1816

Posted on 3rd February 2017 by Svend McEwan-Brown

Mostly, 1816 comes over as a bit ‘morning after’. Since 1789, the whole of Europe was torn up over and over again, first in the aftermath of the French Revolution and then as Napoleon rose, triumphed and fell. In this first year of peace, the hangover of that long conflict certainly continued to make itself felt in vast debt, rampant inflation, food and labour shortages and the resulting unrest. 1816 was known as the ‘year without a summer’. Fallout from the largest volcanic eruption in recent history (Mount Tambora in 1815) adversely affected weather patterns throughout the world, cooling and clouding it. Widespread crop failure led to famines worldwide.

“Today I composed for money for the first time.”

For one diminutive, myopic 19-year old Viennese youth, 1816 was something else. In his diary on 16 June, he wrote “Today I composed for money for the first time.” 100 florins for a 45-minute cantata. Not a vast amount, when you consider that Beethoven earned around 3,400 florins in 1816 (less than his contemporary, Johann Pezzl estimated a middle-class man required to live well in Vienna), but Schubert’s 100 florins were symbolically and financially significant for him. He had quit his job teaching in his father’s school, and failed to secure another one that he had applied for. This pretty much threw him back on the generosity of friends and family and whatever he could make from his music. One further step he took in this big year was to cease studying with a man who spotted his talent when he was just 7 years old, and had gone out of his way to encourage and teach him ever since: Salieri. So, 1816 was the year that Schubert boldly struck out for independence from the two pole influences of his entire childhood: his father and his teacher. Quite a step.

The greatest misery of the wise man and the greatest happiness of the fool is based on conventionalism.

That line from Schubert’s 1816 diary gives a good idea of his frame of mind 201 years ago. Like many a young man, he disparaged the world in which he had grown up and was eager to prove himself better. At ENF this year we want to see how he fared, and specifically how he grew, musically, from youth to maturity: how he was transformed from Schubert to ‘Schubertian’. I have asked some of the world’s most wonderful interpreters of his music to reflect on this and perform works that illustrate Schubert’s extraordinary evolution of musical language and sensibility during the decade 1816-1826. Over the coming 6 months in this blog I will be asking them for their thoughts and insights and, since music does not exist in a vacuum, I will also be exploring aspects of his daily life. How did he live? How did he make enough money to survive? Where did he live, what did he eat, how did the air he breathed smell? What does all that tell us about his mind?

I hope you will join me for this archaeological and musical dig, so when Elisabeth Leonskaja plays the first notes in the first concert of the ENF 2017 Schubertiad, we share a wealth of stories, impressions, ideas and knowledge about the man and his music.

Next time: Schubert’s 1816 diary: what it tells us.

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