Franz Schubert's importance to the musical life of his time cannot be easily determined in retrospect. Too many myths have taken precedence over historical reality, and the romantic cliché of the bitterly poor, misunderstood genius is far too specious. In fact, Schubert was by no means an unknown composer, but enjoyed consistent and growing success and was certainly able to make a living from his work. His true importance, however, was not even remotely recognised during his lifetime. This occurred posthumously, after Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy had arranged for the premiere of the great C major symphony D 944.
Schubert was born on 31 January 1797 in a small town near Vienna, as the son of the local school master. His musical talent emerged early and was encouraged. At the age of eleven, he won a scholarship that earned him a position in the Vienna court chapel choir and an education at the Vienna Stadtkonvikt, the imperial municipal Catholic boarding school. Here, in addition to schooling, Schubert received above all a comprehensive and thorough musical education, for which the court conductor Antonio Salieri was primarily responsible. Salieri instructed Schubert in a broad range of topics, albeit with an overall focus on opera, and Schubert composed a whole series of singspiels and dramatic scenes during his youth.
At the age of seventeen, Schubert initially followed the path mapped out for him by his father and worked as an assistant teacher at his father's school from 1814, while continuing his musical studies for about two years. The year 1817 brought a turning point in Schubert's life. He received an attractive offer from Count Esterházy to give music lessons to his two daughters, and so he spent the summer holidays at his summer residence. This sojourn must have revealed a whole new world to Schubert. He did not return to school, which caused a temporary break with his father, and decided to live in Vienna as a musician and composer. For financial reasons, he shared an apartment with a poet friend, Johann Mayrhofer. Thus, Schubert had found the way of life that suited him and, until his untimely death in November 1828, he lived in various partnerships of convenience. Exchanging ideas with friends was important to Schubert. He met regularly with a circle of like-minded people which changed over the years and also included musicians, but which was dominated by literary figures and painters.
After moving to Vienna, Schubert sought and quickly found his way into the musical public sphere. As early as November 1818, he received a commission to write the music for a stage play, and in the following years Schubert continued to occupy himself with various opera and stage projects with varying degrees of success. In 1820, he then began to publish his songs – with resounding success. Although he earned good money from the self-published songbooks, he soon preferred to collaborate with commercial publishers in order to avoid having to deal with marketing and sales. Around the turn of the year 1822/23, Schubert apparently became infected with syphilis. The disease became apparent in the middle of the year, and it is likely that from then on Schubert repeatedly underwent mercury cures, which had severe side effects.
By the end of the 1820s, publishers based outside of Vienna began to take an interest in Schubert's work, especially his instrumental works. The composer had entered into serious negotiations when he suddenly fell seriously ill in early November 1828. Possibly weakened by the mercury treatments by then, he did not recover. Schubert died on 19 November 1828.