Franz Schubert received his earliest musical education from his father, a schoolmaster in a village outside Vienna, followed by formal study at a music school in Vienna and composition lessons with the composer Antonio Salieri (depicted as Mozart’s rival in the play and movie Amadeus). For a brief period he taught at his father’s school, but from the age of 18 to his death at 31, he was plagued by illness and poverty. Except for a few published piano pieces and songs for which he was miserably paid, his works had been heard by only a small group of friends and admirers and his genius was almost totally unrecognized for some time. Schubert produced a phenomenal number of works, from symphonies, operas, and church music to chamber works, piano pieces, and songs written for performance in the homes of the growing middle class. As he observed about himself, “I write all day and when I have finished one piece, I begin another.”
Schubert was particularly successful in small, intimate forms, notably his piano pieces with such titles as Moment Musicale (musical moment) and impromptu, and his songs. He is considered to be the father of the art song, a composition for voice and instrumental accompaniment (most often piano) that flowered during the Romantic period. Unlike folk songs, which are passed on through oral tradition and usually of unknown authorship, art songs are notated (written down) songs in which a composer consciously seeks to develop expressive connections between poetry and music. The lyric poetry of Goethe, Schiller, and Heine in the late 18th century provided a rich source of texts for the outpouring of German art song in the 19th century. The concept of the art song was not Schubert’s invention, but his over 600 songs demonstrate a facility for penetrating to the essence of a poem and forcefully enhancing its meaning and images that was unprecedented. He responded immediately and intuitively to poetry, often writing a song from start to finish in an afternoon. There is a story of friends leaving a poem lying out on a table for the unsuspecting to Schubert to happen upon, and returning a few hours later to discover it transformed into a completed song.