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Schubert: The Education of the Masters

Like Mozart, Schubert is commonly supposed to have had a mind for music and nothing else. In The Etude for October, however, I presented documentary evidence indicating that Mozart might have made his mark in other branches of intellectual activity had not music absorbed every minute of his time till he succumbed to the struggle for existence. In the present number I wish to show that Schubert, also, was a man with a more varied mentality than he usually gets credit for.
Although the school in which Franz Schubert was placed when he was nearly twelve years old was a so-called “Convict,” at which choristers were educated for the court chapel in Vienna, it was by no means simply a school of music. Instruction was given also in writing, drawing, mathematics, geography, history, poetry, Italian and French; and Franz, as a matter of course, had to take all these courses. When his voice broke, in 1813, and he was of no further use to the Imperial Choir, he had an opportunity to devote himself to the higher classical studies. This, however, did not tempt him, because of his growing predilection for music. He spent a term at a normal school, in order to qualify as teacher, and then, for three years, he assisted his father in teaching the elementary branches in a suburban school. These years of drudgery must have seemed to him interminable, for teaching—even music teaching—was not what nature had intended him for. Finally he realized that for a fish the only natural element is water; so he left the school and thenceforth devoted himself to music.
Not entirely, however. He was fond of good company, and spent much of his time with his friends. These friends were by no means all musicians; there were among them officials, poets, artists, philosophers, men of brains and character, not a few of whom were or became famous in their vocations. Yet Schubert dominated this intellectual circle so completely that the meeting soon came to be called Schubertiaden. On these occasions he used to play his new compositions but as no one suspected at that time that he was one of the immortal masters, this alone could not have explained his leadership. Schober wrote afterwards that “the intellectual enjoyments of these scenes no participator can ever forget so long as he lives”; and Schubert, we may be sure, did not hide his light under a bushel. He was particular, too, as to the men who joined in the Schubertiaden, and whenever there was a new arrival he promptly wanted to know “Kann er ‘was? ” (Does he know anything?)
For a time Schubert also belonged to a social union at which Homer and other authors were read. But when undesirable members, given to sausage and beer, increased in number, he promptly left, and probably finished his Homer at home. He was passionately fond of poetry and showed excellent taste in his choice of poems for his songs. If some of these songs are wedded to inferior verse, this is due partly to his desire to please some of his companions by setting their effusions to music, partly to the fact that when the inspiration came over him he did not always have a first-class poem at hand and so took what happened to be available. He was too poor to own a library—or a piano. Two of his most intimate friends were poets, and they were at the same time his advisers in literary matters. No fewer than eighty-five poets are represented among his songs; the reading of their works was in itself an education. The greatest of the poets—Goethe and Schiller—were also the most favored by him. He himself wrote a few poems. He also kept a diary, but unfortunately it fell into the hands of a vandal, who disposed of the leaves separately to relic hunters. The few that have been saved contain some interesting moral maxims and musical thoughts.
Concerning the musical education of Schubert, three things are of special interest. Like Mozart, he seemed to know most things before they were taught him. “The lad has harmony at his fingers’ ends,” said one of his teachers, while another, the famous Salieri, exclaimed: “He can do everything; he is a genius.” Yet he worked hard at his lessons. But his best lessons were those he got through playing chamber-music at home and orchestral music in the “Convict.” This is the second point. The third illustrates his modesty. Up to the end of his life his friends kept nagging him about his alleged ignorance of counterpoint. As a matter of fact, there is much admirably melodious counterpoint in his works—his songs and particularly his orchestral and chamber-music; but with characteristic meekness he believed his friends and made arrangements, only a few weeks before his death, to take lessons in counterpoint of Sechter! It is one of the most comic and, at the same time, pathetic incidents in the history of music.

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