By Emilie Gosselin
Make way for big feelings in these five masterpieces by Franz Schubert and see what earned him a top spot in the classical and romantic music repertoire.
You can spend a rather intimate moment with Franz Schubert when you listen to his music under the right circumstances. But where to begin with more than 1,000 songs and pieces written in his short life of only 31 years? The following five works showcase Schubert’s bohemian vision of art and the liberties he took to achieve such a high level of success.
Want to remember all these Schubert song titles?
We’ve inserted links to Schubert’s works on Idagio, a free classical music streaming platform. Just click on the song titles below, and the application will open in your browser. Provide an email address and a password, and you can start listening to Schubert right away as you read on.
1. The Schubert Song You Want to Listen to When You’re Jogging
Schubert’s Der Erlkönig (meaning elf king) plunges you into the heart of the action. The way the story goes, it’s a race against death as father and son ride home on horseback. The son is terribly ill with a fever and claims to hear the elf king, a supernatural force who represents death, chasing him. We can hear the galloping hooves in the repetitive rhythms and the tension maintained throughout. The singer even modifies his voice to suit each character. Will they make it in time? It’s an impressive drama that really makes you want to go for a run. Schubert was only 18 years old when he wrote this piece.
Schubert arranged what would become the famous song Der Erlkönig in 1815 for voice and piano using the words of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Inspired by the contemporary writer, Schubert composed more than 70 songs throughout his life, using Goethe’s words as lyrics to create astoundingly powerful and original songs. Schubert’s imagination and ability to capture the emotion in this story even earned him a few publications and a public performance, a rare feat in his rather difficult career.
Here is a performance of Franz Schubert’s Der Erlkönig on YouTube, performed by German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
2. An Inspiring Schubert Quintet for Your Next Art Session
Schubert puts a classical spin on folk music in his celebrated Piano Quintet in A Major, also known as the Trout Quintet. Inspired by Austrian folk culture and melodies, this joyful forty-minute piece will keep you immersed in your own art as you experience the composer’s love for his birth country (which he never really left!). Within the Trout Quintet‘s five movements, Schubert conjures the quick steps of traditional Austrian dance and puts each instrument under the spotlight through a series of variations on one of his earlier folk songs.
The unusual use of the double bass rather than two violins in Schubert’s popular Piano Quintet in A Major brings depth and nuance to this convivial and uplifting piece of chamber music. Enjoy a pleasant creative journey alongside Franz Schubert while you create your own art.
Watch Schubert’s Trout Quintet here on YouTube.
This piece will be performed in Schubert All the Way: The Trout, on July 8 at 7:30PM. Click here and get your tickets!
3. A Love Song by Schubert to Play (and Maybe Even Sing To?) During Household Chores
Gretchen am spinnrade is an absolute must if you are getting into Schubert. It helped revolutionize the status of the ballad in the early 19th century. Typically considered lowly and simple, lieder, or German folk songs, gained enormous popularity thanks to Schubert, who would perform them in aristocratic salons surrounded by artists and writers. Although short and accessible, these ballads for voice and piano are technically difficult and extraordinarily rich in colour and emotion. Having composed more than 600 lieder, this is the type of music that brought Schubert the most success during his lifetime.
Schubert also contributed to women’s inclusion in music. In many parts of Europe at the time, women were discouraged from performing and pursuing careers in music outside the church. Thus, Schubert regularly invited female pianists to participate in his concerts and social gatherings, and he also wrote many ballads for female singers (including Gretchen am spinnrade).
Composed when Schubert was only 17 years old, Gretchen am Spinnrade depicts a scene from Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Gretchen is sitting at the spinning wheel, alone in her room, and is bursting with love for Faust, her new lover. The piano melody imitates the circular motion of the wheel while Gretchen sings out her love with fervour, until she suddenly stops spinning and cries out, “Sein kuss!” (“His kiss!”).Watch Yuja Wang’s heated performance of Gretchen am Spinnrade, adapted for solo piano by Franz Liszt.
Watch Yuja Wang’s heated performance of Gretchen am Spinnrade, adapted for solo piano by Franz Liszt.
4. Listen to this Octet by Schubert Instead of a Podcast While Working with Your Hands
Start planting your vegetable garden or any other project that requires about an hour of manual labour to give Schubert’s Octet in F Major a proper listen. In this joyful chamber music, originally composed for the intimacy of a salon concert, eight instruments get us wrapped up in their conversation: clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass. This unusual combination of wind and string instruments offers a wide spectrum of tonalities with colourful surprises and touching melodies, like a fun get-together between good friends.
But like in real life, dark tones can taint happy moments, just as rays of hope may rise out of layers of angst. There’s never one without the other in Franz Schubert’s music, which stays true to human experiences. Schubert’s Octet in F Major is especially rooted in the sublime, not unlike his personal life, which, despite having pumped out more than 1000 works with passion and fervour, was afflicted by solitude and melancholy due to an endless search for love and a lack of acceptance from his father, who wanted him to be a teacher.
Schubert’s friendships are the main reason he saw any success during his lifetime before falling ill and dying at the young age of 31. He performed regularly for his circle of friends, who dubbed their evenings with him the “Schubertiads” out of devotion for his music.
Click here to see a live performance of Schubert’s Octet in F Major on YouTube.
5. A Charming Piano Series for Sunday Brunch
Gather around Schubert’s Moments Musicaux, a beautiful series of pieces that depict a complex mixture of feelings. In under ten minutes each, these gems dazzle with rich harmonic language and bright, endearing melodies that sound much simpler than they are. Schubert’s mysterious and evocative modulations are the kind of liberties that placed him at the forefront of the Romantic period, which is characterized by artistic faithfulness to human passions and experiences.
You can hear how Schubert follows his intuitive impulses in Moments Musicaux as he freely wanders between gentleness and joy and towards loneliness and dread. Each “moment” expresses the subtle nuances of an ever-changing state of mind but also leaves quiet spaces for intimacy and depth. It’s an experience not unlike taking a moment to catch up and reminisce with close friends over breakfast and coffee.
You can watch a powerful performance of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux here on Youtube.
Franz Schubert wrote so many famous pieces of classical and romantic music, and you can appreciate them while going for a drive, cooking dinner, or at any other time throughout the day.
Experience Schubert on an even deeper level very soon by seeing his masterpieces LIVE IN CONCERT at the 2023 Orford Music Festival! Discover the events of the 2023 Orford Music Festival by clicking on the button below!
Brown, Maurice J.E. Franz Schubert. Accessed on 29 March 2023 from Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Keller, Laura. (2018) Schubert and His Social Circle. Accessed on 29 March 2023 from The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Philip, Dr. Robert. Schubert’s Lieder: Settings of Goethe’s poems. Accessed on 29 March 2023 from The Open University.
Rusquet, Michel. (2020) L’octuor en fa majeur de Franz Schubert. Accessed on 29 March 2023 from Musicologie.org.
Wilson, Frances. (2019) A distinct soundworld in microcosm: Schubert’s Moments Musicaux. Accessed on 29 March 2023 from The Cross-Eyed Pianist.
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