If ever there was an absent-minded musician, it was Franz Schubert. He was known to write music on anything within reach: a tablecloth, a menu, any scrap of paper. Franz slept with his glasses on so that he didn’t have to waste time searching for them in the morning. As a teacher in his father’s school, he would spend class time composing music, rather than teaching the six-year-olds their daily lessons.
Patrick Kavanaugh, in A Taste for the Classics, tells of a time Schubert gave a new song he had composed to a singer friend. The friend transposed it for his voice and had a new copy of the song written. A week or so later, both friends were at a music event and the singer brought out his copy of the unheard song. “After Schubert listened to the performance, he burst out—with complete sincerity—‘Hey! That’s a pretty good song. Whose is it, then?’” (Kavanaugh, A Taste for the Classics, 181)
In spite of his absent-minded tendencies, however, one cannot deny Schubert’s musical genius. He once wrote a musical accompaniment for a lengthy, well-known Danish tale in less than a day. Some historians claim he wrote it less than one hour! Schubert could write music on the spot, without any instrument in the room. And he composed nine symphonies, never an easy feat. Ironically, his music idol, Ludwig van Beethoven, also wrote nine symphonies in his lifetime.
Friendship was important to this absent-minded composer. He composed some of his works with a friend named Schober—and they even signed their compositions “Schobert.” Franz wrote songs, often on the spur of the moment, with a specific friend in mind. At one point, his friends collected funds to help Franz publish his works, since no publisher wanted to risk his own money on an unknown composer’s works. Furthermore, his friends actually provided money for food, rent, and clothing, and they even allowed him to live in their apartments or homes when necessary.
One of Schubert’s most recognized works was never finished—Symphony No. 8, the “Unfinished Symphony.” It is a mystery why Schubert never completed it; he wrote the first two movements in 1822 and mailed them to a friend, then forgetting all about the project. The manuscript was found several years after his death.
It could be easily argued that because Schubert died at a relatively young age, many of his works were unfinished. Yet, he was a prolific composer, writing over six hundred songs in his lifetime. In one year alone, he composed some 21,850 bars of music, which is nearly 420 bars each week. He was never recognized as a musical genius while he was living, but Robert Schumann brought Schubert’s musical influence to the forefront in 1838 when he rediscovered Schubert’s Ninth Symphony in C Major in the home of the composer’s brother.
The two symphonies mentioned above—Schubert’s eighth and ninth—are the ones most commonly heard today. But he is perhaps most famous for his songs (having written over 600 of them). The drama of “The Erl-King” best reveals Franz Schubert’s ability to tell a story musically. Why not enjoy these compositions as you read more about this friendly, tubby, exuberant composer in Opal Wheeler’s Franz Schubert and His Merry Friends?