The Sweet Melancholy of Schubert’s Music

Schubert’s earliest known composition dates from the thirteenth year of his life: Fantasia in G major for piano duet. It is remarkable that he chose this relatively trivial genre: Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, his biggest sources of inspiration, had performed miracles in opera, symphony, piano sonata and string quartet. Although Schubert later earned distinction in each of these genres, where he truly stood out was in the musical genres of the living room.

Not that he lacked in ambition: his Fantasia is more than twenty minutes long, and his first song, Hagars Klage, is more of a fifteen-minute dramatic solo cantante. In short, Schubert’s fondness for intimate genres should not be mistaken for a desire to write short, entertaining pieces. His legacy of more than six hundred songs in any case set a new standard, elevating the German art song beyond the status of a ‘pièce d'occasion’. Schubert transformed songs into a mature genre with a now-impressive lineage, running from him via the likes of Schumann, Brahms, Mahler and Wolf, into the twentieth century with Hans Eisler, Richard Strauss and others. Schubert’s unmistakeable melodic talent is evident throughout all his works; even his instrumental pieces always include a small vocal part somewhere. 

Sweet Melancholy

It is often claimed that Schubert’s late compositions foreshadow his impending death. But ‘late’, in this case, should not cause us to imagine an old man wearing the weight of many years. In fact, by our standards, Schubert was still a young man when he composed his late works. Still, it is undeniable that a pall of sweet melancholy hangs over many of Schubert’s works, although unlike Mahler, Schubert’s fascination with death and suffering always had a lighter side. As a Viennese saying has it, “The situation is desperate, but not serious”; and perhaps that is what we hear in his music, where every major key also sounds a bit like a minor, or the other way round.

While often contemplative, Schubert’s works can be very extroverted as well. Even his String Quintet in C major, one of his most poignant works and written just two months before his death, has a passionate exuberance.