Franz Peter Schubert - Life and Music


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Franz Schubert - Final illness & death


We now enter on the last year of Schubert's short earthly life. He had returned from Styria with new strength and steeled to new exertions. Another trip was meditated for this autumn of 1828, to revive the pleasant days which he had passed with friends, and to restore his health, which was somewhat weakened by constant headaches. His indisposition had grown in the last few years, but there were no signs to forebode the catastrophe which came so suddenly upon him. It was in September, 1828, that Schubert began to feel the approach of illness.

He became subject to giddiness, and a rush of blood to the head, and the doctors ordered him moderation and exercise in the open air. A little trip he took with his brother and two friends to Eisenstadt, and the grave of Haydn, seemed to do hini good in body; it certainly raised his spirits. But on his return to Vienna his illness came back agam. Dining at an inn the last day of October he suddenly flung down his knife and fork, and said the fish he had just begun eating filled him with a sensation of disgust and horror, as if he had taken poison.

From this time forward he scarcely touched any food, took much medicine and exercise. On the 3rd of November he took a long walk to hear a Latin requiem, composed by his brother Ferdinand, the last music that he ever heard. Going home, after walking for three hours, he complained much of weariness. Even then he did not apprehend any serious illness, for he was meditating lessons in the art of writing fugues. He had lately taken much to the study of Handel, and he consulted the Court organist Sechter on the subject of contrapuntal instruction.

Schubert's death mask

But increasing weakness confined him to his bed, and though he felt no pain, the want of sleep oppressed him. The syphilitic infection which he contracted some 6 years earlier had taken it's toll and was now in it's final phase. The exact circumstances in which Schubert contracted syphilis are unknown, although he is commonly believed to have received it from a prostitute. Josef Kenner, a close friend, remarked that 'anyone who knew Schubert knows that he has two natures foreign to each other and how powerfully the craving for pleasure dragged his soul down to the slough of moral degradation'. Kenner's comment, stripped of its moralizing, may indicate that Schubert had a vigorous, clandestine sexual life. It seems that he associated with prostitutes and was a dark figure to many of his contemporaries. The profound sense of shame that pervaded his life was heightened when he contracted syphilis. The stigmata of recurrent secondary disease were embarrassing-especially the recurrent red rash.

When it was present he stayed in his house and hid from his friends. Patchy hair loss prompted him to buy a wig. In the spring of 1823 he had been admitted to Vienna General Hospital, and Moritz von Schwind wrote that his condition much improved. The likelihood is that he was treated with mercury, a then common palliative. We cannot know whether the dizziness and headaches that later plagued him were due to the side-effects of this agent or to meningovascular syphilis. On the positive side, his physicians gave him new optimism about his illness; but the melancholy in the last works, and the intensification of his oeuvre, is said by many critics to reflect his dejection at the progress of the disease-consider the apocalyptic desolate world of the slow movement of the A major piano sonata D 959.

The room in which Franz Schubert died

On 12 November, Schubert wrote his last letter, to his friend, Franz Schober:

'I am ill, I have eaten nothing for eleven days and have drunk nothing. I totter feebly and shakily from my chair to bed and back again. Rinna is treating me; if I ever take anything I bring it up at once.'

The composer was lovingly and carefully nursed by his family but his condition continued to worsen. Josef von Spaun wrote:

'I found him ill in bed although his condition did not seem to me at all serious. He corrected my copy in bed and was glad to see me and said, 'there is really nothing the matter with me, I'm so exhausted I feel as if I were going to fall through the bed'. He was cared for most affectionately by a charming thirteen-year-old sister whom he praised very highly to me. I left him without any anxiety at all and it came as a thunderbolt when, a few days later, I heard of his death.'

Lachner, who visited Schubert on 17 November, recorded a sudden deterioration, clouding of consciousness:

'When I came into his room he was lying with his face turned to the wall in the deepest, feverish delirium. Added to this was scanty nursing and a badly heated room on the walls of which the damp was running down! During a lucid moment I took my leave of him and I told him I hoped to be back in four days, but when I returned to Vienna on 21 November, Schubert was already in his grave.'

Schober's story is also consistent with this. He saw Schubert several times on the same day, noting that by the evening the patient was raving violently. Ferdinand described the last hours in a letter to his father, written two days after the composer's death:

'On the evening before his death, though only half-conscious, he still said to me, 'I implore you to transfer me to my room, not to leave me here in this corner under the earth. Do I, then, deserve no place above the earth?' I answered him, dear Franz, rest assured, believe me, believe your brother Ferdinand, whom you have always trusted and who loves you so much, you are in the room which you have always been in so far and lie in your bed, and Franz said, 'No, it is not true, Beethoven does not lie here'.

He wanted to go out, and seemed under the impression that he was in a strange room. The doctor came and tried to re-assure him, said he would recover if he stayed quietly in bed. But Franz looked fixedly at him, raised his heavy hand to the wall, and said solemnly, "Here, here will be my ending". And indeed, he passed away the next day, the 19th of November, 1828, at three in the afternoon, having not yet completed his thirty-second year. The next day, Schubert's father had the painful duty of issuing the obituary notice as follows:

"Yesterday afternoon, at three o'clock on Wednesday, my beloved son Franz Schubert, artist and composer, died after a short illness, and having received the Holy Sacraments of the Church. He died at the age of thirty-two. We beg to announce to our dear friends and neighbours that the body of the deceased will be taken on the 2ist of this month, at half-past two in the afternoon, from the house standing No. 694 in the new street on the Neuen-Wieden, to be buried near the bishop's stall in the parish church of St Josef in Margarethen, where the holy rites will be administered." VIENNA, November 20, 1828. FRANZ SCHUBERT, School-teacher in the Rossau.

The funeral took place on the day appointed, but the place of burial was changed almost at the last moment, in accordance with the expressed wishes of Schubert himself. "Franz himself induced me to think of Wahring for his resting-place.", says Ferdinand. Then he quotes the conversation and dying speech already given, adding, "Is not this an index, so to speak, of his heartfelt wish to rest by the side of Beethoven, whom he so deeply reverenced?" Ferdinand carried his point, and the remains were laid to rest close beside Beethoven's grave, but three places distant from it. A crowd of relations, friends and sympathisers took their last view of the body, which lay as if asleep, with face unchanged by death, dressed in the habiliments of a hermit, with a laurel-wreath round the temples. Then the coffin, covered with many garlands, was borne away by students and officials, mostly young men who had been intimate wtth the composer. Schober was chief mourner, and some verses by him were sung to Schubert's "Pax Vobiscum," with an accompaniment of wind instruments, before the interment, at the parish church, where Domcapellmeister Gansbacher conducted a funeral motet of his own composition. A subscription was at once started among his friends to raise a monument over his grave.

That neither the cost of the monument, of the requiems performed in two churches, or even of the funeral itself, could be defrayed without assistance, was plain from the circumstances of Schubert's family. The property left by the composer himself consisted simply of his clothes and other small possessions.

More than a 70 florins had been expended by his father and brother on medical attendance, and on the funeral. It was, therefore, necessary that Schubert's friends should club together, and either raise the money themselves or procure it from the public. None of them being very wealthy, the latter expedient was adopted.

A concert was got up, several of Schubert's pieces were given, and the success of the first concert was so great that it led to a second. With the sums thus collected and with a few friendly offerings, a monument was put up in the churchyard at Währing. The bust of Schubert adorns this monument, and below runs the inscription penned by the poet Grillparzer: — "Death buried here a rich possession. But yet fairer hopes. Here lies Franz Schubert. Born Januaiy 31st, 1797. Died November 19th, 1828. Aged 31 years".

And so the amazing composer had tragically left this world, leaving behind a legacy of incalculable value for mankind. Franz Schubert generated a prodigious output of spellbinding music without apparent regard for prosperity, financial gain or, even the fate of the work. He seems to have been an unhappy, isolated and stigmatized man; yet the music remains fresh and miraculous.

Franz Schubert 'A Musical Biography'

Schubert memorial

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