“The most poetic musician who ever lived” was Liszt’s description of Franz Schubert. And that life was a tragically short one. We lament Mozart’s early death (aged 35), but Schubert’s came even sooner, at the age of just 31. Like Mozart, Schubert was a prolific composer, but their outputs were very different. Schubert never enjoyed royal patronage and the vast majority of his works were composed for private performance, notably in soirées which became known as “Schubertiade”. 

Franz Schubert, portrait by Wilhelm August Rieder
© Public domain

Schubert composed a handful of operas – almost entirely without success – and several symphonies, but he gave only one public concert of his own works, in March 1828 on the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death. Otherwise, the majority of his work was chamber scaled – piano works, chamber music and a vast catalogue of over 600 Lieder (see our Top ten playlist devoted to his songs). 

After contracting syphilis in 1822, it can be argued that Schubert – unlike other composers who died young – had a very real sense of his own mortality and his “late” works can often feel loaded with profundity. Following his death, Schubert’s work was championed by composers such as Liszt, Brahms and Schumann. The latter wrote, “It is pointless to guess at what more [Schubert] might have achieved. He did enough; and let them be honoured who have striven and accomplished as he did.” 

1Symphony no. 9 in C major, “The Great”, D.944

When it came to his symphonies, Schubert never really stoked the revolutionary fire of Beethoven. They were mostly more modest, more Mozartian in scale, but his final essay in the genre – his Ninth (or Eighth, depending on your geography!) – is huge. Lasting up to an hour when performed with all the repeats, Robert Schumann praised it for its “heavenly length”. The nickname “The Great” was meant to distinguish it from Schubert’s other C major symphony (the Sixth), but has stood the test of time as a description of the work itself. 

Mostly composed in 1825, the symphony was never performed in Schubert’s lifetime. In the finale, listen for a near-quotation of the Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven’s Ninth, which had premiered a year before. In 1838, Schumann was given a copy of the manuscript by Schubert’s brother and took it back to Leipzig where it was premiered by Felix Mendelssohn at the Gewandhaus the following year. 

2Piano Sonata no. 21 in B flat major, D.960

Schubert seemed much more aware of Beethoven’s shadow when it came to his piano sonatas, but here he seemed to relish the challenge of establishing himself as his successor. Like Beethoven, Schubert’s final three sonatas were conceived as a trilogy, completed just two months before his death. His last sonata opens in sublime calm with a whispered theme before a soft timpani roll trill in the bass. This first movement almost has an aura of otherworldliness. Is this Schubert facing his grave? The Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda felt the first movement’s epilogue one of the most moving moments in music. “Every time I play it I am deeply touched by this farewell, a symbol of acceptance and final piece.” 

The haunting second movement is profound and introspective, but Schubert’s brings us back down to earth. The dancing Scherzo is full of Viennese humour, as is the Rondo finale which ends with a gruff burst of laughter. 

3Winterreise, D.911

This cycle of 24 songs – 16 in a minor key – is based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, charting the emotions of a poet wandering through a desolate, wintry landscape after his lover has broken off their relationship. There are fleeting recollections of better times, but the wanderer feels bitterness and solitude; he doesn’t so much fight against fate as submit to it. The cast of characters is drawn from the natural world – rivers, snow, trees, a crow – until the final song, where he meets an old man playing the hurdy-gurdy, his begging bowl empty, growled at by dogs. The poet considers leaving with him, wondering if the old organ-grinder will play his songs. 

Here is Ian Bostridge in the first and last songs of the cycle, Gute Nacht and Der Leiermann, directed by David Alden. Click here for the full 24 on YouTube

4String Quintet in C major, D.956

The String Quintet was another work from Schubert’s final year and is a pinnacle of the chamber repertoire. It differs from string quintets by Mozart and Beethoven in having two cellos rather than two violas, providing a remarkably rich texture. The opening movement contains daring use of contrasts in tonality and colour, but it is the Adagio which is the quintet’s crowning achievement, music of sublime pathos and tranquillity. It is followed by a rustic Scherzo and a Hungarian folk-ish finale. 

5Symphony no. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”, D.759

Why did Schubert not finish his B minor symphony? Written in late 1822, the manuscript contained two fully scored movements plus sketches for a third. Schubert abandoned it and the work lay undiscovered for 40 years. Was the self-critical composer unhappy with it? Did it bring back painful memories? We’ll never know. Scholars have attempted completions but the two existing movements stand up perfectly by themselves. After mysterious, melancholy opening phrases, the beautiful first theme pairs oboe and clarinet, while the second waltz-like theme is played by the strings before a series of dramatic turns. The clarinet features again in the soft repose of the Andante

6Erlkönig, D.328

Erlkönig has to be one of the most gripping of Schubert’s 600+ songs and an excellent entry point into the world of Lieder. It’s a narrative song, setting Goethe’s poem that describes a father riding through the woods at night, his child wrapped in his arms. The Elfking, an evil spirit, soon appears and lures the child into death’s clutches. The singer has to adopt four “voices”: narrator, father, child and the Elfking. (Click here to discover other settings of this poem.)

7Piano Quintet in A major, “The Trout”, D.667

Song was never far away from Schubert’s chamber music, so here are two works directly inspired by his Lieder. Die Forelle (The Trout) is a song where the poet sees a trout swimming in the clear brook, but a wily fisherman hooks it, much to the poet’s anger. Schubert’s variations on this familiar song form the fourth movement of his sparkling Piano Quintet, written for an unusual line-up which includes a double bass as part of the ensemble. 

8String Quartet no. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden”, D.810

Similarly, the second movement of Schubert’s D minor string quartet is based on a song, Death and the Maiden, about a terrified young woman begging death to pass her by. But Death consoles her, promising that “You shall sleep gently in my arms”. Schubert composed his string quartet in 1824, when he was already crippled with despair at his bad health. “I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world,” he wrote to his friend Leopold Kupelweiser. “Imagine a man whose health will never be right again and who, in sheer despair over this, even makes things worse instead of better.” This quartet – especially the song quotation – reflects the composer’s state of mind. 

9Four Impromptus, D.899

Schubert’s eight impromptus were composed in 1827 and published in two sets of four pieces. The first set opens in C minor, plunging us into the desolate world of Winterreise, while the E flat major impromptu tumbles and twists. The lyrical G flat, possibly the best known, has a melting melody over a rippling accompaniment. Cascading figures feature in the A flat major to close the set. Here, the four are shared by Grigory Sokolov (C minor and E flat major) and Evgeny Kissin (G flat major and A flat major): 

10Octet in F major, D.803

To end on an upbeat note, the Octet is one of Schubert’s sunniest compositions. It was commissioned by Count Ferdinand von Troyer, who was an amateur clarinettist, and was conceived in the style of Beethoven’s popular Septet, i.e. a mix of strings and wind instruments. Schubert adds an extra violin to the line-up (indeed, the first performance in 1824 was by several musicians who had premiered Beethoven’s Septet). The Octet is in six movements, in the style of an 18th-century serenade, and features an old-fashioned Minuet as well as a more modern Scherzo, plus a Theme and Variations that take us to the world of Viennese cafés. Schubert with a smile.