Klára Würtz, piano.
Franz Schubert – Piano Sonata in A major, D 664, Op. 120 ( summer of 1819):
I. Allegro moderato, A major
II. Andante, D major
III. Allegro, A major
Well regarded among pianists, the “Little” A major sonata is so called to distinguish it from the hefty 1828 sonata in the same key. The manuscript, completed in July 1819, was dedicated to Josephine von Koller of Steyr in Upper Austria, whom he considered to be “very pretty” and “a good pianist.” The lyrical, buoyant, in spots typically poignant nature of this sonata fits the image of a young Schubert in love, living in a summery Austrian countryside, which he also considered to be “unimaginably lovely.”
The A major sonata is straightforward, with a dulcet melodic opening. It was the first of Schubert’s piano sonatas where the sonata form as perfected by his idol, Beethoven, does not seem wrestled with; rather, it is a “joyous breakthrough,” a carefree triumph over strict rules of construction.
The manuscript to this “little” sonata has been lost.
Early life and education
Schubert was born in Himmelpfortgrund (now a part of Alsergrund), Vienna on January 31, 1797. His father, Franz Theodor Schubert, the son of a Moravian peasant, was a parish schoolmaster; his mother, Elisabeth Vietz, was the daughter of a Silesian master locksmith, and had also been a housemaid for a Viennese family prior to her marriage. Of Franz Theodor’s fourteen children (one illegitimate child was born in 1783), nine died in infancy; five survived. Their father was a well-known teacher, and his school in Lichtental, a part of Vienna’s 9th district, was well attended. He was not a musician of fame or with formal training, but he taught his son some elements of music.
The house in which Schubert was born, today Nussdorfer Strasse 54, in the 9th district of Vienna.
At the age of five, Schubert began receiving regular instruction from his father and a year later was enrolled at his father’s school. His formal musical education also began around the same time. His father continued to teach him the basics of the violin, and his brother Ignaz gave him piano lessons. At 7, Schubert began receiving lessons from Michael Holzer, the local church organist and choirmaster. Holzer’s lessons seem to have mainly consisted of conversations and expressions of admiration and the boy gained more from his acquaintance with a friendly joiner‘s apprentice who used to take him to a neighboring pianoforte warehouse where he had the opportunity to practice on better instruments. He also played the viola in the family string quartet, with brothers Ferdinand and Ignaz on violin and his father on the cello. Schubert wrote many of his early string quartets for this ensemble.
Schubert first came to the attention of Antonio Salieri, then Vienna’s leading musical authority, in 1804, when his vocal talent was recognized. In October 1808, he became a pupil at the Stadtkonvikt (Imperial seminary) through a choir scholarship. At the Stadtkonvikt, Schubert was introduced to theovertures and symphonies of Mozart. His exposure to these pieces and various lighter compositions, combined with his occasional visits to the opera set the foundation for his greater musical knowledge.One important musical influence came from the songs of Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg, who was an importantLied composer of the time, which, his friend Joseph von Spaun reported, he “wanted to modernize”.Schubert’s friendship with Spaun began at the Stadtkonvikt and endured through his lifetime. In those early days, the more well-to-do Spaun furnished the impoverished Schubert with manuscript paper.
Meanwhile, his genius began to show in his compositions. Schubert was occasionally permitted to lead the Stadtkonvikt’s orchestra, and Salieri decided to begin training him privately in musical composition andtheory in these years. It was the first germ of that amateur orchestra for which, in later years, many of his compositions were written. During the remainder of his stay at the Stadtkonvikt he wrote a good deal of chamber music, several songs, some miscellaneous pieces for the pianoforte and, among his more ambitious efforts, a Kyrie (D. 31) and Salve Regina (D. 27), an octet for wind instruments (D. 72/72a, said to commemorate the 1812 death of his mother), a cantata for guitar and male voices (D. 110, in honor of his father’s birthday in 1813), and his first symphony (D. 82).
Teacher at his father’s school
At the end of 1813, he left the Stadtkonvikt, and returned home for studies at the Normalhauptschule to train as a teacher. In 1814, he entered his father’s school as teacher of the youngest students. For over two years, the young man endured the drudgery of the work, which he performed with very indifferent success. There were, however, other interests to compensate. He continued to receive private lessons in composition from Salieri, who did more for Schubert’s musical training than any of his other teachers. Salieri and Schubert would part ways in 1817.
In 1814, Schubert met a young soprano named Therese Grob, the daughter of a local silk manufacturer. Several of his songs (Salve Regina and Tantum Ergo) were composed for her voice, and she also performed in the premiere of his first Mass (D. 105) in September 1814. Schubert intended to marry Grob, but was hindered by the harsh marriage consent law of 1815, which required the ability to show the means to support a family. In November 1816, after failing to gain a position at Laibach, Schubert sent Grob’s brother Heinrich a collection of songs, which were retained by her family into the 20th century.
Schubert’s most prolific year was probably 1815. He composed over 20,000 bars of music, more than half of which was for orchestra, including nine church works, a symphony, and about 140 Lieder. In that year, he was also introduced to Anselm Hüttenbrenner and Franz von Schober, who would become his lifelong friends. Another friend, Johann Mayrhofer, was introduced to him by Spaun in 1814.
Supported by friends
Josef Abel(?) portrait of an anonymous young man with glasses (possibly Schubert)
Significant changes happened in 1816. Schober, a student of good family and some means, invited Schubert to room with him at his mother’s house. The proposal was particularly opportune, for Schubert had just made the unsuccessful application for the post of Kapellmeister at Laibach, and he had also decided not to resume teaching duties at his father’s school. By the end of the year, he became a guest in Schober’s lodgings. For a time, he attempted to increase the household resources by giving music lessons, but they were soon abandoned, and he devoted himself to composition. “I compose every morning, and when one piece is done, I begin another.” During this year, he focused on orchestral and choral works, although he also continued to write Lieder. Much of this work was unpublished, but manuscripts and copies circulated among friends and admirers.
In early 1817, Schober introduced Schubert to Johann Michael Vogl, a prominent baritone twenty years Schubert’s senior. Vogl, for whom Schubert went on to write a great many songs, became one of Schubert’s main proponents in Viennese musical circles. He also met Joseph Hüttenbrenner (brother to Anselm), who also played a role in promoting Schubert’s music. These, and an increasing circle of friends and musicians, became responsible for promoting, collecting, and, after his death, preserving, his work.
In late 1817, Schubert’s father gained a new position at a school in Rossau (not far from Lichtental). Schubert rejoined his father and reluctantly took up teaching duties there. In early 1818, he was rejected for membership in the prestigious Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, something that might have furthered his musical career. However, he began to gain more notice in the press, and the first public performance of a secular work, an overture performed in February 1818, received praise from the press in Vienna and abroad.
Schubert spent the summer of 1818 as music teacher to the family of Count Johann Karl Esterházy at their château in Zseliz (then in Hungary, now in Slovakia). His duties were relatively light (teaching piano and singing to the two daughters, Marie and Karoline), and the pay relatively good. As a result, he happily continued to compose during this time. It may have been at this time that he wrote one of his now world-famous compositions, the Marche militaire No. 1 in D major. On his return from Zseliz, he took up residence with his friend Mayrhofer. The respite at Zseliz led to a succession of compositions for piano duet.
The tight circle of friends that Schubert surrounded himself with was dealt a blow in early 1820. Schubert and four of his friends were arrested by the Austrian secret police, who were suspicious of any type of student gatherings. One of Schubert’s friends, Johann Senn, was put on trial, imprisoned for over a year, and then permanently banned from Vienna. The other four, including Schubert, were “severely reprimanded”, in part for “inveighing against [officials] with insulting and opprobrious language”. While Schubert never saw Senn again, he did set some of his poems, “Selige Welt” and “Schwanengesang”, to music. The incident may have played a role in a falling-out with Mayrhofer, with whom he was living at the time.
The compositions of 1819 and 1820 show a marked advance in development and maturity of style. The unfinished oratorio “Lazarus” (D. 689) was begun in February; later followed, amid a number of smaller works, by the 23rd Psalm (D. 706), the Gesang der Geister (D. 705/714), the Quartettsatz in C minor (D. 703), and the “Wanderer Fantasy” for piano (D. 760). Of most notable interest is the staging in 1820 of two of Schubert’s operas: Die Zwillingsbrüder (D. 647) appeared at the Theater am Kärntnertoron June 14, and Die Zauberharfe (D. 644) appeared at the Theater an der Wien on August 21.Hitherto, his larger compositions (apart from his masses) had been restricted to the amateur orchestra at the Gundelhof, a society which grew out of the quartet-parties at his home. Now he began to assume a more prominent position, addressing a wider public. Publishers, however, remained distant, withAnton Diabelli hesitantly agreeing to print some of his works on commission. The first seven opus numbers (all songs) appeared on these terms; then the commission ceased, and he began to receive the meager pittances which were all that the great publishing houses ever accorded to him. The situation improved somewhat in March 1821 when Vogl sang “Der Erlkönig” at a concert that was extremely well received. That month, he composed a variation on a waltz by Anton Diabelli (D. 718), being one of the fifty composers who contributed to Vaterländischer Künstlerverein.
The production of the two operas turned Schubert’s attention more firmly than ever in the direction of the stage, where, for a variety of reasons, he was almost completely unsuccessful. In 1822, Alfonso und Estrella was refused, partly owing to its libretto. Fierrabras (D. 796) was rejected in the fall of 1823, but this was largely due to the popularity of Rossini and the Italian operatic style, and the failure of Carl Maria von Weber‘s Euryanthe. Die Verschworenen (D. 787) was prohibited by the censor (apparently on the grounds of its title), and Rosamunde (D. 797) was withdrawn after two nights, owing to the poor quality of the play for which Schubert had written incidental music. Of these works, the two former are written on a scale which would make their performances exceedingly difficult (Fierrabras, for instance, contains over 1,000 pages of manuscript score), but Die Verschworenen is a bright attractive comedy, and Rosamunde contains some of the most charming music that Schubert ever composed. In 1822, he made the acquaintance of both Weber and Beethoven, but little came of it in either case. Beethoven is said to have acknowledged the younger man’s gifts on a few occasions, but some of this is likely legend and in any case he could not have known the real scope of Schubert’s music – especially not the instrumental works – as so little of it was printed or performed in the composer’s lifetime. On his deathbed, Beethoven is said to have looked into some of the younger man’s works and exclaimed, “Truly, the spark of divine genius resides in this Schubert!” but what would have come of it if he had recovered we can never know.
Schubert in 1825 (watercolor by Wilhelm August Rieder)
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