Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Franz Schubert

Music History Monday: With a Little Help from His Friends

We mark the birth on January 31, 1797 – 225 years ago today – of Franz Peter Schubert, in Vienna. He died in that city 31 years, 9 months, and 19 days later, on November 19, 1828.  Franz Schubert is no stranger to Music History Monday. However, we could not let his birthday pass without a post; no way, no how. Our angle today will be to focus on those friends without whom Schubert the man and the composer could not have survived. Schubert: Image and Reality  The short, pudgy Schubert was called by his friends “Schwammerl,” which means “little mushroom.” The fully-grown Schubert was 1.57 meters tall (about 5’1”) and as his portraits attest, he never lost his cherubic appearance. The following description of the adult Schubert was written by his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner: “Schubert’s outward appearance was anything but striking. He was short of stature, with a full, round face, and was rather stout. His forehead was very beautifully domed. Because of his short sight, he always wore spectacles which he did not take off, even during sleep. Dress was a thing in which he took no interest whatsoever; consequently, he disliked going out into smart society. He […]

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Franz Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”

On October 19, 1814 – 206 years ago today – Franz Schubert composed his first masterwork, the song Gretchen am Spinnrade – “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” – for solo voice and piano, on a text by Johann von Goethe. Schubert was 17 years old. It is an enduring and, in the end, unanswerable question: how many songs did Franz Schubert compose? It’s not that various sources haven’t tried to answer the question. For example, according to volume twenty of the Schubert Gesamptausgabe (“complete edition”), a massive project completed in the 1890s, Schubert composed 603 songs. According to the Belgian musicologist and Schubert scholar Reinhard van Hoorickx (1918-1997), writing in his Thematic Catalog of Schubert’s Works: New Additions, Corrections and Notes (published in1976), Schubert composed 660 songs. Not to be outdone, the English Schubert scholar, Maurice John Edwin Brown writing in his Essays on Schubert (Macmillan, 1966), claims that Schubert composed 708 songs. FYI, in a lecture I gave at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater on February 25, 2003 entitled “Schubert: On the Wings of His Songs” I indicated that he had composed 637 songs. (I know I wouldn’t have made that number up, but presently, I can’t for the life of […]

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Music History Monday: Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hope

We mark the death of the French composer Georges Bizet, who passed from this vale of tears on June 3, 1875, 144 years ago today. He was but 36 years, 7 months, and 9 days young when he passed. The title for today’s post is the epitaph that appeared on Franz Schubert’s original tombstone, written by Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872): “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hope.” Ain’t that the truth. Schubert’s life-span was even shorter than Bizet’s: 31 years, 9 months, and 20 days.  (Grillparzer was a Vienna-born dramatist who, despite his contemporary fame as a playwright, is best remembered today for having written Beethoven’s funeral oration and Schubert’s epitaph!) We contemplate “regret”. I am a collector of certain antique/vintage items, and I have learned the hard way the truism that “you only regret that which you do not buy.” For example, I will go to my grave regretting the fact that I walked away from a complete, pristine Sterling Silver Erik Magnussen “Skyscraper Cocktail Set” in 2003.  I had my reasons (financial) for not buying the set at the time, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, never to be had again; should a like set come […]

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Music History Monday: Buried Treasure

On December 17, 1865 – 153 years ago today – the two complete movements that make up Franz Schubert’s so-called “Unfinished Symphony” received their premiere in Vienna, in a performance conducted by Johann von Herbeck (1831-1877). Schubert had completed those two movements in 1822, 43 years prior to that premiere performance. At the time of the premiere, Schubert had been dead for 37 years. Buried treasure. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “buried treasure” my mind – conditioned by having read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as a kid – immediately conjures images up a huge chest filled with gold and silver coins and jewels: specie and precious stones, hard stuff of value. But there are soft treasures – meaning stuff made out of paper – that are of equal or even greater value than the hard stuff. Should you find a complete copy of a Gutenberg Bible in your Aunt Edith’s library, you’re looking at a value of between 25-35 million USD; that complete Shakespeare First Folio you found at the bottom of a box at a garage sale is valued at between 8 and 12 million dollars; that 1909 Honus Wagner Sweet Caporal T206 […]

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Music History Monday: Schubert’s Death

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.” 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 […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major D960

Earlier this week, my patron Renato inquired: “So, what is Dr. Bob’s prescription for Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major D960 (I listen to Richter’s in Praga 1972) and for Debussy’s Prelude Book I (Michelangeli DG is my choice)? Thanks a lot. Cheers.” These works were featured in my absurdly entitled but well-intentioned Great Courses survey “The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works.” That they are featured indicates that I love them dearly; generally speaking, I only talk about music I love. (There is the occasional exception because sometimes a piece of music is so very bad that it just has to be discussed, like Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, although once heard, such a piece of music cannot be unheard.) I’m going to address Renato’s question in two separate posts: here the Schubert B-flat and next week the Debussy Préludes. The Schubert Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major is a warm, expansive and lyric piece, composed in September of 1828, just two months before Schubert’s death on November 19. It is filled with long, song-like themes, a particular trademark of Schubert’s instrumental music. The temptation – particularly in its lengthy first movement – to succumb to the “leisurely” can be overwhelming, and succumb […]

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Music History Monday: Death and the Maiden

192 years ago today – on January 29, 1826 – Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, better known as Death and the Maiden, received its premiere at the home of Karl and Franz Hacker in Vienna. The quartet comes by its nickname honestly, as its second movement is a theme and variations form movement based on a song entitled Death and the Maiden, a song Schubert had composed in 1817 when he was twenty years old. The song sets a poem by Matthias Claudius, in which Death comes to claim an adolescent girl who is not prepared to go quietly. In the first stanza she sings: Pass by, alas, pass by! Go, you savage skeleton! I am still young, go, oh dear! And do not touch me. In the second stanza, Death seeks to calm her and allay her fears: Give me your hand, you fair and tender creature; I am a friend and do not come to punish you. Be of good cheer! I am not savage, Gently you will sleep in my arms. The song begins and ends with a slow, solemn, march-like passage played by the piano. At the beginning of the song, it […]

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Scandalous Overtures — Franz Schubert: One Too Many Nights Out

A bunch of years ago I got a call from a non-musician friend who had a question for me. His pastor had given a sermon in which he ascribed Beethoven’s death to syphilis, and never having heard this, my friend wanted to know if Beethoven had indeed died from that dreaded STD. “Heck no,” said I. (In truth, I almost certainly used more colorful language.) I remember telling my friend that Beethoven’s autopsy revealed that he had cirrhosis of the liver; perhaps I even remembered to add that he was also likely suffering from renal papillary necrosis, pancreatitis, and possibly even diabetes mellitus. Among the terrible diseases of the nineteenth century, two stick out for the length of time they took to kill their victims: tuberculosis (“consumption”) and syphilis. That, however, is where the resemblance between these two maladies ends. There was a certain tragic romance associated with tuberculosis in nineteenth century Europe. Dubbed the “White Plague,” TB was thought to imbue its victims with a heightened artistic sensibility. Reflecting on just this, the prototypical Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron, wrote, “I should like to die from consumption.” (He didn’t; he died of a septic infection at the age […]

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