Franz Schubert’s top five

BBC Radio 3's Petroc Trelawny examines five key compositions from the Austrian's oeuvre

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Gretchen am Spinnrade

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Schubert’s first setting of words by Goethe. He revered Goethe, and was deeply hurt when the famous poet returned, unopened, a bundle of songs that he had sent him. This is a work that represents Schubert’s coming of age as a composer for the voice. An extraordinary evocation of Gretchen sitting at her spinning wheel, he was just 17 when he wrote this, his first great song.

“Unfinished” Symphony

Probably the work for which Schubert is best known. But why did he leave this, and so many other works, incomplete? Did he simply lose interest, or did he think he had gone as far as possible, and couldn’t improve the work by writing any more? Some suggest that he was haunted by the spectre of his predecessor, Beethoven, and his nine symphonies. The movements he finished are of such high quality, so mysterious and profound, that it’s difficult to imagine how he might have continued.

Winterreise

This, the longest and most profound of all song cycles, affected Schubert more than almost anything else. “Awe-inspiring” he called them. As he wrote he was suffering from the syphilis that was to kill him a year later. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that this work reflects his terrible predicament. The songs tell of the bleak travels of a rejected lover through a winter landscape. They represent a real journey of the soul, only ending in the desolation of a lonely organ grinder playing barefoot in the snow.

Piano Trio in B flat

Composed almost at the same time as Schubert was writing Winterreise, this work is in complete contrast, filled with sunshine and optimism. Perhaps it shows that a great composer is capable of banishing his own personal state of mind. Or maybe it is indicative of the wild mood swings that Schubert experienced all his life as a depressive? Whatever, this is as life-affirming as Winterreise is nihilistic. Hard to believe both came from the pen of the same man and were written concurrently!

String Quintet in C major

In the last weeks of his life Schubert composed an astonishing series of masterpieces – his last three Piano Sonatas, the group of songs known as Schwanengesang and the String Quintet in C. It’s impossible not to think of this work as being suffused with Schubert’s knowledge of his own mortality. The slow movement, in particular, has an otherworldly feeling as if written from beyond the grave. And he was only 31.

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Schubert is profiled on BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week from Saturday 24 March