his genius as a composer of large-scale orchestral, chamber and piano works remained hidden for many years after he died. Today we contemplate that genius with mingled awe and delight. Yet with those visionary late works in mind it is hard – far harder than with Mozart, as Brendel implies – to escape an aching sense of what might have been. 

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