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History's greatest songwriter


By Mary Kunz Goldman

Today try to find the time -- responsibly, of course, and only if you are over 21 -- to drink a beer in honor of the blazing talent that was Franz Schubert. Schubert was born on Jan. 31, 1797.

I am going to go out on a limb here and declare that he was one of the three great melodists of history, the other two being Mozart and Mendelssohn. There have been a lot of great tunesmiths over the centuries but these three stand out for me because their melodies were so glorious, so effortless, so numerous and so natural that they could squander them. This is the kind of gift you are born with.

Oddly enough all three of these men died young. Mendelssohn was 39, Mozart was 35 and Schubert only 31. Their deaths were three of music's greatest tragedies. The deaths of Mozart and Mendelssohn stunned the musical world. Schubert, in contrast, was still relatively obscure when he died. It took a while for his greatness to come to light.

Often when you are listening to Schubert you are reminded you are listening to the work of a young man. He was music's equivalent of the short-lived English poet John Keats, combining a youthful romanticism with a strange sorrow. Schubert never outgrew that love we have when we are young for knights and ladies, for Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, for romantic poetry, for beer and going out with his friends. He loved the swashbuckling stories of Sir Walter Scott. America was a romantic place to him and he was reading James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" at around the time that he died.

Schubert wrote utterly sublime symphonies and quartets and Masses and other music but the young man's priorities he had show through especially in his songs. He used to dash off his songs in what you could almost call his spare time. I think they were a kind of guilty pleasure for him. He would work them out on guitar and his friends would sometimes show up in the morning and find him asleep with the guitar on the bed next to him.

He is buried in Vienna's Central Cemetery. One of his friends wrote the beautiful epitaph. "Music lies buried here, but still fairer hopes."



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