Jan. 31 marks the birthday of Franz Schubert (1797-1828), who in his short life, managed to compose an outsized catalog of 600 secular vocal works, seven complete symphonies, four operas, sacred pieces and hundreds of piano and chamber-music works.
Since its founding in 1891, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has performed Schubert’s music nearly every season. His works have remained at the heart of the CSO’s life: his name is even engraved over one of Orchestra Hall’s five Michigan Avenue doors.
Schubert’s symphonic output is one of music’s most delicate miracles, wrote CSO annotator Phillip Huscher in a program book essay. These symphonies are so intimate and refined that orchestras — and conductors — often pass them by for works of greater spectacle and more easily won success. “With Schubert, you have to know that you are playing for the music,” observes Riccardo Muti, “not for the standing ovation of the public.”
In the 2013-14 season, Muti took the extraordinary move of programming all of Schubert’s symphonies — a first in the CSO’s history. Although both the Eighth and Ninth symphonies (the Unfinished and the Great C Major) had long been anchors of the CSO’s repertoire, Schubert’s early symphonies and the Mass in A-Flat Major were nearly unknown to Chicago audiences. The CSO played the First only once before (in 1982) and the Second had not been performed in nearly four decades. These works often get passed over for symphonies that offer greater spectacle, Huscher noted, but they are scores of abundant riches.
Of Schubert’s Mass in A-Flat Major, which the CSO and Chicago Symphony Chorus performed for the first time February 2014, Muti said, “In this mass, Schubert never becomes tragic.” Comparing the work to the Florentine frescoes of the same period, he added, “At the death of Christ, the Virgin Mother always has a light, sweet — dolce — smile. It is never terrifying — it is like the door to another world.”
In an essay published in 2001, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini listed his choices for the top 10 classical-music composers of all time. In the first three spots were the usual suspects of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, and landing at a perhaps surprising fourth: Schubert. “He died at 31, ill, impoverished and neglected, except by a circle of friends who were in awe of his genius,” Tommasini wrote. “For his hundreds of songs alone — including the haunting cycle Winterreise, which will never release its tenacious hold on singers and audiences — Schubert is central to our concert life. His first few symphonies may be works in progress. But the Unfinished and especially the Ninth Symphony are astonishing. The Ninth paves the way for Bruckner and prefigures Mahler.”
Schubert himself was a fine pianist, and his sonatas have slowly come to be acknowledged as important works no less pioneering in their own idiosyncratic way than Beethoven’s. “Through the symphonies and the other music of Schubert,” Muti said, “I think that the public will be able to understand one of the most beautiful and tragic personalities in the world of music.”
The payoff, for the audience and the musicians themselves is, of course, incomparable, according to Huscher. “This is music of abundant satisfaction: it coaxes players to listen to one another as if they were playing chamber music and to sing with their instruments; it gives audiences a rare sense of inner pleasure, of well-being,” he wrote. Behind the polished veneer of the scores, you sense that Schubert, as one of his friends once said, was reaching for the stars. “When you hear the music of Schubert,” Muti said, “you go home enriched.”
Portions of this article were previously published on Sounds and Stories.