Franz Schubert - a Programatic Composer

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“Franz Schubert was a programmatic composer”. Discuss this statement with reference to two pieces studied and refer to three of the concepts of music in your answer.

Composers of the Romantic Period were attracted to programme music – music that provides a story, idea or scene. Franz Schubert, one of the earliest 19th Century composers, was very much so, a programmatic composer. In a short lifespan of 31 years, Franz Peter Schubert composed 600 lieder, (plural for ‘lied’, the German word for ‘song’, pronounced ‘leed’); 9 symphonies; operas; liturgical music; a large amount of chamber music, including 15 string quartets; copious piano duets and 22 solo piano sonatas. Schubert was an Austrian composer born in Vienna on 31st January 1797 and died there on 19 November 1828. Schubert grew up in a poor family but a very musical one. His father was a schoolmaster, and he taught his young son to play the violin, and then Franz’s older brother gave him piano lessons. At the age of nine he began to study with a local organists, Michael Holzer, and two years later was accepted as a chorister in the Court Chapel of Vienna. He then moved on to conducting and writing for his school orchestra, a perfect way of learning how to be a composer. He then studied to become a teacher but later decided to devote himself to composing music. Schubert's lieder were often performed in gatherings in front of his friends, called ‘Schubertaids’, who supported him all throughout his short career as a composer, one of whom was the famous singer J. M. Vogl. Majority of Schubert’s compositions are named programmatic music as the pieces express an extra-musical idea, narrative or pictorial image by a piece of literature added to a piece of instrumental music and how his music responds to the German words. Schubert wrote his lieder compositions to be sung by one voice, accompanied by the fortepiano, where the piano has an equal role to the voice. Two of Schubert’s works that provide evidence that he was a programmatic composer, are the lieder Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkönig. Through the use of melody, duration and dynamics, Schubert successfully expresses the ideas and narratives of each lied.

Gretchen am Spinnrade translated to English is ‘Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel’ and it was written in 1814 when Schubert was just 17, written for piano and a female soprano voice. The German lied, said to be a masterpiece, was set to a selection of text from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s drama Faust. In this particular scene Gretchen is at her spinning wheel, a device for spinning thread or yarn, and she is troubled by her feelings for Faust – a man who she just met. It shows the special qualities that mark out Schubert as a songwriter and as a programmatic composer through the ability to illustrate poetically in his music, something non-musical (the spinning of the wheel) and to link with this expression of the words, so that the wheel itself seems to display the expression of Gretchen’s unhappiness. This song shows that at 17, Schubert could be considered a mature and original composer.

The melody line in the treble clef of the piano vastly imitates the spinning of the wheel whilst the harmony of the piano accompaniment also expresses the cycle of Gretchen’s thoughts and the intensity or her romantic and sad feelings. This is evident in the tonality of the piece as well as the modulations to and from several different keys, as each key change is a symbol and exploration of her feelings. For example, the tonic of the piece is D minor and thus the beginning of the piece from bar 1 to 6 is in D minor, and then in bar 7, the melody quickly changes into C major with some elements of C minor, as shown in the excerpt below: This tension between D minor and C major/minor is a reflection of the restlessness of Gretchen’s inner feelings. Quick harmonic changes occur often in the piano and voice melodies to display the agitation of Gretchen just like the lyrics do....
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