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Awesome Music / Franz Schubert

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Franz Schubert may have died tragically young at the age of only 31, with many more pieces to write, but he wrote so much incredibly accessible and just plain awesome music that it's hard to feel anything but gratitude for what we have.

  • Schubert was a master of Lieder, songs for voice and piano. There are so many to choose from to find awesomeness that even listing the cream of the crop could furnish an entire page of examples. However, here are a couple of selections:
    • Erlkonig. Dark, whimsical, and completely menacing.
    • The Ave Maria, memorably used as the concluding piece in the original Fantasia, is one of the loveliest vocal pieces ever composed - whether it uses the words of the Ave Maria prayer or the original German words as "Ellens dritter Gesang" ("Ellen's third song"), the sixth of Schubert's seven settings of excerpts from a translated version of Walter Scott's epic poem The Lady of the Lake.
  • Though his work as a symphonist lives in the shadow of his contemporary, Beethoven, Schubert made several outstanding contributions to the medium's evolution in the early 1800s.
    • Schubert's first six symphonies were works of his youth, and the first classic among them is No.4 in C minor (Tragic), written when he was just 19. Highlights include the clouds of minor key gloom in the first and last movements parting for their respective major key codas and a minuet that is surprisingly dark given its major key and makes extensive use of hemiolas to fool the listener into thinking it is in 3/2 rather than 3/4.
    • Six months after No.4, Schubert finished work on the genial Symphony No.5 in B-flat major. The slow movement is a particularly outstanding example of Schubert's lifelong fondness for unexpected harmonic progressions through distantly related keys.
    • The Symphony in B minor (Unfinished) is almost more famous for only having two of its planned four movements completed by Schubert's deathnote  than for its musical merits, but it rises far above the novelty of its half-finished state. The first movement boasts a haunting introduction for lower strings only which leads into a songlike main theme for oboe over an insistent violin accompaniment; the pastoral second theme provides a striking contrast while still sounding like a natural follow-up to the first theme. The E major second movement, meanwhile, finds Schubert at his most serene, and is another first class example of his gift for harmonic progressions.
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    • The mammoth "Great" C major symphonynote  is the apex of Schubert's orchestral works, packing countless memorable melodies and clever harmonies into nearly an hour of music, a duration that inspired Robert Schumann, who was instrumental in getting the symphony onto the concert stage for the first time courtesy of his friend Felix Mendelssohn (as conductor of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra), to write of its "heavenly length".note  The horn melody-led introduction to the first movement is a sweeping epic on its own, and the magnification of its main theme in the coda is a masterstroke. The oboe-led slow march of the second movement boasts some of Schubert's most captivating harmonic transitions, particularly in the lead-in to the recapitulation. The third movement scherzo, unusually long by the standards of the day yet never starved for new ideas, set the standard for Romantic symphonies (such as those of Bruckner, Brahms, and Mahler) in which the scherzo is so much more than just a breather between the slow movement and finale. And the finale ties up the ideas of the entire symphony in a mood of pure exuberance, and finds time to subtly reference the finale of Beethoven's Symphony No.9 along the way.
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  • The "Trout" Quintet for piano and strings is packed with awesome moments for all of the performers; the wild scherzo and the two slower movements that frame it (including the variations on Schubert's Lied "The Trout" which give the quintet its nickname) are especially delightful.
  • In the last few years of his life, Schubert wrote a truly staggering number of awesome pieces for various chamber groups:
    • The Octet in F major for clarinet, bassoon, horn, and string quintet (with double bass) is six movements of concentrated brilliance that manages to outshine the piece it imitates, Beethoven's Septet in E-flat major for the same instruments, less one violin. Highlights include a clarinet solo-led slow movement, a rollicking scherzo and trio, a graceful set of variations on the melody of one of the composer's early Lieder, and a finale with a dark, minor key introduction that soon gives way to a joyful major key sonata allegro.
    • Schubert's two piano trios in B-flat major and E-flat major are among the greatest examples of the form; the second movement from the E-flat major trio was memorably used for the score to Stanley Kubrick's 1975 film Barry Lyndon, and its main theme re-appears in two episodes in the finale to give the work a sense of unity.
    • His last four string quartets very nearly rival Beethoven's last five quartets as supreme examples of the form. No.12 in C minor only ever had its first movement completed, but what a powerful movement it is! No.13 in A minor is inspired by melodies from the composer's early work, including the incidental music to the play Rosamunde (whence the quartet gets its nickname). The dramatic and intense No.14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden) is perhaps the most popular of Schubert's quartets; the coda of the finale, in which a triumphant major resolution is subverted at the last minute, is a particular highlight. And No.15 in G major finds Schubert at the height of his flair for surprising harmonic modulations; the outer movements are especially striking as they hop between the major and minor modes with abandon.
    • The almost hourlong String Quintet in C major is often named the greatest string quintet ever composed, and one of the greatest chamber works ever composed.note  From a vast opening movement packed with harmonic twists and turns from start to finish, to a sublime Adagio boasting some of Schubert's loveliest writing and a surprisingly stormy centre section, to a boisterous scherzo with a serene trio at its heart, to a finale in which minor key clouds are never far away (even in the final measures), it shows Schubert's creative powers at their absolute zenith.
  • Schubert's last three piano sonatas are often pointed to as examples of how Schubert was fast catching up with Beethoven as a master of the form, and may have overtaken him had he not died aged 31.note  The agitated No.19 in C minor bookends a charming slow movement and a tense minuet with two storms very much in the mould of Beethoven's Pathetique sonata in the same key. The heroic No.20 in A major is ingeniously tied off with a neat bow when the chord progression in the opening measures of the first movement recurs near the end of the finale. And the easy-going No.21 in B-flat major is perhaps the greatest piano sonata composed between Beethoven's last sonata and Liszt's B minor sonata, with all four movements, especially the epic-length first (over 20 minutes with repeats in most recordings and performances), packed with Schubert's signature songlike melodies and unexpected harmonic shifts.note 
  • The song cycle Winterreise, a set of interconnected songs about a young man journeying alone in winter and reflecting on the purpose of life. The bleak and haunting mood will be sure to choke you up, even more when you consider this was the last piece Schubert completed before his early Author Existence Failure.


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