His times: Or perhaps ‘his place’ would be a better starting point, because Franz Schubert is the only leading19th-century composer stylistically associated with the city of Vienna who was actually born there. But he wasn’t part of the city’s cultural elite; he struggled with poverty and was physically weak, dogged by illness until his untimely death aged just 31. Mercifully, from 1817 onwards – the year he quit his inherited teaching profession to concentrate on composition – Schubert was nothing short of prolific.
His music: Schubert can justifiably be described as music’s first true Romantic. His masterful songs and song-cycles are acute responses to some of the most pain-ridden central European poetry. His equally heartfelt orchestral works reached new breadths of expression and structure; Robert Schumann referred to his symphonies as being of ‘heavenly length…like that of a thick novel in four volumes.’ And yet still they contain such striking and detailed instrumental effects, many of them uncannily subtle and touching. Some of his warmest and most radiant creations are in the field of chamber music, which was the most prominent form of creativity in the young Schubert’s household. His series of often imposing sacred choral works combine great drama with the intense compositional discipline of those predecessors he held in such high regard.
Himself: Schubert’s life was strangely uneventful, which has probably contributed to its enigmatic air. There remain questions over the composer’s sexuality and private life, much of which is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps the nearest we can get to the ‘real’ Schubert is in his most achingly personal songs, the best of which feel born, if only in part, from personal experience.