Posthumous Fame Composer Franz Schubert

About the famous Austrian composer Franz Schubert, biography and history of the man who achieved fame after only death.


FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828), Austrian composer

Called "the most poetic of all musicians" by Franz Liszt, Schubert was a short, dumpy, rather ugly, but extremely sociable man who was not musically well trained. He was, however, amazingly prolific in his short lifetime, turning out a constant stream of piano and ensemble pieces, operas, symphonies, and songs--some 634 of them, set to any sort of verse, much of it bad. A failed schoolteacher, Schubert was unable to gain a livelihood from his compositions, most of which he never heard performed. Complications of the syphilis he contracted in 1822 led to a long decline in health, and he died of typhoid at age 31 in Vienna, leaving hundreds of musical manuscripts with his brother and scattered among friends. Over the next 50 years Schubert's work was published in a slow trickle. One Viennese music critic wrote in 1862 that "it is as though he continued to work invisibly. One can hardly keep up with him." Though highly admired by a small circle of devotees, his work remained largely unknown to the public until 1838, when German composer Robert Schumann discovered Schubert's Symphony in C Major (the Great) in the black polished chest where Ferdinand Schubert kept his brother's manuscripts. Franz Liszt also began performing arrangements of Schubert's songs on the piano in 1838, but there was still no large public response. Schubert had given the score of his Unfinished symphony, for which he is probably best known, to a close friend, Josef Huttenbrenner, in 1823. Josef's pianist brother Anselm acquired it in 1827 and hoarded it among other Schubert manuscripts as a private "treasure" for 40 years, until he reluctantly permitted its first performance in 1865. The first complete edition of Schubert's works was finally published in the years 1884 to 1897. Then, about 1900, he was commercially "discovered," and the haunting melodies that had gone largely unnoticed for years became a veritable gold mine. Biographer Joseph Wechsberg noted that "unscrupulous people . . . made more money out of him in a month than Schubert earned in his whole life"--less than the equivalent of $3,000. Today his immortality and genius stand secure, and occasionally another long-forgotten piece is discovered. A new German edition of his works, begun in 1969, is attempting to correct much of the distortion of the past 150 years.

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