ave maria by Franz Schubert
Schubert composed more than 600 songs – taking the art of writing German Lieder to a new plane – as well as seven completed symphonies, chamber music and piano sonatas. He composed with an astonishing gift for melodic and harmonic invention. Schubert was not a prolific performer, he was a freelance composer, relying on what he could earn from commissions and fees. Only a fraction of his music was published in his lifetime, and it was only after his death that the greatness of his achievement was recognised internationally.
Few composers led such uneventful lives as Schubert apparently did. He rarely travelled far outside the city of Vienna, where he was born the 12th child of a schoolmaster in the Lichtental district. He began learning the violin aged eight, played the viola in his family’s string quartet, and began composing pieces for the group; at the age of 11 he won a choral scholarship to the Imperial College. Among his teachers there was Antonio Salieri, the éminence grise of Viennese music at the beginning of the 19th century who gave the boy private composition lessons. As well as composing string quartets, his first piano pieces and songs, Schubert also wrote for the college orchestra. His First Symphony was completed in 1813.
At the end of 1813, he returned to his family home to begin work at his father’s school as well as giving private lessons, while still studying with Salieri he met a young singer, Therease Grob, for whom he composed a number of works, but he was prevented from marrying her by a law that required prospective husbands to prove they had the financial means to support a wife. He found the drudgery of teaching hard, yet he was composing at an incredible rate. Before he was 20 he had written five symphonies, four masses, six operas (mostly unfinished), three string quartets, three piano sonatas and about 300 songs.
One of the triggers to Schubert’s explosion of songwriting had been his discovery of Goethe in 1814: his setting of Gretchen am spinnrade from Faust, was perhaps his first great song. It was quickly followed by others to Goethe texts, such as Earlkonig and Heidenroslein.
In 1816 he left his family home to share lodgings with a poet friend, Franz von Schober, in the centre of the city. His reputation was beginning to grow, and he continued to compose feverishly – orchestral and choral works, as well as more songs, including some of his most famous, such as An die Musik and Die Forelle (The Trout), which both date from 1817. In the Trout Quintet, written two years later, the song became the theme of a set of variations, and in 1824 Schubert would use another song of 1817, Das Tod und die Madchen (Death and the Maiden), in the best known of his string quartets, in D minor.
That period also saw the beginning of the Schubertiades informal evenings in private houses, sponsored by wealthy patrons, in which Schubert and his friends met to read poetry and to hear performances of his music.
Though Schubert would not meet Beethoven until 1822, Beethoven’s influence is clear in the piano sonatas of that period and especially in the Sixth Symphony, which replaces the lightness and Mozart stylistic grace of the earlier symphonies with much more dramatic intent.
In 1823, Schubert was asked to write the incidental music for the “grand romantic drama” Rosamunde. The play itself quickly vanished, but his score remains one of his most popular concert works. The Unfinished Symphony, the two completed movements of his eighth symphony, was also written that year, shortly before the Wanderer Fantasy, his most virtuosic piano work.
Schubert’s last major orchestral work, and his last grand “public” statement as a composer, was the C Major Symphony unperformed in his lifetime. The two song cycle ,Die schone Mullerin (The Fair Miller-Maid), and Winterreise(Winter Journey), both to poems by Wilhelm Müller, belong to this period.
His final masterpieces include the two piano trios, the G Major String Quartet, the C Minor Fantasy for violin and piano , the F Minor Fantasy for piano duet and C Major string quartet ,piano pieces (the two sets of (Impromptus) and the series of expansive piano sonatas that culminates in the great trilogy of the, C minor, A major and B flat works.
Appreciation of Schubert grew steadily through the 19th century, as his music was increasingly published and performed. In 1838, Robert Schumann was shown the score of the Ninth Symphony in Vienna and took a copy back to Leipzig, where Mendelssohn conducted the first public performance. Liszt described Schubert as “the most poetic musician who ever lived”. The Lieder writing tradition, which Schubert did more than anyone to establish, was a persistent thread through German music into the 20th century.
The original words of Ave Maria (Hail Mary) were in English, being part of a poem called The Lady of the Lake, written in 1810 by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). The poem drew on the romance of the legend regarding the 5th century British leader King Arthur, but transferred it to Scott’s native Scotland. In 1825 during a holiday in Upper Austria, the composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set to music a prayer from the poem using a German translation by Adam Storck. Scored for piano and voice, it was first published in 1826 as “D839 Op 52 no 6.” Schubert called his piece “Ellens dritter Gesang” (Ellen’s third song) and it was written as a prayer to the Virgin Mary from a frightened girl, Ellen Douglas, who had been forced into hiding.
The song cycle proved to be one of Schubert’s most financially successful works, the Austrian composer being paid by his publisher 20 pounds sterling, a sizable sum for a musical work in the 1820s. Though not written for liturgical services, the music proved to be inspirational to listeners, particularly Roman Catholics, and a Latin text was substituted to make it suitable for use in church. It is today most widely known in its Latin “Ave Maria” form.
In a letter from Schubert to his father and step-mother he writes about “Ave Maria” and the other songs in his “Lady of the Lake” cycle: “My new songs from Scott’s Lady of the Lake especially had much success. They also wondered greatly at my piety, which I expressed in a hymn to the Holy Virgin and which, it appears, grips every soul and turns it to devotion.