Franz Schubert: Man of contrasts

‘My favourite composer’ is as fruitless a subject as ‘favourite’ anything else. Different moments and moods suit a variety of experiences, musical or otherwise. But increasingly I have a great affection for Schubert’s music as well as being sad that he died so young and at the height of his powers. There could have been so much more, and whereas one regrets that Beethoven was never able to hear much of his later music, Schubert was able to perform only a fraction of his output in public, and most of it was unpublished in his lifetime. Born 29 years after Beethoven, he died only a year after his death, and living under the shadow of the great master and the new wiz kid Mendelssohn, it has taken years for his work to be fully appreciated.

He was a prolific composer, writing over 600 songs (on which for a long time his reputation mainly rested), more than 200 of them settings of the same poems, often by Goethe and Schiller.

The English record company Hyperion recorded every known song over a period of years, performed by the finest singers in Europe. His accompaniment to the songs is almost as worth listening to as the songs themselves. He wrote many operas, none of which, to his regret, were successful, as well as a great deal of church and chamber music. His ‘Unfinished’ Symphony and the ‘Great’ C Major Symphony were the culmination of his symphonic works. Above all he was a lyrical composer – his music is full of beautifully crafted tunes. It was as a writer of melody that he was first recognised.

His later music fascinates me. I have a set of piano CD’s which mainly consists of the late sonatas, played by the incomparable Alfred Brendel and I return to them again and again. They don’t make for easy listening.

They reveal a man experimenting with a new world of his own making and using techniques that demand virtuoso playing. There’s an argument going on with which one wants to engage, but you have to listen not only to the notes but to the spaces between them. Schubert’s biographer John Reed says that it is only in the twentieth century that such pianists as Brendel and Schnabel have brought the sonatas to the notice of the concert-going public. ‘In the nineteenth century such self-revealing music was thought to be out of place in the concert hall.’

Schubert was one of the coffin bearers at Beethoven’s funeral. Often people say that it was Brahms who developed the art of ‘The Master’. O.K. But for me, in his distinctive way, it was Schubert.