schubert and beethoven

The title page of the first edition of Schubert’s “Eight Variations on a French Song” (D. 624), published 1822. The dedication is to Beethoven “from his worshipper and admirer Franz Schubert.”

It is no secret that Schubert had a profound respect for Beethoven, that he sought to emulate him and pay tribute to his works. There are countless references to Beethoven, whether intentional or unintentional, in Schubert’s compositions. For example, the opening of one of his last piano sonatas, D.958 in C minor, clearly references Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80.

Despite all of Schubert’s aspirations to become like Beethoven, however, their music is still deeply different–evidence of their individual and contrasting personalities. Hans Gal, renowned music scholar of the twentieth century, keenly captured what makes the two composers so different:

It was Schumann who, speaking of the Great Symphony in C major by Schubert, coined the expression “heavenly length”. This is the enthusiast’s name for a peculiarity of Schubert’s idiom which has never ceased to provoke annoyed opposition. In general, a feeling of length is attributable to vagueness, to a lack of precision. With Schubert the case is different: what appears as length comes from a superabundance of ideas, from the greatness of a conception that demands the corresponding space. And it comes from his nature, from the enthusiastic way in which he seizes his material, and never tires of enjoying again and again the magnificent visions he has created. In this respect, too, the experience he did not live to acquire would have had a moderating, cooling effect. All this does not alter the fact that his mature instrumental creations have a right to stand alongside Beethoven’s as achievements of the greatest importance and originality, and that all those composers who came directly after him seem like pygmies beside a giant. Schubert was the only successor of Beethoven who could meet him at the same level, with a vision of the same cosmic amplitude.

The contrast between them is that of will-power as opposed to imagination, between an energetic, assertive nature on the one hand, and a pensive, contemplative nature on the other….Beethoven’s most frequent expression mark, to be found on every page of his music, is sforzato, a sharp accent. Schubert’s most frequent dynamic indication…is pianissimo. Beethoven’s form, the form of the man of will, could never be his. Therefore, it does not make sense to measure his ideal of form against Beethoven’s. The example of his great contemporary could strengthen him and help him on his way, but his instinct directed him towards different solutions, which were better suited to his character.

Sources and further reading:

  • Hans Gal, Franz Schubert and the Essence of Melody (New York: Crescendo Publishing, 1977).
  • Paul Reid, “Beethoven and Schubert” (2013).

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