Hannes Richter

Austrian Places: A Suburbian Lovestory

Hannes Richter
Austrian Places: A Suburbian Lovestory

Top photo: The Lichtenthal parish church

By Markus Reiterer

Our correspondent Markus Reiterer continues his series on these special Austrian places with a story to tell.

It starts with a few simple notes. Some simple caresses of the strings. An upward movement leading to the gentle suspense of a waltz-like song. The young man on the podium gives a sign to an equally young woman and the radiant voice of an angel sets in. Benedictus she sings, gently and clear, soft and resounding - her voice flying over the orchestra. The notes she sings have been composed for her. Composed by a young man in love with her - the same young man that is directing the orchestra. The young woman: Therese Grob, the composition: the Benedictus from the mass in G major (D 167). The composer: Franz Schubert, the prolific master of melodies, the genius of song, the pinnacle of Vienna classic. 18 years of age at the time of the mass’ first performance at the parish church of Lichtental, today in Vienna’s ninth district.

Schubert had met Therese Grob about a year earlier at the age of 17 when she was involved in performing Schubert’s first mass (F-major D 105). And Schubert – as they say – fell for the young girl from his neighborhood – dedicating music to her, writing music for her, falling in love with her. Therese sang the soprano part of the F-Major mass and the soprano in the G-Major mass. It is also said that Schubert wrote other pieces for her: a Salve Regina, a Tantum Ergo meant to be performed in the church, where Schubert was baptized and started his musical training as choir boy, before he was accepted in the so-called Stadtskonvikt which provided school training, musical teaching, choir singing as an altar boy in the court’s chapel and eventually a forum for the performance of Schubert’s early works.

Schubert’s G-major mass is listed as the 167th composition of his career in the so-called Deutsch-Verzeichnis. In other words, at the tender age of 18 Schubert had already composed 167 pieces: numerous songs (including his master piece Gretchen D 118), two masses, a symphony and a series of works for chamber ensembles, mostly quartets. He was a child prodigy in the true meaning of the word, but more than that he was a serious, albeit young, musician and composer. The G-major mass was composed within less than a week (from March 2 to 7, 1815) and – after a slow start – turned out to be one of Schubert’s most frequently performed compositions.

There seemed hardly any doubt that Schubert was burning. Burning for Therese, but – even more so – burning for his music and burning for the freedom that would enable him to bring to light all the music he felt inside him. It was a tough predicament in which he found himself. His father was running a school in a Vienna suburb, enough to bring them through, but too little to “waste” money on a son who would spend his time idly and scribbling notes that wouldn’t earn a living. So he had started to work in his father’s school as assistant teacher, wasting time for teaching, rather than composing. But true it was: no patron of the arts would look after him, no adequate job for him to be found, no fixed income as a court musician, nothing like that. In 1816 he tried to escape the serfdom of the school and in an attempt to earn sufficient income to be able to marry Therese, he applied for a job as music teacher in Laibach (Lubljana, today’s capital of Slovenia). But Schubert was turned down.

Nußdorferstrasse.jpg

Schubert’s birthplace at Nussdorferstrasse 45 in ViennaSo he had to make a decision: Would he continue as assistant teacher, stealing time from teaching for his compositions and neglecting his students while never finding enough time for music? Or would he try to survive as a free-lance artist? Being poor, but free to spend his time the way he saw fit, the way he needed it. He opted for the latter – also for the risk of losing any chances to continue courting Therese and eventually marry her. He moved in with his his friend Schober, sharing a tiny shabby room with him and dedicating himself to music. He would spend numerous hours a day composing, then go for a walk, meet his friends, enjoy life a bit (really only a bit), then sleep and compose again for numerous hours, and follow this pattern on and on. It is surprising to see that Schubert still has the reputation of a bohemian spending most of his time singing and drinking with friends while the sheer volume of the works he produced tells an utterly different story: in such a dramatically short life span of 31 years his “output” was so amazingly enormous that simply copying it by hand (let alone composing it) would require years and years of hard work. But then: it’s not the volume that counts; it’s the contents, the musicality and ingenuity, the geniality and the directness with which his compositions find their way into the minds and all the more so the hearts of people.

There were some successes: On June 17, 1816 he notes in his diary: “On this day for the first time I composed for money. A Cantata for the name-day of Professor Wattrott von Dräxler. The fee was 100 fl.” That amount of money would set him afloat for some time, but successes remained rather scarce throughout Schubert’s life and his personal situation rather precarious which often made him dependent on help from his friends. When Schubert died in 1828 he was still relatively little known and the fee for his funeral had to be paid through down-payments of future income of publishers as his estate consisted mostly of sheet music, but not many worldly goods. Today the number of publications, books, CDs, DVDs, internet resources dedicated to Schubert, concerts, performances etc. is vast (not to talk about the income his music generates…..). But I always find it more charming to think back to Franz Schubert as the young man of 17 – a young Schubert in love.

Naturally, there are many reasons to visit Vienna. Definitely one of them is to visit the many places linked to Franz Schubert. Here is a brief selection: Schubert’s birthplace (Nussdorferstrasse 54 in Vienna’s 9th district), the parish church of Lichtenthal, where Schubert was baptized, received his first musical education and directed the performance of his early masses. This – rather humble and at Schubert’s time suburbian – church is well worth a visit, particularly as they are performing regularly some of his works (check out: www.schubertkirche.at for some history and the program). You could also check out Schubert’s last residence at Kettenbrückengasse 6 (in the fifth district) and his final resting place at Vienna’s Central Cemetery where he is buried alongside Beethoven. For those, who would prefer somethin lighter: why not drive out to Kahlenbergerdorf – just a stone’s throw away from Vienna and see the house where his famous Ständchen – Leise flehen meine Lieder (D 957 No. 4) was first performed on August 8, 1828 and then head to some of the local wine taverns, the Heurigen.

P.S.: if you are not familiar with Schubert’s G-major mass and the Benedictus, there are some nice (and not so nice) clips on YouTube. My own personal favorite, however, is the recording of the mass made in 1992 under the direction of Claudio Abbado, with Barbara Bonney singing the soprano.

©Markus Reiterer