Schubert, the Czech Composer?

Schubert was famously the only of the great Viennese composers who was actually born in Vienna, so it may seem cruel to chip away at his “Wienertum“. But, as both his parents were born in Moravia, he can in some ways be regarded as a Czech composer, even though he never spoke Czech or even visited the small Moravian/Silesian villages of his ancestors. His father, grandfather and even great grandfather had been born in Nová Ves, near the town of Šumperk. His mother originated from the town of Cukmantel, in what had previously been Silesia, and mother and father had met in Vienna, where they were married in 1785, and where Franz Peter was born in 1797.

It may therefore not be a coincidence if he shares his melancholic tendency with another great Moravian composer, Leoš Janáček, especially as both Schubert’s parents were music lovers, and he would have spent his earliest years learning folksongs and fairy tales from that region, perhaps imbibing subtle musical and cultural nuances. His stubborn desire to write symphonies, long after the publishers and the public had lost interest in the form, was shared by a third great Moravian melancholic, who also wrote in “heavenly lengths”, Gustav Mahler. And two musical forms that Schubert excelled in, the art song and the piano miniature, notably the Impromptu, were pioneered by Czech composers, the latter by the unjustly neglected Jan Hugo Voříšek.

Whether or not one chooses to emphasize Schubert’s Czech roots, he certainly was well-loved in the country of his ancestors, and one of his most generous admirers was Antonín Dvořák, who said of him: “In Schubert’s pianoforte music, perhaps even more than in his other compositions, we find a Slavic trait which he was the first to introduce prominently into art-music, namely, the quaint alternation of major and minor within the same period… Nor is there anything objectionable in this, for if the poet and the painter base much of their best art on national legends, songs, and traditions, why should not the musician? And to Schubert will belong the honour of having been one of the first to show the way.”

©Béla Hartmann 2005



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