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Franz Schubert: A Biography [Paperback]

Elizabeth Norman McKay

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Book Description

Nov. 1 1997 Clarendon Paperbacks
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was born in Vienna of immigrant parents. During his short life he produced an astonishing amount of music. Symphonies, chamber music, opera, church music, and songs (more than 600 of them) poured forth in profusion. His 'Trout' Quintet, his 'Unfinished' Symphony, the three last piano sonatas, and above all his song cycles Die Schone Mullerin and Winterreise have come to be universally regarded as belonging to the very greatest works of music. Who was the manwho composed this amazing succesion of masterpieces, so many of which were either entirely ignored or regarded as failures during his lifetime? In her new biography, Elizabeth Norman McKay paints a vivid portrait of Schubert and his world. She explores his family background, his education and musical upbringing, his friendships, and his brushes and flirtations with the repressive authorities of Church and State. She discusses his experience of the arts, literature and theatre, and his relations with the professional and amateur musical world of his day. Schubert's manic-depressive temperament became of increasing significance in his life, and McKay shows how it was partly responsible for his social inadequacies, professional ineptitude, and idiosyncracies in his music. She examines Schubert's uneven physical decline after he contracted syphilis, traces its affect on his music, his hedonism, and sensuality, and investigates the cause and circumstances of his death at the age of thirty-one.

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The author may not be especially inspired, but she's very readable, and she takes a straightforward approach to Schubert's life. She discusses the nature of Schubert's "sexual profligacy" and the possibility of his being homosexual without coming down on one side or the other. She believes that Schubert was manic-depressive (and that several other members of his family were as well), and advances some convincing evidence for her view. This is a worthwhile addition to the shelf of Schubert biographies, a shelf that is certain to continue to expand in the bicentenary year of his birth. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

One of the great German Romantic composers, Schubert has recently been the center of a scholarly debate over whether or not he was gay, and how that might have affected work from his String Quintet to his song cycles Die schone Mullerin to Winterreise. Sadly, this new biography adds nothing new to available data and still manages to confuse the picture. McKay, a piano teacher from England who has also written some articles and a technical book about Schubert's piano music, mentions the words "manic," "depressive" and "syphilis" on nearly every page of this ponderous yet superficial study, but she cops out on Schubert's sexuality by saying the subject has been "exhaustively debated" elsewhere. Schubert's works are dealt with in very summary fashion (with no musical examples), and his life becomes a mass of cliches, apart from the idea that Schubert smoked opium before writing his famous account of a dream (Mein Traum). Although she admits that this silly idea is based almost entirely on the singular pipe in "smoked our pipe," she is still so attached to it that she includes Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater to an otherwise scanty bibliography. It's hard to say why a reader should spend the time on this biography when Otto Deutsch's documentary biography or Maurice Brown's critical one are available. If another biography is called for, it would have made more sense to translate Brigitte Massin's fine synthesis of Schubert's life and works from the French, a recent and worthy addition to the list of books on Schubert, who "dreaded the commonplace and boring" and probably would have dreaded this book as well.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars EXCELLENT BIOGRAPHY OF SCHUBERT Sept. 24 2009
By Steven H. Propp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828) was perhaps the first truly "Romantic" composer. McKay paints a darker portrait of the man than one normally hears.

He was virtually a prodigy as a youth. His "productivity over the next few years was astonishing ... in the period from November 1814 to September 1816 while he was working as his father's assistant, Schubert composed in the time left to him after school-teaching some 360 of his total of around 1,000 works. These included four symphonies, four works for the theatre, three Church masses and many shorter sacred works, two string quartets, and some 250 songs." She also notes that "Throughout his early years he based his music on classical forms and structures, with classical textures and instrumentation." In 1819, he began setting more complex and philosophical texts (e.g., by Goethe) to music, with mixed results.

A friend of Schubert's reported that "Anyone who knew Schubert knows how he was made of two natures, foreign to each other, how powerfully the craving for pleasure dragged his soul down to the slough of moral degradation." In 1922, "His personal life, however, was moving incerasingly in a socially less admirable direction." McKay suggests that "it is possible that he enjoyed smoking opium, although it is likely he was never addicted to it," and "he was not averse to the sexual favours for sale in brothels or meeting-places for prostitutes, where syphilis was endemic." But ultimately, "A period of capricious sensuality and irresponsibility ceased abruptly at the end of 1822 when he developed the first symptoms of venereal disease." He later became seriously ill "with a recurrence of secondary and infectious syphilis."

She reports that "After he contracted syphilis, Schubert was often in pain and distress and lost the capacity for uninhibited joy. His music was frequently born out of suffering..." "His drinking habits became more serious after the onset of syphilis, when he was seeking relief from his worsening depressions..." Unfortunately, "it is probable that some of his friends were unable to tolerate his unpredictable behavior, embarrassed by his abusive outbursts or rages under the influence of alcohol, irritated by his unreliability and ill manners, dismayed or disgusted by some of his sexual activities." In fact, his famous "Unfinished" Symphony was unfinished precisely due to his syphilis.

Concerning the suggestion that he was gay, "The possibility that Schubert was homosexual, even a pederast seeking young male partners under the cover of a secret society in Vienna, has been exhaustively aired and argued since the idea was first mooted in 1989. As there is no definitive evidence for or against Schubert's homosexual or bisexual tendencies, the possibility must remain unless or until such evidence emerges. However, whatever his persuasion, his sexual extravagances were an embarrassment to his family and many of his friends; and they were responsible after his death for the suppression or destruction of evidence for the dark side of his character."

Although he composed much sacred music, McKay points out that his Masses always omitted the words from the text, "I believe in one catholic and apostolic church."

Observing that "He rarely opened his heart to other than closest friends," she suggests that "On the evidence from Schubert's life over the following years it becomes a virtual certainty that he suffered from cyclothymia" (a mild form of manic depression).

This is a stark portrait of the composer, yet a fascinating one, that will be of interest to many.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Most comprehensive Schubert bio Jan. 13 2009
By Andrew Reeder - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book debunks many of the myths about Schubert and shows us the real man. I disagree with the previous comment that it dwells unnecessarily on syphilis and depression. The cheerful, gregarious genius is there as well. One of the great achievements of this book is to show the development of the composer in sympathetic and believable ways. While I am a professional musician, I am glad that the author eschewed musical analyses, which in most composer biographies are both boring and wrong. The book also give enough background about the time and place to allow us to see Schubert in the proper context. As a former resident of Vienna I was happy to see exact locations of houses, concert halls, etc. given. My one small complaint is the organization of the book into both time-periods and subject matter. This made for a bit of repetition and confusion, but was not a serious problem.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars For those who love Schubert... Sept. 27 2007
By Caroline Harvey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This biography covers the typical details of the composer's life from birth to death, albeit quite in-depth. The author chooses to rely on depression and syphilis as recurring themes tying this work together, while disagreeing with another scholarly article as to the date Schubert contracted syphilis. This volume was intended for the general interest reader (according to the preface), but is quite scholarly with numerous references on each page, and myriad names of acquaintances, family, and friends. One almost needs a supplemental guide to keep track of all the characters. The "select" bibliography is quite thorough, as are the two indexes on both musical works and general topics within the biography. The author is quite credible, however; she was granted honorary membership in the Schubert Institute, United Kingdom (SIUK) and previously wrote an authoritative book discussing Schubert's dramatic works

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