Vienna’s reputation as the most musical city in the world is indissolubly linked with the names of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and of course the Strauss family. Each only added to the lustre of the city’s incomparable musical crown – but its reputation preceded them all. When Mozart first arrived there in 1781, sixteen years before Schubert’s birth and eleven after Beethoven’s, he was astonished at the prevalence of music and the extent of its sophistication, and dubbed the city ‘Clavierland’ (Pianoland).
Vienna, however, had another reputation too, which Beethoven observed some 11 years later: ‘I believe,’ he wrote, ‘that as long as the Austrian has some dark beer and little sausages he will not revolt.’ Vienna was already known as a city of pleasure, not only for beer but, to paraphrase the title of a famous Strauss waltz, for ‘wine, women and song’.
The source of them all, lay in the murky and often violent world of international politics. It was thus a city not merely of pleasure but of what might be called state-sponsored escapism – hence the profusion of theatres, restaurants, taverns, coffee-houses, the booming trade in prostitution, and, above all, the ubiquity of music.
Schubert grew up in the shadow of fear. With the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in the mid-1790's and a large contingent of the French army advancing on Vienna, public morale was plummeting. In a desperate attempt to raise flagging spirits, the Viennese authorities turned to poets and composers for an antidote.
Vienna around 1780
Throughout the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), most of Austria’s military history, and that of her allies, was commemorated in music. In every truly Biedermeier household, the piano was an indispensable part of the soirées that perpetuated the often self-congratulatory cultural aspirations of the rising middle class. Far from people being cowed or timorous in the shadow of Vienna's repressive administration, this new phenomenon engendered a snobbery and exclusivity all its own. If there was only minimal contact with the higher aristocracy, the impetus came from below at least as much as from above. Indeed the traditional class barriers were gradually being redrawn. Schubert’s Vienna was a dangerous place in which to speak one’s mind – the more so for the abundance of its inns and taverns, where even the discreetest tongues were easily loosened. One chose one’s friends carefully. Trust was armour. And Schubert, on the whole, chose well.
At these gatherings, generally frequented by the same people, there would be music, dancing, readings and discussions. Thus was the stage set for Schubert’s emergence. One might adapt the famous remark about God by saying that if Schubert had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him. Schubert was and remains the most famous ‘saloniste’ of Biedermeier Vienna, but in this, as in much else, he stood apart from the others. He was not the host of regular gatherings but rather their principal guest, the central focus of their very existence. Nor were these gatherings held, like the traditional salons, at a single place but at a sequence of venues. These ‘Schubertiads’, as they came to be known, were often sponsored by high-ranking civil servants, cultivated men who sought release from the boredom and regimentation of their bureaucratic ‘day jobs’. The typical Schubertiads combined music and entertainment with relaxed conversation and banter between hosts, their business associates, their guests and their children. The proceedings generally began with the performance of Schubert songs, often new ones and usually accompanied by the composer, after which he and his friends played piano duets or joined together in convivial vocal quartets.
After a big meal with plenty of wine, the guests played parlour games, read aloud and danced. Schubert’s Circle’, as it is often called, was not as fixed a social unit as the term suggests, nor was it unique. Throughout the German-speaking lands at that time, the bonding of like-minded young men into idealistic ‘brotherhoods’ was a common feature of the philosophical landscape.
Inspired by the German romantics of a generation earlier, these men were united in a nonconformist attitude toward life and art, and a passionate belief in the redemptive power of friendship. Central to the Schubertians’ ideals was ‘the love of all that is good’ (Liebe zum Guten), and like the young of most generations they felt alienated by what they perceived as the hypocrisy of the world around them. Often sceptical of organised religion, they looked to art as the salvation of society’s ills.
It is ironic but true that in the Vienna that housed Beethoven and Schubert at the heights of their genius, the taste for so-called ‘serious’ music, among the public at large, was deteriorating rather than developing, and the standards of professional performance, perhaps especially in opera, were declining. If, as sometimes claimed, the health of a nation can be gauged by the humour that flourishes within it, then Austria, and Vienna in particular, had cause for hope. This, then, is the variegated culture in which Schubert lived and wrote, and in which he succeeded to a degree unrecognised in the folklore which posthumously engulfed his life. His failure in the opera house was almost a foregone conclusion, but he enjoyed greater success in every other sphere than all but a tiny handful of the great composers at comparable points in their careers.