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The death of Schubert by Ralph Bates (1934)

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

It was Bauernfeld who persuaded Franz to give his only public concert of his works.  It was a difficult task to convince him of the possibility of profit or esteem, yet the concert, given upon the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death, produced £32 for the composer.  It is perfectly clear that public taste was ahead of official criticism, for the salon of the Hedgehog next door to the Blue, red in colour, was packed.  With an earnest request to repeat the event Schubert characteristically failed to comply.

He made unsatisfactory efforts to sell works to the firm of Schotts in February.  It is a little staggering to think that one could have secured the manuscript and copyright of the Death and the Maiden Quartet for about one hundred florins at this time.  Probst, also approached by Schubert, capably demonstrated the truth of the law of supply and demand by beating him down to 17s. 6d. for the E flat Trio, Opus 100.  Rather than inflict his poverty upon Schober any longer he left the Blue Hedgehog, and in October his correspondence was addressed from the Town of Ronsperg.  The Mainz publisher, however, refused to pay more than thirty florins for a fine four-part choral work, and returned the famous Impromptus as too difficult and unlikely to sell in France.

Many times he had sworn to compose no more unprofitable songs, but at the mercy of inexorable genius he wrote the first thirteen of the Schwanengesang in August, a mass and numerous other works engaging his leisure.  With care, comfort and reasonable health such exhaustion of impetus as this must imply might have no serious consequences.  But as things were, some serious prostration was almost certain to ensue.

In October Schubert began to sicken, and upon the advice of his physician went to live in the rural suburb of Neue Wiedern, at the house of brother Ferdinand, with whom he shortly went upon a three-day  walking tour.  Amongst other things they visited the grave of Haydn.  Upon his return Franz complained of excessive fatigue, but nothing in his behaviour awakened alarm until one night, while supping at a tavern and having begun a plate of fish, he flung down his knife and fork with the cry that he had been poisoned.  The following day, however, he walked to Hernals to hear one of his brother’s compositions, a requiem mass.

Prophetic forebodings of death are the quaint delight of the novelist, yet despite sundry gloomy remarks Schubert was clearly facing the future with thought of music.  It is intensely interesting that he actually began to study counterpoint with Sechter in these days; such an equipment would have been of immense value to him.  But, ominously, since the night of his alarm concerning poison he was eating nothing and complaining of fatigue.  Soon his temperature began to rise.

On the 12th of November he wrote a startling letter to Schober: “I am ill.  I have had nothing to eat or drink for eleven days and can only stagger uncertainly between chair and bed.  If I take any food at all I cannot keep it down.  Come to my rescue in this desperate condition with something to read”.

Beethoven’s last craving had been for wine and yet more wine of renowned vintages.  Schubert asks for more of Fennimore Cooper, whose “Last of the Mohicans” he had just read.

He spoke affectionately of his little step-sister Josefa, who nursed him at this stage of his illness, and when Spaun visited him a few days later he was correcting the proofs of the second half of the Winterreisse and still planning the music to the Count of Gleichen.  Then, possibly because his physician fell ill, new doctors were engaged.  Nevertheless, as one of these doctors was a specialist in venereal disease, it is probable that a treatment was prescribed appropriate to the nervous fever of the advanced disease.  Bauernfeld, who visited Franz on the afternoon of the 17th, has recorded that he found him weak, fevered and fearfully depressed, but without delirium.

The same evening a raving delirium took possession of him and, too late, it became evident that he was in the grip of a virulent typhus.

The following day Ferdinand and the male nurse were continually engaged in struggling to keep the terrified Franz in bed.  “Tell me what is happening” he whispered in horror at one moment.  “What are they doing with me?”  Ferdinand could only comfort him with stumbling words.  Several hours passed while the exhausted body lay inertly burning away.

Suddenly Franz began to struggle madly upon the bed and shrieked, “Put me in my own room, don’t leave me in this corner under the ground! Do I not deserve a place on earth?”  They fought desperately to restrain him, striving to assure him that he was not being buried alive.  “You are in your own room and lying on your bed” pleaded Ferdinand.

“No, it is not true” was the answer; “Beethoven is not lying here”.

What ghastly confusion made havoc of his mind we can only shrinkingly surmise.  But the revelation of affinity in that last utterance must not be ignored.  “No, it is not true” – he declares that he is being buried, which is normally a sign of death.  He fears that he is dead, and his mind leaps onward to a greater terror – of loneliness, for there should have been one, a mightier brother than Ferdinand, awaiting him with a smile, a bottle of good vintage and a sheaf of music-paper, the Beethoven towards whom he had driven his life in that ecstasy of creation.

Or interpreting otherwise, both phrases of his cry may become a denial that he is alive, and the proof of death if that Beethoven, long dead, is not there.  The principle of life is Beethoven.  Upon any interpretation approximation to the greatest master of all is evident.

The 19th of November witnessed the continuance of the drama; the delirium was weaker but less interrupted by lucidity, and even when he spoke his disorganised speech lacked meaning.  In one of these intervals of stupor or exhaustion the sacrament was administered.  Soon after midday he quietly put out his hand and clutched at the wall, murmured with perfect clarity, “Here is my end”, and sank into a deep prostration which resembled sleep.

Towards three o clock on the 19th November 1828 Franz Schubert died.

Life and Death are not disposed to play out their matters with the restraint of artistry.  There was no need for final irony.  They dressed Franz in the habit of a friar, and placed a crucifix in his hands, and buried him at Wahring, not far from Beethoven.

And after the burial there was that business to perform with which men instinctively steady themselves after loss, the disposal of his property.  The sum of his worth was fifty shillings, and a bundle of manuscripts, amongst which must have been many of the great works of the last year, was valued at 8s.6d.

This does not sound like reality.  It was not.  The whole lesson of this man’s life is that mankind has not yet achieved that ideal.

Bates, Ralph, Franz Schubert, Peter Davies Limited, 1934, pp. 157-162.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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