Schubert died young.
The chronologies and biographies articulate the facts. After a short lifetime of incessant musical creativity, Franz Schubert died on November 19, 1828. He was ten weeks shy of his 32nd birthday.
Schubert’s final year was one of astonishing difficulties and achievements, haunted by ill health and poverty. The finest of Schubert’s music was as yet unknown and unperformed. What little fame he had was largely confined to Vienna and was based on the popularity of the songs and piano trifles he seemed able to create without effort in huge quantities. It was the steady stream of dances and marches intended for private amateur entertainment in well-to-do homes that just barely paid the bills and brought a measure of condescending recognition. Not until a single public concert of his recent compositions was held in March was he able to earn enough to acquire something he had not previously been able to own: a piano.
But by August he was ill enough that his physician recommended he move to the home of his brother Ferdinand outside the city itself, where the fresher air and open countryside might be beneficial, and by September he had joined his brother at what was to be his final address. A specialist called to examine the bedridden Schubert in November said there was no hope of saving the man because of “advanced disintegration of the blood corpuscles.” On the 17th Schubert fell into delirium. Accounts from visitors tell us that he sang constantly and in short periods of lucidity corrected the proofs of the song cycle Winterreise. On the 18th he was restrained in bed and by the next afternoon he was dead.
And yet, somehow, during those last weeks at his brother’s house, Schubert was able to complete works we now know to be among his greatest masterpieces, including the String Quintet in C and the final three piano sonatas. Certainly, a syphilitic in the 1820s would have been aware of the gloominess of any long-term prognosis. Schubert would have experienced the debilitation of the disease over the nearly six-year period of his illness. But did he know that his end would come with such catastrophic swiftness? Is this the awareness we hear in the B-flat Sonata, the last of the three?
It is sobering to know that none of Schubert's piano sonatas ever received a public performance during the composer’s lifetime. It may have been inconceivable to him that this last, most inward-looking creation could be anything more than an act of private conversation.
What, then, do we make of the first movement’s depiction of a dreamlike calm when it is disturbed by a menacing distant trill? How are we to respond to the desolate minor-key sadness of the second movement when a ray of redemptive serenity breaks through? Is the third movement Scherzo as carefree as it seems? And is any consistent approach to the enigmatic finale possible, or do we embrace the ambiguity which the great 20th-century Schubert champion Artur Schnabel described when he put words to the opening theme of the last movement: “Ich weiss nicht, ob ich lache, ich weiss nicht, ob ich weine” (I know not if I'm laughing, I know not if I'm crying)?
– Grant Hiroshima, former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the executive director of a Chicago-based private foundation.