The Tradition of the Schubertiade

Music is such a profound means of building community and social connections. The blossoming of the salon in 19th Century Europe is a great example of creating social circles in support of art in general and various composers and musicians in particular. Art, poetry, and music lovers would host social gatherings in their home salons and invite a large mix of arts supporters and artists. The Schubertiade grew out of this tradition.

This social-artistic phenomenon also paralleled the evolution of the piano as it gradually became a more reliable and responsive instrument, capable of ever-increasing shades of expression. The piano often served as the centerpiece for salon gatherings, given its versatility and increasing popularity.

For the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828), these evenings dedicated to the sharing of his music became known as Schubertiades. Each Schubertiade usually featured a combination of chamber music, music for solo piano and, of course, songs (or lieder) — lots and lots of lieder. Schubert was an incredibly gifted and prolific composer of lieder — essentially re-defining the genre into one which not only extolled the powerful marriage of poetry and music, but also the relationship between singer and piano. Schubert’s ability to highlight the meaning of the text by creating uniquely illustrative piano accompaniments (or word painting) was revolutionary.

In addition to Schubert’s music, contemporary poets whose works Schubert set to music often had their poems read aloud at these gatherings. Artistic topics of the day were discussed and the composer himself would hold forth on his affinity with particular poets, painters and sculptors from his perch at the piano. The Schubertiade became a primary means of disseminating Schubert’s music, creating a supportive community around him and his music. These gatherings also became a place for discussion and debate among more “free-thinking” members of the artist and cognoscenti classes in early 19th-Century Vienna.

He was a complicated man — living in a restrictive, yet creatively rich place and time. A favorite quote of mine from Schubert is indeed connected to his love of lieder composition:

“When I wished to sing of love, it turned to sorrow. And when I wished to sing of sorrow, it was transformed for me into love.”

Schubert also infused his chamber music, symphonies and solo piano music with the aspects of “tone painting” which he used so effectively in his lieder writing. Poignant melodic lines set within a highly-evolved harmonic backdrop and vibrant rhythms (he LOVED repeated note motives!) all combined to create Schubert’s signature writing style.

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert

A charming piece for solo piano of Schubert’s that serves as an example of music tailor-made for Schubertiade gatherings is the F Minor Moment Musical (the third of the set of six shorter-to-moderate length piano pieces composed at the end of an all-too-brief life). This Musical Moment captures Schubert’s subtly conflicted and very effective shifts of major/minor tonalities — within a rhythmically entrancing framework — perhaps recalling the sound of the beloved hammered dulcimer. Just the thing for a musical gathering among friends.

I hope that you enjoy my performance of the F Minor Musical Moment and I encourage you to print out the attached sheet music and explore this wonderful example of Schubert’s music yourself! And think of Schubert every January 31st (his birthday) and seek out any Schubertiades which may be happening in your area. They’re really fun and feed the soul. Prosit!

Rick Fergusonschubertiade