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Schubert’s musical education by Ralph Bates (1934)

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

When Franz reached the age of eleven years and eight months a place for one soprano became vacant in the Chapel Royal.  This post carried with it the obligation of attending at the Convict, an important Jesuit college, and accordingly the Schoolmaster entered his son for the examination.  As a disciplinary preparation for the then joyless profession of teaching the Convict would be ideal.

Dressed in the cheap grey smock of the working classes, Franz was derisively described by his fellow competitors at the examination as the son of a miller, but the boy who was later to raise millers to a notable place in art carried all before him with the fine quality of his voice, already of local fame, and the thoroughness of his knowledge.  At the end of 1808 he put off the smock for the discreetly gay uniform of the Convict.

The Convict building in which Schubert was now to live justified the inescapable suggestiveness of its name, being a repellent and gloomy place of draughts and discomfort.  The school had been closed by Joseph II in the course of a dispute with the Jesuit superiors, in which the emperor was probably blameworthy, the Order of Jesus having then, as now, an uncanny skill in putting its enemies in the wrong.  Franz II, disapproving of prejudice, had reopened the school after minor provision of reform.

Despite the rigorous conditions, not entirely new to him, there is no doubt that Schubert was on the whole happy at the Convict.  His character appeared to change, however.  Formerly gay and spontaneous, he now became quiet and reserved, showing for the first time the inveterate shyness which was to be his severest handicap and which is so psychologically revealing.  It was not a question of misanthropy or the Beethoven scowl, he was simply rendered mute by the suddenly released upsurge of unceasing musical experience within him, which in Schubert seems to have taken the place of that reverie in which the rest of us express our unrecognised Napoleonic, Messianic or Casanovian qualities.  Friendship, of a discriminated kind, was from the very first more important to him than any other thing, save music.

There was almost unlimited opportunity for both vocal and instrumental music at the Convict, which also taught something of the other necessities of life.  The most just of judgments upon Dr. Lang, the principal, is that he appears to have been a close relative of the well-known Dr. Fell.  He was severe, stiff and contemptuous of children, but not greatly unpopular until later.  The chief musical instructor was Salieri, Beethoven’s friend and one-time teacher, a brilliant and lazy dictator in decline, not so sinister as he appears in Pushkin’s play based on Mozart’s assertion that he had been poisoned by him, but not over-scrupulous in the performance of his duties, and embittered against modern music.  He disliked Beethoven’s work and detected faults in Figaro, a sin that inclines one to get up and hoot him down without hearing.  As Salieri has been treated with both excessive scorn and leniency, it is as well to close with him at once.

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) by Joseph Willibrand Mahler

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) by Joseph Willibrand Mahler

The greatest harm he did to Schubert was to fire his imagination with thoughts of writing opera.  Himself a moderately competent opera writer and fellow countryman of the prodigiously successful Rossini, his promptings of the penniless and hungry boy need not have been very insistent, for a series of successful opera was about the only way to prosperity at the time.  He approved Schubert’s first operatic work, which bore the lusty title of The Devil’s Castle of Pleasure, and may thus have confirmed him in an affair of tragic waste, nor did he give his pupil any serious instruction in dramatic writing.  The truth is that Salieri had nothing much to teach, even in opera.  One of the most venerable of authorities on Schubert’s music has argued otherwise, chiefly upon the strength of Beethoven’s Variations on an air of Salieri’s, La Stessa la stessima, all the dramatic fitness of which air turns out to be merely a matter of pantomimic possibility.  To read through his Cesares and Palmiras is to discover plenty of music which Sir Thomas Beecham could make sound like a lesser man’s performance of Rossini, but little of characterisation, certainly nothing remotely approaching the amazing subtlety of Figaro.  And it was Fidelio which should have been the model for the romantically inclined Schubert.

Salieri also tried to dissuade Schubert from the writing of songs, but without effect.  It is just possible that this might have been beneficial to the Schubert of the larger forms, but it would have been an incomparable loss to music.  Salieri, moreover, advised his pupil against setting Goethe’s verse.  He placed before the boy the scores of Gluck and balanced this good by insisting that he should study the scores of Corelli and the mosaical Italians, who must have appeared to Franz to have “worked very well with ideas they had not”.  It must be placed to Salieri’s credit that Schubert obtained leave to take exterior lessons in thoroughbass, for this was a rarely granted privilege.  The boy’s musical education undoubtedly was not of desirable thoroughness, but the fault most likely lay in entrusting what Salieri probably thought a minor task to one of the principal musical figures of the day, engaged in the distracting ceremonial life of the court.  Moreover, it must have been difficult to direct the studies of a boy who always appeared to have mastered everything previously, and Ruziczka and Holzer both testify to this.  The severest judgment on the Italian is that which has been held to be his chief extenuation.  He did not profoundly influence his pupil.  His best defence is that he sometimes treated the boys to ice-cream.  There was really only one possible teacher for the young Schubert, and that one also impossible, the deaf Beethoven.

The Convict’s singing master was the yellow-faced, wizened and pig-tailed Korner, a vaguely important musical bully, a kind of beadle to Salieri, the pianoforte teacher being Ruziczka, a genial Moravian of strongly national tastes in music.  At this time this must have meant contact with the folk music of rural Austria; the delightful landler and waltzes of Schubert may owe something to Ruziczka’s enlightened enthusiasm.

If Franz’s mental life was filled with serenity, his material existence was in sufficient contrast.  Food was poor and scanty, and in 1812 he wrote, not to his father, but to Ferdinand, Big Brother Ferdinand: “You know by experience how sometimes one wants to eat a roll and a few apples and all the more when after a modest dinner one can only look forward to a wretched supper eight and a half hours later”.  He asks for a few kreuzers a month, quotes the Bible in support of charity and closes pleadingly.

Besides hunger there was an atmosphere of tyranny to breathe.  Franz himself never once earned punishment, and the sweetness of his character was even commented upon by his teachers.  But good behaviour was insufficient defence at the Convict.  Max Spaun, brother of Franz’s lifelong friend Joseph, received such brutal treatment from his theological instructors that he begged Joseph to be present at his examination.  The brother consented, but fled from the classroom at the spectacle of the cruelty displayed by the teacher.  Max begged in vain to be allowed to leave the school, and was twice brought back after escape.  No doubt he was a weakly neurotic boy who had not read the idealistic treatises on school management which the Order of Jesus had to its credit, for long afterwards when, like his brother, he had risen to importance, Max still could not set eyes on the Convict without distress.

Bates, Ralph, Franz Schubert, Peter Davies Limited, 1934, pp. 19-25.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.




















2 Comments leave one →
  1. DS Bleu permalink
    June 23, 2015 12:24 am

    … You have NO IDEA about Salieri and are INFINITELY IGNORANT and UNINFORMED regarding true relationship between the teacher and the pupil.

    In 18th century Antonio Salieri was thought of as a German composer, more broadly as a composer who united different styles of various European operatic schools with vocal knowledge from many ages, A MAN OF THE WORLD.

    Salieri was a constant WORKAHOLIC and recognised as such by everybody who knew him, especially people of the Court. His job was a well settled practice of 24/7. Last time he conducted in public was in 1821 and the effort almost killed him. He retired on full pension only when his body completely gave in a year before his death, in 1824. He schooled his last student, a singer, late in 1823.

    SALIERI is, through HUNDREDS of his students, a HUUUUGE INFLUENCE in operatic creative life and also one of the reasons for the rising of then so-called German school of music: he schooled pretty much everybody in Vienna as well as many students from other cities in Europe: Schubert was one of the SALIERIKINDER DER MUSIK and ALWAYS PROUD OF IT: this term, Salierikinder der Musik, was recognised and very popular for a reason. Schubert, who learned his lessons well and quick, calls him *Großpapa of us all*. Salieri is a founding member of the Academy of music in Vienna and has taught there for at least three years.

    He did not ”strangle” Schubert’s creativity – Salieri CREATED it and made it FLOURISH.

    Like he did in ALL his students, Salieri ENCOURAGED Schubert to write German Lieder and German masses in Schubert’s own original (German) way. Schubert also wrote masses and operas OF HIS OWN ACCORD and out of his own pleasure but knew very well where his strengths are; Lieder, chamber music, symphony. This is also seen in the ”large numbers” of Italian poems Salieri supposedly made Schubert write – in ENTIRE Schubert’s opus – there are only 9 Italian songs. Out of HUNDREDS of German Lieder. Which Schubert, together with German masses, wrote UNDER, amongst others, SALIERI’S SUPERVISION and, at times, correction. Only ONE Italian song corresponds with the incident of reworking a song which is described by Schubert’s frustrated friend – upon which your entire thesis stands.

    If you bother to listen to Salieri’s music you will find that, on the contrary, he has LOADS to teach – and teach he did and does for SALIERI is the reason we have *MOZART, *ROSSINI, WAGNER, VERDI, *MEYERBEER, BERLIOZ, *LISZT, *SCHUBERT and *BEETHOVEN, most of these (*) he taught the art of composition – IN PERSON.

    … I bet you, in your vast knowledge of Antonio Salieri’s doings, didn’t know that MOZART was SALIERI’S PUPIL TOO!!! And that this was a widely known, public a FACT! … Then again, how much do you really know about Salieri?

    If you actually BOTHER and LISTEN to what SCHUBERT HIMSELF has TO SAY about SALIERI (and please, BELIEVE SCHUBERT on this subject, he knows best, really, he’s a bit of an expert here, at least way better one than you) – then you will find that HE LOVES SALIERI and publicly DECLARES HIS GRATITUDE over pretty much his entire EXISTENCE, as a musician and human being – to his teacher: for SCHUBERT, like BEETHOVEN too


    For Franz SCHUBERT – Antonio SALIERI was an ANGEL and GOD’s very IMAGE on Earth, art is a source of CONSOLATION which was given to him through music ~ BY Salieri, and this he thought and felt to the very day he died.

    It’s Schubert’s OWN WORDS, do not contradict him, trust that Schubert knows himself and his teacher and music of both.

    SCHUBERT WAS, as an artist and a man, DEVOTED TO SALIERI.

    If this is how YOU perceive Schubert and if this is what he means to you personally – then, maybe, you can through all the superlatives you so eagerly apply to Schubert – finally comprehend what Salieri always meant to Franz Schubert.

    STOP BEING DISRESPECTFUL towards SCHUBERT by dismissing his master, teacher and friend.

    STOP REPEATING claims by biographers who NEVER EVER read anything about Salieri nor have listened to his music or ever even attempted to understand the man nor their relationship.

    Biographies about SALIERI have long since been printed, there are more than 35 books about him available and each year new articles and studies come into the open. Antonio SALIERI is one of the MOST IMPORTANT COMPOSERS in history of VIENNA, AUSTRIA, GERMANITY AND EUROPE.

    Whether we like it or not – with SALIERI – just like with MOZART – so many things are


    your head would explode: throne has been returned to the one of the rightful kings of operatic and vocal 18th century composition as it was then understood, to Maestro ANTONIO SALIERI.

    … STOP spitting hatred for a man you do not understand and go bother with his music and stroll to a library to confirm the written above and thus give Salieri respect just like he gave respect to his pupils.

  2. DS Bleu permalink
    October 17, 2015 3:57 pm

    … Reading back on the upper – I was an ass. <— *loudly admits it*

    Having it out with Bates, drama queen style – the year of publication completely skipped my attention and at the time we had two particularly nasty lawsuits on our hands – things were a bit tense, so I totally projected it to here, especially the word ''lazy'' tipped the scale. The arguments, for what is worth, still stand and can be found through reports of Salieri's students or composer himself, chief sources are about 10 or so Angermüller publications (which direct the reader to primary sources, like letters, diaries and newspaper articles.)

    I'm really sorry, and quite a bit ashamed, I honestly never had such an emotional a reaction like the one above and normally can keep the distance & cool. … Hope you can forgive me

    and best wishes to yourself and your efforts, especially with your excellent blog.

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