Schubert & the Piano


Franz Schubert lived only 31 years, but in his brief time he wrote hundreds of pieces of music – including 400 for piano. As he reached the end of his life, Schubert was unstoppable in his composing, despite the ill health that plagued him almost constantly. Many of his later keyboard works contain some of the most gorgeous, effortlessly flowing melodies in all of music. In this Active Minds program, we'll hear some of his charming miniatures (Musical Moments, he called them) and then explore the otherworldly piano music of his final years – the heavenly Impromptus and the glorious sonatas.


There is a bittersweet quality in the keyboard music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) that can bring a tear and a smile simultaneously. The smile, of course, emerges from all those lovely melodies that seem so original, yet so familiar. The sadness, however, comes when we remember that this amazing composer lived such a short time. What makes his story sadder still is the fact that Schubert was barely known to his contemporaries as he struggled to earn a living in Vienna – where Beethoven was king of music. Apart from a few visits to a vacation spot not far from town, Schubert never left the city of his birth. Music was always a part of his life, even though his father encouraged the young man to follow in the elder Schubert's teaching profession – which young Franz dutifully did for a spell. Yet, he couldn't stop composing. Songs, in particular, intrigued him. Vienna was a hotbed for poets, whose verses were quickly written, published and read by everyone. It seems easy to select a poem, long or short, and set it for voice and simple piano accompaniment. But what Schubert did so consistently is to create a perfect musical world that made those words come alive as they are sung, enhanced by the piano, which created a landscape of sound. He was able to get some of his songs (or, in German, lieder) published, and one of the many hundreds he wrote became quite popular: Goethe's “Erlking,” a driving, dramatic telling of a father carrying his critically ill son on horseback, hoping to reach home before the lad perished – all the while trying to quiet the boy's fears as the dreaded Erlking, a mythical figure, flew along with them, luring the dying boy into the next world. The three characters interact in this chilling drama, as the horse (portrayed in the churning accompaniment) gallops along. This masterful work was written while Schubert was still a teenager, as were dozens of song settings. He could write four or five in a single day, sometimes suddenly jotting down ideas on napkins while dining at a Viennese restaurant. Only once did he give a public performance. Yet, he was not invisible: He had a coterie of loyal friends who gathered at his home or at the residence of some of the city's wealthy patrons, where the composer would host music parties known as “Schubertiads.” Usually, his friend, the popular singer Johann Vogl, was present, performing the composer's latest songs as Schubert accompanied at the piano. Often there were games, little plays performed to much laughter and applause – and, of course, there were always opportunities for guests to dreamily listen as new piano works were introduced. Throughout his life, Schubert wrote for the solo keyboard, but often in chamber-music settings, such as works for violin and piano, piano trios (piano-violin-cello) or the single glorious piano quintet, the “Trout.” In addition, there were dozens of works for two pianists, seated at the same instrument. These duets were meant for amateur players at home (a much-needed source of income), though the greatest of them, the heart-breaking Fantasia in F minor, has challenged concert pianists for generations. One of music's enduring mysteries surrounds the music Schubert produced in his final, illness-plagued year: magnificent song cycles (settings of several linked poems), the gorgeous String Quintet, the C-major Symphony, the extraordinary piano Impromptus and the final three piano Sonatas – each a lengthy work that takes the listener to unknown worlds of beauty. All of these were written as the depressed composer fought the painful effects of the syphilis he contracted as a young man. We weep at the thought of Schubert leaving us so soon, but we can rejoice in the hundreds of pieces he gave to the world.

Exploration Questions

  • Who were some of Schubert's favored poets used in his song settings?
  • What was his relationship with Beethoven?
  • Who were some other great song composers of that time?

Reflective Questions

  • What are your favorite Schubert piano melodies?
  • Do you prefer his orchestral music or chamber pieces to his works for keyboard?
  • Listen to his two Quintets – the “Trout” and the C-major. Which do you favor?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Frost, Henry. Franz Schubert: A Biography. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform. 2013. 224 pages. Though it was written in 1892, Frost's book remains highly readable and stands as an early important biography of Schubert. It's been updated, making this a valuable source for today's readers.
    Click here to order
  • Flower, Norman. Franz Schubert – The Man and His Circle. Camp Press. 2007. 412. Another early biography (written in 1928), but a singluar resource for discovering who were all those loyal friends of the composer. Flower conducted interviews with the children of those people, bringing an authenticity to this lovely book.
    Click here to order