Monday 24 April 2017

Classical: Sweet music from the short life of Franz Schubert

A diary of notes: Schubert
A diary of notes: Schubert

George Hamilton

Vienna, as suggested here last week, has good reason to lay claim to being the musical capital of the world. Its past status at the heart of an empire gave it the cachet of the place to be and the best, the most talented, wanted to be seen and heard there. Visiting for the football seven days ago only confirmed the impression - there's music around every corner.

From the statue of Johann Strauss in a prominent position in the city park, to the square named in honour of Ludwig van Beethoven, you'll note the civic cap being doffed.

Beethoven Square is significant for another musical reason. It's home to the Akademisches Gymnasium, the oldest secondary school in Vienna, founded by the Jesuits in 1553, and the place where Franz Schubert received his education.

Though he struggled for recognition during his lifetime, Schubert would emerge as one of the greats of classical music.

It was his misfortune to be around when there was little scope for a bright young thing.

Beethoven was in his pomp, Haydn and Mozart weren't long gone, and their music was still supreme.

Schubert's father was a schoolteacher and from him he learned the basics of string playing. They'd a little quartet at home - brothers Ferdinand and Ignaz on the violins, Franz playing the viola, and their father as the cellist.

Franz's first compositions were pieces for this little band, and it was soon apparent that he was destined for greater things.

He was checked out by Antonio Salieri who reckoned he was good enough for the choir of the Court Chapel.

Schubert duly won himself a place there, which came with a scholarship to the prestigious Jesuit school. Salieri became Schubert's musical mentor.

As a chorister, the young Schubert lived in a seminary during term time.

He was being exposed to be very best of church music. And, as a boarder, he got to play the work of the masters.

The seminary made sure that music was a major part of each student's time there by arranging orchestral evenings. Every night after dinner, they'd play Mozart and Haydn.

And Beethoven. He was still current. It would have been a bit like boys at boarding school in the 1960s forming a band to play Beatles songs.

The impact on Schubert was immense. He started writing material for this orchestra, and it would be with them that he'd perform the first of his symphonies.

Schubert was responsible for a veritable explosion of musical ideas. There were nine symphonies in all, over 600 songs, and just about every musical genre in between.

Robert Schumann reckoned he poured his soul into his compositions. Anybody else might keep a diary, said Schumann, but Schubert used scores. He wrote notes where others would use words.

After Schubert's death, Schumann became a champion of his work, as did Brahms and Mendelssohn among others. Bridging the gap from the classical to the romantic, his final compositions point the way forward to the new era.

There are so many ways into the music of Franz Schubert, whether it's through the ethereal beauty of his Ave Maria, the lightness of one of his songs, the youthful vivacity of his Fifth Symphony, full of good tunes, or the understated eloquence of his piano music. He's one of the most performed composers of all.

Franz Schubert died on this day in 1828. He was just 31.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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