Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Schubert

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Schubert, String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden”

Today is Halloween. Surprise, right?  As if you didn’t know. For today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes, I had considered recognizing the date by writing a post on “appropriately ghoulish concert works for your Halloween party.”  I began assembling a list of the usual horrific suspects – Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, movements 4 and 5 (respectively entitled “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath”); Camille Saint-Saëns’ Dance Macabre; Franz Liszt’s Totentanz; the theme song from Petticoat Junction (“and there’s Uncle Joe, he’s-a movin’ kinda slow, at the Junction . . .”; damn, but that’ll send shivers up your spine!); and so forth.   However, I soon realized that I was contemplating not a Dr. Bob Prescribes-type article, but rather, the sort of post for which the internet was invented: top ten (or twenty or thirty) liszts (yes, that was intentional) that present us with an array of items even as those items are trivialized by appearing on the list and by the minimal bit of explanation that accompanies them. As a public service, then, I have reviewed an all-too-large number of such “Halloween concert music” posts on the internet, and would recommend the following as the best of the bunch, […]

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Music History Monday: Franz Schubert: An Unfinished Symphony; An Unfinished Life

We mark October 30, 1822 – 201 years ago today – as being the day on which Franz Schubert began what is now known as his Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the “Unfinished Symphony.”  Lost just months after Schubert completed the two movements that make up the “Unfinished,” the symphony was heard for the first time in 1865, 43 years after its composition and 37 years after Schubert’s death.   A Fable Agreed Upon One of the many clever statements (or in this case, a question) credited to Napoleon Bonaparte is: “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” A good question for a despot who was intent on creating his own version of history. However, it is a question that applies as well to our contemporary view of Ludwig van Beethoven, and how we have come to believe his music was perceived in his own time.  Today, Beethoven’s mature symphonies (nos. 3 through 9) are rightly perceived as representing his own, personal struggles and revolutionary times.  Our mistake – the “fable agreed upon” – occurs when we assume that Beethoven’s contemporaries believed the same thing about his mature symphonies.   They did not.   For Beethoven’s symphonic contemporaries, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485

Schubert and the First Viennese School Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was born, lived, and died in the Austrian capital of Vienna. Of all the great masters of “Viennese Classicism” – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert – Schubert was the only native-born Viennese. (These composers are often referred to collectively as the “First Viennese School.” The term “Viennese School” was invented in 1834 by the Austrian musicologist Raphael Georg Kiesewetter, who applied it to Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Mozart only. In time, Beethoven and then Schubert were admitted to the “school” as well. The label “first” was added when the term “Second Viennese School” was coined in reference to the early twentieth century compositional triumvirate of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern.) Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. For us, today, these long dead Euro-persons are among the ruling deities of western concert music. But they weren’t just “deities” for Schubert; they were, for all intents and purposes, his contemporaries. At the time of Schubert’s birth at Nussdorfer Strasse 54, Mozart had been dead for a bit more than five years, having died at Rauhensteingasse 8, about a mile-and-a-half from Schubert’s birthplace. At the time of Schubert’s birth, Joseph Haydn was working on […]

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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: 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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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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Greetings from Vienna!

Along with mass consumption of Viennese coffee, strudel, and schnitzel, our pilgrimages have begun. Today we visited he house in which Franz Schubert was born on January 31, 1797 at Nußdorfer Straße 54. To call the house “modest” is a bit of an understatement; at the time of Schubert’s birth its 16 apartments housed some 70 people, making the tract house in which I grew up in South Jersey seem like a palace by comparison. The Schubert apartment – on the upper right-hand side of the second floor (see photo below) – consisted of two rooms: a small kitchen and a single living room, in which the Schubert family managed to live, sleep, make music, reproduce, etc. The family moved to larger digs when Franz was a few years old. Schubert was born in the kitchen, next to the fireplace/stove. For a January birth it was the warmest spot in the apartment and thus the location. One of the photos below shows me crouching at pretty much the exact spot Schubert was born. Also pictured below (and on display in the apartment): a pair of Schubert’s glasses (looking, to my untrained eye, very much like bifocals). He was severely near-sighted […]

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