Where did Schubert listen to music?

Posted on 14th June 2017 by Svend McEwan-Brown

In his 1816 diary, Schubert writes passionately and movingly of his reflections on hearing a Mozart Quintet. His words are inspiring, but what piqued my curiosity on reading them was perhaps more mundane: where would he have heard it?

At school, ensemble playing had been part of his daily regime, but at 19 years of age he was no longer a pupil.

At home, the Schubert family home enjoyed regular domestic music making, but for much of 1816 Schubert was not living there.

In the city, there was no concert hall. The nearest and only one in existence in 1816 was the Leipzig Gewandhaus which opened in 1781. That was 370 miles away.

So, where might a promising young musician, too poor to pay for his lodgings, get to hear a Mozart quintet in 1816?

Let’s start at home. A household need not be especially wealthy to host a musical ensemble. The Schuberts – who were teachers – could afford instruments and music, and played quartets en famille in their leisure time. They could easily extend their range with the help of friends, so a wide variety of works could be played as often as they wanted to organise themselves. Schubert cut his teeth writing chamber music for his family as you can hear in the ENF Schubertiad.

A next step up was to the many musical societies and salons in the city. They were mostly hosted by the unsung heroes of the Second Viennese School – accountants, civil servants and lawyers. Obviously, without the composers and players they were nothing, but without them where would the music have been heard. When the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (the organisation that would go on to open Vienna’s first dedicated concert hall) was founded in 1812, it was them and not the musicians who brought it into existence.

During Schubert’s life, these salons or societies came and went all the time – any large-ish room might be put to good use. The earliest Schubertiad evenings we know of, like those hosted by the Schubert’s friend, lawyer and educator Ignaz Sonnleithner, would be at the smaller end of the scale, but it could go right up to full and large orchestra. It is thought that Schubert wrote his 5th and 6th symphonies for a society that met in the Mehrgrabe – a city building that once stored flour, but latterly became a pleasure place featuring a restaurant and a large function room. Mozart had promoted some of his own concerts there in the 1780s, which brings us to the next step up: concerts organised at their own risk by composers for their own benefit. Mozart and Beethoven both did this. The degree to which they had to be hands on shows how hard a composer had to work if he wished to be heard. As well as writing the music and performing, they booked the band, promoted the event, sold tickets – not tasks one imagines Beethoven to be temperamentally well suited to. And in the city without a concert hall, these concerts had to compete for space in the theatres and other public halls with plays and social functions. During the late 1780s, it became ever tougher. Once, concerts were the only acceptable entertainment for Lent, but then drama became acceptable, and then the opera companies themselves used the clever trick of performing oratorios instead of operas. So the chances of a concert featuring a Mozart Quintet would become ever slimmer.

Schubert does not tell us where he heard his Mozart. But we know that he participated in every one of the kinds of music making described above, and they formed a kind of ladder he climbed: from playing music at school and at home to the point when – in the year before he died – he finally was able to give his own benefit concert; a tremendous success. Who knows what might have happened next.

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