Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Schubert’s Death

The building in which Schubert died at Kettenbrückengasse 6 in Vienna
The building in which Schubert died at Kettenbrückengasse 6 in Vienna

November 19 is a sad day for us all. On November 19, 1828 – 190 years ago today – Franz Schubert died in Vienna at his brother Ferdinand’s third floor flat at Kettenbrückengasse 6 (in Schubert’s day, the address was Firmiansgasse 694). The building looks almost exactly the same today as it did when Schubert died there; the red and white flags in front of the building today surround a tablet that reads “Schubert Gedenktafel”: “Schubert Memorial Plaque.”

The memorial at Schubert’s original grave at the Währing Cemetery
The memorial at Schubert’s original grave at the Währing Cemetery

On the facing directly below the bust at Schubert’s original grave in Vienna’s Währing Cemetery (what is now called “Schubert Park”) is an inscription written by the Viennese dramatist Franz Grillparzer:

“The art of music here interred a rich possession/But still far fairer hopes.”

Ain’t that the truth. In the last sixteen years of his brief life, this composer of really unparalleled lyric gifts composed, among other works: 8 finished and “unfinished” symphonies (not 9, which is the number typically bandied about); 10 orchestral overtures; 22 piano sonatas; 6 masses; 17 operas; over 1000 works for solo piano and piano four-hands; around 145 choral works; 45 chamber works, including some drop dead string quartets, and 637 songs. But in fact, the 31 year, 9 month, and 19 days-old Schubert was just a kid when he died, someone who should have had the vast majority of his creative life still in front of him. His grave did indeed contain a “rich possession”, but it also contained, sadly “still fairer hopes.”

Schubert’s Health

Painted portrait of Franz von Schober
Franz von Schober

Sometime in the late summer of 1822, the 25 year-old Schubert contracted syphilis during a nocturnal pleasure jaunt with his friend and partner-in-sexual-crime, Franz von Schober. While it is not known for sure whether the prostitute that infected Schubert was male or female, recent scholarship suggests that not only was it a male prostitute but perhaps even an underage male prostitute.

The primary symptoms of Schubert’s syphilis appeared in December of 1822. If Schubert’s case was typical, he suffered from painful lymphatic swelling, pustules, rashes, hair loss, lesions in his mouth and throat, and debilitating muscle aches. For Schubert, depression and despair accompanied the diagnosis and the symptoms. On March 31, 1824, a despondent Schubert wrote his friend Leopold Kupelweiser:

Painted portrait of Leopold Kupelweiser
Leopold Kupelweiser

“I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, a man whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, whose enthusiasm for all things beautiful is gone, and I ask you, is he not a miserable, unhappy being? Each night, on retiring to bed, I hope I may not wake again, and each morning but recalls yesterday’s grief.” 

This was Schubert’s state of mind for a year-and-a-half, as his syphilis ran through its initial stages. But then – from the fall of 1824 until mid-1827 or so – the disease entered its latency and consequently, for nearly three years, Schubert was symptom free and noninfectious. Yes; he still suffered from depression, exacerbated by the fear that the disease would return. And yes, he self-medicated: with nicotine and by drinking far too much alcohol, at which time the ordinarily mild-mannered Schubert became vulgar, abusive, and physically destructive. (While under the influence, he liked nothing more than to smash glassware and crockery, making him – understandably – a less-than-welcome guest in Vienna’s homes and hostelries.) 

Painted Portrait of Schubert in 1825
Schubert in 1825

Having said that, for the nearly three years of Schubert’s latency he was able to lead what passed – for him – as a normal life. In March of 1825 his friend Johanna Lutz wrote to her fiancé:

“Schubert in now very busy and well-behaved, which pleases me very much.” 

A few months later Schubert’s friend Anton Ottenwalt was able to write:

“Schubert looks so well and strong, is so nice and cheerful and so genially communicative that one cannot fail to be delighted.” 

His bad moments aside, Schubert’s latency gave him hope: hope that he might be among those lucky few whose latency was permanent. 

But – alas – it was not permanent.

Painted portrait of Franz Schubert in 1827
Schubert in 1827

During the summer of 1827 Schubert began experiencing recurring headaches. By the fall, it was clear that his period of latency had come to its end and his syphilis was once again advancing. Depressed and deflated, it is during the fall of 1827 that Schubert completed the heartbreaking song cycle Winterreise: “Winter Journey”. According to Schubert’s friend Johann Mayrhofer Schubert wrong the cycle because:

“[his] life had lost its rosiness and winter was upon him.”

His illness notwithstanding, in August and September of 1828 Schubert accomplished what still seems, to this day, to have been utterly impossible. In the space of roughly six weeks, he composed his last three piano sonatas – in C Minor, A Major, and B-flat Major; six songs from the Schwanengesang collection; and the magisterial String Quintet in C Major. 

How did he manage to do all that? We’ve no idea. But one thing is clear: in September of 1828, Schubert had not the faintest idea that he had only two months to live. We read that he had “premonitions of death” but, in fact, they were no worse than the premonitions he’d been having for the nearly six years since his diagnosis. His health had been up and down for years, and his headaches and attendant fatigue represented, in September of 1828, just another downward dip. 

In his “The Life of Schubert” (Cambridge), the excellent Christopher Gibb observes:

“In early October 1828, Schubert joined some friends for a three-day walking tour of Lower Austria to visit Joseph Haydn’s grave in Eisenstadt. Surely such a long trip – some 35 miles each way – would have been inadvisable for a seriously ill man. This excursion and his continued compositional pace all suggest that Schubert was trying to build his strength and health, not that he was hurtling towards death.” 

On November 4, Schubert attended a performance of a requiem composed by his brother Ferdinand, after which he took a three-hour walk with his friend Josef Mayssen. On November 5, he went to the home of the court organist Simon Sechter to begin what he called a “refresher course” in counterpoint. The lesson lasted some three hours.

Again: none of this suggests that Schubert was “hurtling towards death”. But indeed he was. 

On October 31, he dined at the nearby inn Zum roten Kreuz (“The Red Cross”). He was eating fish when he threw down his fork and claimed that he was being poisoned. This had happened before and so no one paid it much mind, though later, after his death, Schubert’s brother Ferdinand stated that Franz’s terminal illness began at that moment. 

A day or two after his counterpoint lesson on November 5, Schubert took to his bed with a fever. Little did he know that his immune system – ravaged by tertiary syphilis and the toxic, mercury-based medications he was taking for the syphilis – was breaking down, with what would be fatal consequences. 

Portrait of Josef von Spaun
Josef von Spaun

On November 15, Schubert’s friend Josef von Spaun came to visit; he found Franz correcting proofs for the second part of the song cycle Wintereisse. Spaun later wrote that Schubert was:

“ill in bed, though his condition didn’t seem to me at all serious. I left him without any anxiety at all, and it came as a thunderbolt when, a few days later, I heard of his death. Poor Schubert, so young and at the start of a brilliant career! What a wealth of untapped treasures his death has robbed us of!”

Syphilis kills in many ways. At one extreme is what happened to Robert Schumann (and Al Capone!): a slow and inexorable descent into physical ruin and madness. But it can kill suddenly and unexpectedly as well, as in the case of Schubert. That Schubert’s death was a result of tertiary syphilis is almost certain. However, the immediate cause of Schubert’s death was the collapse of his immune system and consequently, a bacterial typhoid infection. Notes Professor Peter Gilroy Bevan of the University of Birmingham, “the advanced stages of syphilis would have triggered an immune deficiency syndrome of the kind associated with modern AIDS.” 

Photograph of Franz Schubert’s death mask
Schubert’s death mask

Schubert died at three o’clock in the afternoon on November 19, 1828. Two days later – on November 21 – Schubert’s brother Ferdinand wrote their father. Schubert had been delirious near the end, and in his letter, Ferdinand described one of his brother’s hallucinations:

“On the evening before his death, though only half conscious, he said to me: ‘I implore you to take me to my room, not to leave me here, under the ground.’ I answered him: ‘Dear Franz, believe your brother who loves you so much: you are in [your] room, lying on your bed!’ And Franz said: ‘No that’s not true: Beethoven is not lying here.’ 

Portrait of Ferdinand Schubert in 1850
Ferdinand Schubert in 1850

Could this be anything but an indication of his inmost wish to rest by the side of Beethoven, whom he so greatly revered?” 

Now: as Schubert’s brother Ferdinand was wont to fib when expedient, it’s possible that he invented the entire scene in order to persuade his father to bury his brother Franz at the Währing Cemetery as close as possible to Beethoven. 

Real or imagined, Schubert’s “dying wish” was granted, and he was buried in the Währing Cemetery just three graves away from Beethoven. 

Schubert’s and Beethoven’s graves (back right and back left, respectively) in the “Garden of Honor” in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof
Schubert’s and Beethoven’s graves (back right and back left, respectively) in the “Garden of Honor” in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof

In 1888, Beethoven’s and Schubert’s remains were transferred to Vienna’s main cemetery – the “Zentralfriedhof” – where they remain today, buried next to each other in what is called the “Garden of Honor”. 

For much more on the life and music of Franz Schubert, I would direct your attention to my Great Courses surveys The Symphony, The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works, and The 23 Greatest Piano Works.

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