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8.570354 - SCHUBERT, F.: Piano Works for Four Hands, Vol. 5 (Humphreys, Schiller)
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Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Piano Works for Four Hands • 5

 

Franz Schubert was born in Vienna in 1797, the son of a schoolmaster, and spent the greater part of his short life in the city. His parents had settled in Vienna, his father moving there from Moravia in 1783 to join his schoolmaster brother at a school in the suburb of Leopoldstadt and marrying in 1785 a woman who had her origins in Silesia and was to bear him fourteen children. Franz Schubert was the twelfth of these and the fourth to survive infancy. He began to learn the piano at the age of five, with the help of his brother Ignaz, twelve years his senior, and three years later started to learn the violin, while serving as a chorister at Liechtental church. From there he applied, on the recommendation of Antonio Salieri, to join the Imperial Chapel, into which he was accepted in October 1808, as a chorister now allowed to study at the Akademisches Gymnasium, boarding at the Stadtkonvikt, his future education guaranteed.

During his schooldays Schubert formed friendships that he was to maintain for the rest of his life. After his voice broke in 1812, he was offered, as expected, a scholarship to enable him to continue his general education, but he chose, instead, to train as a primary school teacher, while devoting more time to music and, in particular, to composition, the art to which he was already making a prolific contribution. In 1815 he was able to join his father as an assistant teacher, but showed no great aptitude or liking for the work. Instead he was able to continue the earlier friendships he had formed at school and make new acquaintances. His meeting in 1816 with Franz von Schober allowed him to accept an invitation to live in the latter's apartment, an arrangement that relieved him of the necessity of earning his keep in the schoolroom. In August 1817 he returned home again, when room was needed by Schober for his dying brother, and resumed his place, for the moment, in the classroom. The following summer he spent in part at Zseliz in Hungary as music tutor to the two daughters of Count Johann Karl Esterházy von Galánta, before returning to Vienna to lodge with a new friend, the poet Johann Mayrhofer, an arrangement that continued until near the end of 1820, after which Schubert spent some months living alone, now able to afford the necessary rent.

By this period of his life it seemed that Schubert was on the verge of solid success as a composer and musician. Thanks to his friends, in particular the older singer Johann Michael Vogl, a schoolfriend of Mozart's pupil Süssmayr, Leopold von Sonnleithner and others, his music was winning an audience. There was collaboration with Schober on a new opera, later rejected by the Court Opera, but in other respects his name was becoming known as a composer beyond his immediate circle. He lodged once again with the Schobers in 1822 and 1823 and it was at this time that his health began to deteriorate, through a venereal infection that was then incurable. This illness overshadowed the remaining years of his life and was the cause of his early death. It has been thought a direct consequence of the dissolute way of life into which Schober introduced him and which for a time alienated him from some of his former friends. The following years brought intermittent returns to his father's house, since 1818 in the suburb of Rossau, and a continuation of social life that often centred on his own musical accomplishments and of his intense activity as a composer. In February 1828 the first public concert of his music was given in Vienna, an enterprise that proved financially successful, and he was able to spend the summer with friends, including Schober, before moving, in September, to the suburb of Wieden to stay with his brother Ferdinand, in the hope that his health might improve. Social activities continued, suggesting that he was unaware of the imminence of his death, but at the end of October he was taken ill at dinner and in the following days his condition became worse. He died on 19 November.

During Schubert's final years publishers had started to show an interest in his work. He had fulfilled commissions for the theatre and delighted his friends with songs, piano pieces and chamber music. It was with his songs, above all, that Schubert won a lasting reputation and to this body of work that he made a contribution equally remarkable for its quality as for its quantity, with settings of poems by major and minor poets, a reflection of literary interests of the period. His gift for the invention of an apt and singable melody is reflected in much else that he wrote.

It was possible that Schubert had taught the two young daughters of Count Johann Karl Esterházy von Galánta in Vienna. In July 1818, at any rate, he travelled to the Count's country property at Zseliz, employed to give piano lessons there to Karoline and Marie Esterházy von Galánta. He stayed there until November, enjoying a certain security in his life as a member of the household, lodged in the steward's quarters and paid 76 florins a month. The two girls were talented musically, and Schubert had the leisure and room to compose as he wished. In May 1824, restored for the moment to health, Schubert was again employed by the Esterházys during the summer months at Zseliz, where he remained until mid-October. As during his earlier stay, he provided duets for his pupils, now on a more ambitious scale. The principal composition of this kind was his Sonata in C major, D. 812,known as the 'Grand Duo'. It will be remembered that Robert Schumann imagined veiled symphonies in the early piano compositions of Brahms. Based, presumably, on his knowledge of Schubert's Symphony in C major, he suggested that the Grand Duo was, to all intents and purposes, a symphony, a judgement that is now largely rejected, with Joachim's orchestration of the work cited as evidence of what is essentially pianistic writing. The Duo is a large-scale work, and an impressive challenge, no doubt, to the Esterházy girls. The first movement opens with the principal subject, its opening figure shared between primo and secondo. The second subject, in A flat major, is entrusted first to the latter, with triplet figuration, first heard in the earlier transition, now returning in both parts. The repeated exposition is followed by a central development, beginning with a transposed version of the opening theme. The movement ends with a recapitulation in which the second subject, on its return, touches the tonic minor key. The A flat major slow movement recalls the Larghetto of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2, and the Scherzo with its syncopated F minor Trio is followed by an ambitious and extended finale, dominated by the Hungarian dance rhythm of its principal subject.

The summer at Zseliz brought, in July, four Ländler, D. 814, in E flat, A flat, C minor and C major respectively. More substantial are the Variations on an Original Theme, D. 813, a piano duet that Schubert published in Vienna the following year, with a dedication to the young court chamberlain, Count Berchtold von Ungarschütz, his close contemporary. The march theme in A flat major is followed by a triplet variation and a version of the theme accompanied by semiquaver figuration. The third variation is marked Un poco più lento and the fifth is in A flat minor, leading to a sixth Maestoso variation, with accompanying triplet semiquaver figuration. After a muted Più lento seventh treatment of the theme, the final Allegro moderato is in the dotted compound rhythm of a siciliano.

Schubert's Six Grand Marches and Trios, D. 819, were presumably written at Zseliz in 1824. The second of these attractive pieces, in G minor and marked Allegro ma non troppo, is matched by its G major Trio, and the third, in B minor and marked Allegretto, establishes its mood with the ominous opening accompanying chords of the secondo. To this the B major Trio provides a suitable contrast.

Keith Anderson

 


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