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Schubert’s early life by Ralph Bates (1934)

June 14, 2012
Franz Schubert, lithograph by Josef Kriehuber (1800-1876)

Franz Schubert was born in the Lichtenthal suburb of Vienna, in the house of the Red Crayfish, on the 31st January, 1797.  It is agreed by shoemakers, barristers’ clerks and their historians that their lives are in part shaped by the world into which they are born.  In the case of great musicians it is sometimes thought that the rigours of sonata form and the harmonic instability of the minor triad sufficiently account for the vicissitudes they endure.  The outline requires filling in, however.

The Vienna of the Schuberts, besides being the city of Mozart and Beethoven, was also of Franz II and Metternich, persons at first haunted by Napoleon, and then by the ideas which had haunted the young Bonaparte.

Joseph II, in the days before the test of the French Revolution, had been a liberal, of the royal sort.  He had closed the convents, of which there were 116 in the capital alone and whose total revenue was 680,000 florins annually, given the Prater and the Augarten to the city, and substituted German for Latin as the language of senior education.  There is no doubt that some violence accompanied his reforms.  Important conventual libraries were burned, so that the world shortly knew less of them than before.  Art treasures were damaged by ignorant officials, many of whom resembled later reformers in confusing wrath and love.  One of them, indeed, inventoried Titian’s Leda as a “Woman bitten by an angry goose”.

 As befitted a liberal the emperor also interfered with the amusements of the people; he abolished public executions, which were popular, and founded a German opera theatre which was less so.  For the former he was lampooned, but no mention was made of the six thousand laws which he signed.  His love for music, if limited by his understanding, was genuine, though not so great as that of his successor, Leopold II, who once successfully encored a whole opera.

Leopold, while reactionary, was not sufficiently so to preserve that symmetry observable in the arrangement of the universe.  He therefore died within two years, admitting to the throne his son, Franz II.  The eternal values now received that fullness of support which it is the heavy responsibility of crowns to provide.  The new monarch, as befitted his divine right, did not wholly trust to spies, subsidised sneaks and censorships, nevertheless Beethoven could declare, in 1794, that “one does not dare to speak too loudly here or the police find one a lodging”, while in 1798 it was reckoned that there were four thousand official spies aiding the ten thousand of the unofficial corporation of the Naderers, informers recruited among servants, waiters, barbers and those of the other occupation thought to provide privileged opportunities for eavesdropping. 

Austria was already comparatively inaccessible to revolutionary propaganda.  The low standard of intellectual development and a sincere love of pleasure disinclined it for costly and perhaps futile heroisms.  Moreover, liberty was chiefly preached in its traditional forms of provincial and district hegemony, and this appealed little to a peasantry who preferred the distant and paternal tyranny of the capital to the more local and less fatherly burden of their own aristocracy.  Nor was there any mature sense of nationality to unite the people in a body of common enthusiasm. 

But with a wisdom that surpassed liberalism or piety, Franz II desired to make doubly sure.  The forces which had secured this immunity were to be reinvigorated.  The censorship of the press was reimposed with greater severity and education was once more delivered over to the clergy.  The desired result was gained.  While German letters at this period could boast of Goethe, Schiller, Fichte and Hegel, the two Schlegels and Humboldt, Austrian fields were almost completely barren of flower.  Philosophy, once the pure handmaiden of theology, but now thought to be living in less reputable relationship with revolt, was unrepresented.  Science, which is, as has been pointed out by Mr. Chesterton, an affair of mere locomotive speed, vaccination and counterfeit progress, had insecure foothold in Vienna. The pagan century was definitely to be forgotten.

 But for this stifling atmosphere there were great compensations.  If letters were forbidden as dangerous, music, being innocuous, was encouraged, though had programme music been a flourishing species it is doubtful whether the art would have survived. The innate love of music was fostered by Franz II, himself a passable fiddler, but who saw no conflagration adjacent enough to warrant extending  himself.  His wife, Maria Theresa, disdaining the milky way to self-expression chosen by another Maria, desired to be an operatic star, and one day created the title role in Salieri’s Argina, regina di Granata. 

Music became the very life and atmosphere of the city.  Symphonic and chamber music was the delight of an aristocracy distinguished by such unexampled lovers of the art as Lobkowitz, Kinsky and the Archduke Rudolf, who could generously pension the republican Beethoven.  The waltz, the ländler and the march were not less popular with other classes.  Yet in all this fervour and delight of music-making it is worth while to notice that of all the eminent composers who practised in Vienna only one was native born, Franz Schubert. 

One other result of the governmental severity must be mentioned because without it the life of Schubert is unintelligible.  Besides music, pleasure became the prevailing passion of the Viennese, and Pleasure, as the little confessional books one meets in port missions indicate, is a music which eternally harps back to two themes.  Chastity, as every healthy male knows who has lived in a country whose prevailing outlook is not a dreary puritanism, is a virtue, fact or hindrance easily mislaid.  The gaiety and comfortable humour of the Gasthaus often encouraged a certain naturalism in behaviour.  Vienna, indeed, became a place of diverting licence in which scandal and intrigue, natural enough where one-third of the city at one time lived at the expense of the court or the imperial kitchen, received fresh motives for exercise. 

Hence, when the sober and pious Franz Theodor Florian Schubert came to Vienna as an assistant teacher to his brother Karl, it was to a city of peril as well as of opportunity that he came.  The fifth son of a righteous Moravian, a former magistrate, he had been brought up in an atmosphere of comparative poverty and incomparable moral rigour.  It is easy to imagine that his father’s office compelled a circumspection which, if it did not provoke rebellion, would encourage every element of sternness and domination which the boy possessed.  And he was stuffed full of them. 

Bates, Ralph, Franz Schubert, Peter Davies Limited, 1934, pp. 9-14.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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