Schubert died aged 31 in 1828. Had he lived as long as Mozart, who reached the ripe age of 35, Schubert would surely have proved to be Mozart’s equal. If he did not match Mozart as a composer of opera or sacred music he left some operatic and liturgical fragments that are as beautiful as anything in the repertoire.
And when it comes to songs Schubert has no equal. His originality and expressive power are apparent from the very beginning of his career, with the two famous Goethe settings – Gretchen am Spinnrad and the Erlkönig – dating from his teens. By the time of his death he had written over 600 songs, most of them masterpieces, and some of them contained in the two great cycles – Die Schöne Müllerin and Der Winterreise – which must be counted among the sacred and irreplaceable treasures of our civilisation.
For some reason, however, Schubert has been overshadowed by his immediate predecessors. During the period that we know as classical, and which stretches roughly from Bach to Berlioz, Schubert is all too often consigned to the second rank, with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven sharing the first prize. To some extent this reflects the taste of our parents, for whom classical music was a thing of the concert hall, and who therefore judged composers primarily in terms of their concertos and symphonies. Schubert wrote no concertos, and his two greatest symphonies – the 8th and the 9th – were not performed in his lifetime. His rare appearances in the concert hall should, however, be set beside his constant presence in the home. Wherever music is made at home, Schubert will be esteemed above all other classical composers.
This is especially true today. For Schubert is the poet of home and the loss of home. He shows every nuance of love and settlement, and of the grief through which we pay for them. Just as life in all its variety gains shape in his incomparable melodies, so does death lurk beneath the surface, in ambiguous harmonies and constant changes of key. Schubert’s music tells no lies, either about life or about death. It simply points us back to our home, telling us that we belong here on this earth and that our griefs and fears are redeemed by our loves. Hence nothing in his songs is contrived or artificial: everything flows spontaneously from the situation invoked by the poet. And maybe that is why Schubert’s music contains more consolation for our loneliness than any other human creation.