Schubert: A Candle Snuffed Out Way Too Soon

“Every night when I go to bed, I hope that I may never wake again, and every morning renews my grief.” Franz Schubert


Franz Peter Schubert

Born in Vienna, 1-31-1797 died in 1828

When Franz Schubert was born, Beethoven was already 27 years old and a renowned composer. Although Beethoven lived a long life, filled with glorious musical compositions, Schubert died at age 31 — but not before leaving us nine symphonies and many other compositions, over 600 of them. One of his symphonies was called The Unfinished Symphony because he died before finishing it. His most famous pieces are: Ave Maria and Serenade. It’s tragic that we lost him so soon, don’t you think? Historians believe he was dealing with two different diseases: Typhus and Syphilis.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Schubert’s dad was a schoolmaster, and Schubert was, too, for three years before realizing that his true love was music and always would be. It was his brother who taught him to play the piano. He would have been too poor to afford lessons as a child, so I’m thankful for his brother! But his natural gift for music far exceeded his brother’s, and he found himself composing symphonies at the ripe young age of 16. In fact, he wrote more than 100 songs before he turned 18. What a talent!

Schubert often set fairy tales and fables to music. I think that’s what I love best about him, and keep in mind how difficult it must be to create music that describes what is happening in a story. Not every composer can pull that off, but it was Schubert’s specialty. Read this post to the end, and I’ll explain what I mean using his “Death and the Maiden” as an example. It’s passionate and terrifying. If you’ve heard them, think of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. They, too, match the tone of the story they’re expressing. Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev is another example of this technique that Schubert mastered so perfectly.

Below are a few of Schubert’s most beautiful pieces. Schubert’s Ave Maria is sung in many Catholic churches today and was even performed by opera singers like Luciano Pavarotti. Here’s a version by the great Maria Callas:

1. Ave Maria

2. Piano Sonata No 20 in A Major

From youtube: “This is Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, written in September 1828—about three months before his death. It is one of three that he wrote after the death of Beethoven (19 March 1827), whose funeral he attended. The passing of this great master was an important event in the life of Schubert, for though mourned the loss of the musician he greatly admired, he also perhaps felt somewhat liberated from the older composer’s dominance. Appropriately, each of these last three piano sonatas contain stylistic nods to Beethoven; in the case of this A major sonata, the Rondo is based on the finale (also a Rondo) of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 16 in G major.”

Here is Beethoven’s Sonata No 16 Rondo, so you can compare the two:

3. Schubert’s Serenade (I love this one!)

Beethoven lived in Vienna during Schubert’s short lifetime, and Schubert visited him. By this time, Beethoven could no longer hear, so he communicated by writing notes to people with a large pencil. But poor Schubert was so enamored by the great Beethoven that he was too nervous to write any replies.

Schubert would have read the novels of Scott who was a little older than he was and a year younger than Beethoven. Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Jennings Bryan were all little boys when Schubert was born. Other composers who were alive when he was are Rossini and Donizetti. We learned a little bit about Rossini in the first blog post.

There is a Librivox recording of the ebook recommended for study this year by AO, and if you listen to it on youtube you can also hear the music played on piano in excerpts for you as you read. It’s lovely!



February 26th, 1869 Franz Schubert’s Symphony number 4, “The Tragic”, premièred.

Let’s have a party!

You can have a celebration on this day of the school year — you might even call it tragedy day. Your children will remember it forever. Read through Hamlet as a family by candlelight, wear old prom dresses from Goodwill to get into the feel of the 1700-1800s time period, listen to Schubert’s Tragic Symphony or even just to bits of it. Learn a dance from the time period and practice it to the music. There are any number of things you could do to make this a special day.

Ask your students when they graduate from high school if they remember Tragedy Day, and they will be able to narrate the entire thing back to you with details you won’t even have remembered! They could also learn a phrase or two of his symphony on the piano, violin, or guitar and have a performance time. They could learn a tragic poem and recite it that night, too. There’s a fine line between having a day like this where children celebrate what they’ve learned and turning it into a unit study totally created by the teacher. You may just want to tell them it’s tragedy day and let them run with that and create what they want to out of it. Here’s the symphony:

Schubert is sometimes difficult to talk about with students because he died young of Syphilis due to his promiscuity. But there’s something marvelous about every composer. It’s marvelous just to be remembered throughout history, even if it’s because you were infamous. Schubert’s music is enough.

Schubert’s Death and the Maiden for quartet is haunting and beautiful. I’ll tell the story while you listen to the music (above). There is a movie version of this from 2003 (not to be confused with the awful 1994 movie) that is entirely silent and set to Schubert’s music.

“Set to the music of Franz Schubert’s string quartet piece in a snow covered central European forest in the 1830s, Death and the Maiden tells the tale of a beautiful young maiden’s encounter with the Angel of Death. She comes upon a dark and handsome stranger in the forest dressed in the riding clothes of a nobleman. When he reveals that he is Death, and that it is her soul he has come to take, she is naturally very alarmed.

As the story progresses, Death finds himself becoming enamored with the young maiden, while she, accepting that he must do what he was sent for, takes him back to the cottage she lives in with her grandfather. There she goes to bed for the night, expecting Death to take her away in the night while she is asleep. But Death finds his duty even more difficult as he spends the night with his hostess, watching the sleeping maiden and drinking in her beauty. In the morning the maiden awakes to find she is alone in the cottage, and fearing that Death has taken her grandfather instead, panicks, running out of the cottage.

The snow has disappeared, and she see Death in the woods crouched over a bare patch of ground that is shaped like a grave, leveling the earth with his hands. Immediately believing it to be the grave of her grandfather, she runs over and begins to dig desperately into the grave with her hands. Death tries to pull her away, but she resists, and after several tries, he eventually gives up and walks away. When she does reach the object that Death has buried there, her relief at what she finds makes us realize it is the wild rabbit that was seen is several scenes earlier in the story.

She runs over to Death and embraces him, kissing him. Death at first does not respond to her kiss, but then gives way to his own bridled passion and they make love. When it is all over, he wills her to close her eyes and when she opens them again, Death is gone and the snow has returned. She wanders around looking for her ethereal lover, but she cannot find him.

The story then moves forward several months, and we’re in the cottage where a baby, tended by its mother the maiden lies in a cradle, and on the mantle piece above the fire place the mother hides a picture she has drawn of the child’s father.

Death has left behind a life.”

Franz Schubert String Quartet No 14 in D minor Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden)
Alban Berg Quartet
1.Allegro, in D minor and common time 0:00
2.Andante con moto, in G minor and divided common (2/2) time 11:35
3.Scherzo: Allegro molto, in D minor and 3/4 time 22:18
4.Presto, in D minor and 6/8 time 25:50

The String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, known as Death and the Maiden, by Franz Schubert, is one of the pillars of the chamber music repertoire. Composed in 1824, after the composer suffered through a serious illness and realized that he was dying, it is Schubert’s testament to death. The quartet is named for the theme of the second movement, which Schubert took from a song he wrote in 1817 of the same title, but the theme of death is palpable in all four movements of the quartet.

The quartet was first played in 1826 in a private home, and was not published until 1831, three years after Schubert’s death. Yet, passed over in his lifetime, the quartet has become a staple of the quartet repertoire. The theme of the song is a death knell that accompanies the song about the terror and the comfort of Death. Here is a description of each movement:

1. “The first movement runs a relentless race through terror, pain and resignation, ending with a dying D minor chord.”

2. “The second movement is a theme and five variations. The theme is like a death march in G minor, ending on a G major chord. Throughout the movement, Schubert does not deviate from the basic harmonic and sentence structure of the 24-measure theme. But each variation expresses a profoundly different emotion. In the first variation, a lilting violin descant floats above the theme, played in pulsing triplets in the second violin and viola that recall the triplets of the first movement. In the second variation, the cello carries the theme, with the first violin playing the pulsating role – this time in sixteenth notes. After two relaxed variations, the third variation returns to the Sturm und Drang character of the overall piece: a galloping fortissimo figure breaks off suddenly into piano; the violin plays a variant of the theme in a high register, while the inner voices continue the gallop. The fourth variation is again lyrical, with the viola carrying the melody under a long violin line in triplets. This is the only variation in a major key – G major. In the fifth variation, the second violin takes up the theme, while the first violin plays a sixteenth-note arpeggiated motif, with the cello playing the triplets in the bass. The variation grows from pianissimo to fortissimo, then again fades and slows in pace, finally returning to a restatement of the theme – this time in G major.”

3. “The scherzo is designed as a classical minuet: two strains in 3/4 time, repeated, in D minor, followed by a contrasting trio section in D major, at a slower tempo, and ending with a recapitulation of the opening strains. The trio section is the only real respite from the compelling pace of the whole quartet: a typically Schubertesque melody, with the first violin playing a dancing descant above the melody line in the lower voices.”

4. “The finale of the quartet is a tarantella in rondo-sonata form, in D minor. The tarantella is a breakneck Italian dance in 6/8 time, that, according to tradition, was a treatment for madness and convulsions brought on by the bite of a tarantula spider. The movement opens with the main section of the rondo in unison, with a theme based on a dotted figure.The theme develops characteristically, with sudden lurches from loud to soft and running triplets, leading to the second section of the rondo: a broad, chorale-like theme. A crescendo leads to the Prestissimo coda of the movement and of the piece. The coda begins in D major, suggesting a triumphant end – a device common in classical and romantic quartets. But in this case, the coda suddenly returns to D minor, for a tumultuous and tragic conclusion.”

Written by kitsilanoca


Franz Schubert Quotes:

“Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.”

“Nobody understands another’s sorrow, and nobody another’s joy. People imagine they can reach each other, but in reality they only pass each other by.”

“There are two contrary impulses which govern this man’s brain – the one sane and the other eccentric. They alternate at regular intervals.”

“I try to decorate my imagination as much as I can.”

“Easy mind, light heart. A mind that is too easy hides a heart that is too heavy.”

“When I wished to sing of love, it turned to sorrow. And when I wished to sing of sorrow, it was transformed for me into love.”

“There are eight girls in the house in which I am living, and practically all of them are good looking. You can realize that I am kept busy.”

“I never force myself to be devout except when I feel so inspired, and never compose hymns of prayers unless I feel within me real and true devotion.”

“One bites into the brass mouthpiece of his wooden cudgel, and the other blows his cheeks out on a French horn. Do you call that Art?”

“Above all things, I must not get angry. If I do get angry I knock all the teeth out of the mouth of the poor wretch who has angered me.”

“Approval or blame will follow in the world to come.”

“If only your pure and clean mind could touch me, dear Haydn, nobody has a greater reverence for you than I have.”

“Why does God endow us with compassion?”

This link takes you to a series of interviews with Schubert lovers who are conductors and orchestra musicians – and one actor, Simon Callow who as in A Room With a View as the Vicar. They discuss what they love about Schubert’s music.

A Listener’s Guide to Die Schone Mullerin (You can listen to this session on NPR directly online – it’s about 40 minutes long.)

Paul Lewis (pianist) talks about Schubert’s torment after finding out he had contracted Typhus and Syphilis and would die. “Confronting Schubert’s Nightmare” is the title of this session.

Schubert’s Fairy Tales set to Music: Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, Death and the Maiden, and The Miller and the Brook.


To learn more about Charlotte Mason’s living educational principles and how to apply them to music study, I hope you will consider purchasing my book, A Touch of the Infinite.

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