[“Schubert at the piano”, 1945, by Gustav Klimt]
Schubert is really the father of the lieder, writing 600 songs during a prolific career lasting less than 20 years (during which he also produced operas and symphonies, overtures and masses, string quartets, quintets and an octet, 20 piano sonatas and some 50 choral works).
The prolific song writer actually wrote 150 of these just in the year 1815, before he even turned 20 – including writing eight in one day in October of that year! The British tenor Ian Bostridge tells us that Schubert wrote songs in bursts, on the back of restaurant menus, when the mood took him, or when a particular poet’s work seized him.
It may be interesting to know that Schubert was not a great singer himself but he knew many good singers (As for lawyer-singers, Schubert set the precedent of having nearly become a lawyer himself and so it’s quite OK to have talent in more than one area!)
Most of the songs Schubert wrote were not published during his lifetime, and it was left to composers like Franz Liszt and the Schumanns, who admired Schubert’s songs, to discover and champion them. Liszt, in particular, made piano transcriptions of some 60 of Schubert’s songs (including 12 of the 24 songs in the Winterreise cycle) and helped popularize the then obscure works of Schubert by programming the Schubert song transcriptions in the salon concerts that Liszt was famous for in the 1830s. Here is Lazar Berman playing the Liszt transcription of Gretchen am Spinnrade (the same Schubert song as sung in the soprano clip below) with 4 others.
The first song we know that Schubert wrote was completed 3 months before his 18thbirthday, based on a text from none other than the great Goethe’s Faust, and is still very well known today: here’s one of our most favourite interpretations of Gretchen am Spinnrade (D.118) (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with the incomparable Edwin Fischer in the piano part).
As for his final songs, they are grouped by his publisher into “Schwanengesang” (D.957), a set of 14 songs (some say 13) that were composed by Schubert during the last weeks of his life (a period when he also wrote his last 3 piano sonatas, amongst his most transcendent as well as the C major string quintet). Here’s the last one, “Pigeon-post” (Taubenpost) sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (with Gerald Moore on the piano).
On the publication of the first part of Winterreise, one of Schubert’s most famous song cycles and written towards the end of his life, the Theaterzeitung (29 March 1828) commented:
Schubert has understood his poet with the kind of genius that is his own. His music is as naïve as the poet’s expression; the emotions contained in the poems are as deeply reflected in his own feelings, and these are so brought out in sound that none can sing or hear them without being touched to the heart.