Franz Schubert, music's 'first romantic'

Music@Menlo festival features chamber works, lieder, lectures

What do you know about Franz Schubert?

He wrote a symphony that he never bothered to finish.

In German class, you listened to "Erlk├Ânig" ("The Elf King"), the grim Goethe poem that Schubert set to music, and "Die Forelle" ("The Trout" ), the lilting art song about a carefree trout cavorting in a brook -- until he's caught.

You swooned to his "Ave Maria" -- but blanched when it was remixed as a ringtone.

While the refrains of the Viennese composer's greatest hits are unforgettable, few are familiar with his unusual life story, his chamber works or the breadth of his composition, which includes more than 1,000 pieces composed over 18 years during a life of a mere 31 years, from 1797-1828.

That's why Music@Menlo is focusing its 13th season on Schubert. This year's festival, which runs from July 17 to Aug. 8, focuses on the composer's best-known chamber works, his well-loved lieder and piano pieces, his life and his place in music history. Not only was Schubert the first composer of the 19th-century Romantic period, but he was also, according to Music@Menlo co-founder David Finckel, "the first romantic figure in music -- a bohemian who cared about (music and) nothing else."

"He had no worldly concerns and died young," said Finckel during an interview from New York, where he and his wife, Wu Han, were preparing for the chamber music festival and institute for which they serve as artistic directors.

Ara Guzelimian, the provost and dean of New York's Juilliard School who will present a program on Schubert's final years, said Finckel and Wu Han are "among the most brilliant generative forces in musical lives today," not only as musicians but also as impresarios, serving as "real role models for a new generation of entrepreneurial musicians." In addition, he said, "they created from scratch, out of full cloth, an internationally prominent festival, with influence far beyond (its) three to four weeks."

With more than 50 events and 43 guest artists, the 23-day festival -- with many programs sold out at press time -- takes place in Atherton at both Menlo School and The Center for Performing Arts. It offers seven concert programs, five Schubertiades (intimate musical gatherings presented in a parlor setting, emulating the traditions of 19th-century Vienna), discussions and lectures, plus an institute in which young string players and pianists study and perform with seasoned artists.

In addition, a multimedia "encounter series" led by music scholars including Guzelimian offers in-depth explorations of Schubert's work, his evolution as a composer and his life.

"His real life story is generally not known," explained Finckel. "Most people know Beethoven became deaf. Very few people know that most of Schubert's instrumental music and also most of his symphonic music was not performed publicly during his lifetime and was only discovered to exist in the 60 or 70 years after he died."

Much of the young composer's work had been piled in ragged bundles on the shelves of his brother's home, where Schubert died, and where composer and admirer Robert Schumann found them years later, sending some of the pieces to a music publisher. However, the "Unfinished Symphony," unheard during Schubert's lifetime, was not performed until the 1860s, after Schumann too had died.

"Robert Schumann never heard it, which is almost as much of a tragedy as the loss of Schubert himself," Finckel said of the "Unfinished Symphony." "For that matter, Mendelssohn never heard it either, whereas during Beethoven's life, people pretty much heard everything he composed."

Other pieces, including five symphonies, weren't discovered until the 1860s, when English musicologist George Grove and composer Arthur Sullivan ventured to Vienna in search of Schubert's lost manuscripts, including music from the play "Rosamunde," some of which will be featured in the festival.

Schubert, who couldn't care less about commercial success, "was every mother's nightmare," Finckel said. "He rarely had his own place. He lived with friends. His friends would just share money and clothes and food, and Schubert didn't care. He was happy as long as he had a pencil and paper and could write music. The most he ever got was one public concert -- a year after Beethoven's death and six or eight months before his own death," most likely of syphilis. Schubert's friends referred to his "irresponsible lifestyle," which included frequenting "the unsavory areas of Vienna."

But that lifestyle did not stop the music until Schubert breathed his last. "When he learned he was fatally ill, he raced the clock and just wrote faster and faster," Finckel said, producing "some of the greatest and most beloved masterpieces that we know."

Among them is the String Quartet in D minor, known as the "Death and the Maiden" quartet, composed in 1824, when Schubert knew he was fatally ill, based on an earlier song of the same name. "You feel when you're listening to the piece that you're barely escaping jaws of death," Finckel said.

Another well-known chamber piece, also based on an earlier art song, is the Piano Quintet in A major ("The Trout"). While most chamber pieces are quartets, with two violins, viola and cello, in "The Trout," Schubert breaks classical tradition, using a single violin along with viola, cello, bass and piano.

Discussing Schubert's place in the musical pantheon, Guzelimian said: "For nearly a century, Schubert was much admired but thought to be in the shadow of Beethoven. We're now beginning to understand that Schubert wasn't struggling to keep up with Beethoven so much as beginning to look toward the future and effect musical language and expression beyond Beethoven. Some of his late works are daringly experimental."

Finckel voiced similar thoughts. "What many people don't know about Schubert is what a great chamber music composer he was," he said. "His output in chamber music stands up with the greatest composers of all time. He wrote so many great works, and we're playing pretty much all of them."

What: 13th Music@Menlo summer music festival

Where: Two Atherton venues: Menlo School, 50 Valparaiso Ave., and The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, 555 Middlefield Road

When: July 17-Aug. 8

Cost: $46-$85 adults, $20-$35 under age 30

Info: Go to musicatmenlo.org or call 650-331-0202.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 7,630 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 15 comments | 2,517 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 2,468 views

Good News: The New Menlo Park Rail Subcommittee Hits A Home Run
By Dana Hendrickson | 12 comments | 1,643 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,050 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More