On this day — January the 31st — in 1797, Schubert was born. He died just 31 years later.
When I first started reading music history in about 1960, the books never said why Beethoven went deaf, Schubert died young, and Delius was paralytic. It was in fact syphilis in all three cases. This might suggest they led rackety promiscuous lives, and I think indeed Delius behaved pretty outrageously when young. Schubert was I think no more promiscuous than other young men of his time, and Beethoven was a prude who had idealistic platonic relationships with his young women piano pupils; his best-known song cycle was called ‘An die ferne Geliebte’, ‘To the distant beloved.’ It wasn’t screwing around that did for them, it was the fact that penicillin hadn’t been discovered. The human race would probably have died out by now had it not been for Penicillin.
Many people, including many accomplished and sensitive musicians and music lovers, think Schubert rather trivial. I think this is, paradoxically, because of his extraordinary melodic gift: people hear the beautiful tune and fail to notice what is going on underneath and around it; the strange harmonic shifts for one thing. One of the last things Beethoven, whom surely no-one regards as trivial, said was that he regarded Schubert as his successor.
Another thing about Schubert was his ‘late’ works, such as the last quartets, the piano sonata Deutsch 960, and of course the great string quintet. How did it happen that such a young man could write works that had that combination of resigned calm and passionate intensity that we hear in Beethoven’s last works and that we associate especially with ‘late’ work, not just in music but also the other arts? I believe that it was actually always there, but no-one noticed: one can hear it, if one listens carefully, particularly to the piano accompaniment and not just the pretty tune, even in such early work as the song ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, written when he was sixteen.