Last weekend, while digging through some old boxes of books, I came across Edmund Morris’s brisk and insightful Beethoven: The Universal Composer. The book was given to me as a Christmas present nearly a decade ago and was published via HarperCollins’ Eminent Lives series of biographies. Rereading the book over the last two evenings I was taken back by how Morris—an immensely talented historian and skilled writer—often intersperse the tale of the composer from Bonn with antidotes of Franz Schubert, a contemporary of Beethoven who worshipped the Master while never achieving a modicum of the accolades afforded to Beethoven during his life.
Schubert, by all accounts now considered one of the greatest composers of all time, lived a life of relative obscurity during the age of Beethoven only to die a year after his idol. Morris, quite brilliantly, closes The Universal Composer thusly:
On March 29, an endless procession followed Beethoven’s body out of the courtyard of the Schwarzpanierhaus and up the Währinger Gürtel to the cemetery. Estimates of the size of the crowd ranged from ten to thirty thousand. “All Vienna seemed to be on the move,” Gerhard von Breuning reported. A brass band and chorus preceded the coffin. Eight Kapellmeisters carried the pall. Among the twenty top-hatted torchbearers was Schubert. Before the next year was out, he would be buried in the same plot as his hero just one monument away—dominated, in death as well as life, by the huge name
Reading this I couldn’t help but be taken back to Nietzsche and his thoughts on posthumous men. This is someone who is often misunderstood by his contemporaries as an extremist or mere kook or, even worse, ignored completely, but one whom history will recognize as a man before his time. Being assured of future vindication by generations to come apparently helped the mad philosopher sleep at night.
In an ever-godless epoch, the idea that our thoughts and works will live on is an alien concept. Had Franz Schubert thoughts been of this frame of mind, we wouldn’t have his music today.
Franz Schubert is a perfect example of how this plays out.
Today, Schubert is widely considered one of the greatest composers of all time. Phil Goulding, in his extremely popular (and Brandon Ragle endorsed) Classical Music, rates Schubert as the 7th greatest behind Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Haydn, and Brahms. His works are widely conducted by modern orchestras and enjoyed by countless classical buffs worldwide.
The son of a peasant schoolmaster, Schubert lived most of his life just a step above poverty and had to rely on friends and admirers of his music, during adulthood, to survive financially. To make matters worse, he lived most of his adult life in poor health; suffering from both physical illness (typhoid fever) and mental anguish (cyclothymia, a bipolar spectrum mood disorder).
Yet, despite all this, in his brief life—dying before the age of 32—Schubert composed nearly 600 lieder, nine symphonies, two full song cycles, and a number of chamber and solo piano works. He also composed opera, incidental music, and religious works. It wasn’t until decades after his death, when musical giants such as Liszt and Brahms began to champion his works, that the world began to take notice. That this happened, we are all the better for it.