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Franz Schubert: A Biography (Clarendon Paperbacks) [Paperback]

Elizabeth Norman McKay
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
Price: 29.00 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

1 April 1998 Clarendon Paperbacks
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was born in Vienna of immigrant parents. During his short life he produced an astonishing amount of music. Symphonies, chamber music, opera, church music, and songs (more than 600 of them) poured forth in profusion. His 'Trout' Quintet, his 'Unfinished' Symphony, the three last piano sonatas, and above all his song cycles Die Schone Mullerin and Winterreise have come to be universally regarded as belonging to the very greatest works of music. Who was the man who composed this amazing succession of masterpieces, so many of which were either entirely ignored or regarded as failures during his lifetime? In her new biography, Elizabeth Norman McKay paints a vivid portrait of Schubert and his world. She explores his family background, his education and musical upbringing, his friendships, and his brushes and flirtations with the repressive authorities of Church and State. She discusses his experience of the arts, literature and theatre, and his relations with the professional and amateur musical world of his day. Schubert's manic-depressive temperament became of increasing significance in his life, and McKay shows how it was partly responsible for his social inadequacies, professional ineptitude, and idiosyncracies in his music. She examines Schubert's uneven physical decline after he contracted syphilis, traces its effects on his music, his hedonism, and sensuality, and investigates the cause and circumstances of his death at the age of 31.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 396 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; New Ed edition (1 April 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198166818
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198166818
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 15.2 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 538,708 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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an eminently recommendable account of the vicissitudes of what must be the shortest and yet most productive of all musicians' careers. She has been very thorough in assessing the virtues and failings of earlier studies ... there is a wealth of fascinating, often unfamiliar information to absorb; this is a sane, humane, sympathetic and readable book. (Peter Branscombe Austrian Studies 10)

a readable and current account of the composer's life. Probably the book's greatest contribution is to offer the nonspecialist, English-language reader ready access to the most up-to-date scholarly work on him ... it may well be where most musicians and general readers wish to start their exploration of Schubert's life ... McKay has done the English-language musical world a considerable service. She has provided a highly readable narrative of Schubert's life that collects in readily usable form current evidence, knowledge, and opinion about Schubert's life ... The book's well-organized index of names and subjects will make it a compact and useful reference tool for nonspecialist and specialist alike ... Many ... will profit from McKay's book and refer to it frequently. (Thomas A. Denny, The Opera Quarterly)

presents a Schubert far removed from the popular idea of the blithe, easy-going songmaker. This is an important book, which strips away sentimental falsehoods. (Michael Kennedy, The Sunday Telegraph)

Her book explores in geat depth and fascinating detail almost every facet of Schubert's life ... McKay's biography is full of poignant recollections ... Further weight is added with McKay's enthralling account of his determination and resilience in the painful, final stages of his life. By the end of the book, Schubert has ceased to be a remote figure ... a fresh look at his impact on the Romantic era and beyond, and a welcome re-evaluation of Schubert in the two centuries since his birth. (Matias Tarnopolsky, The Literary Review)

an admirable, no-nonsense book which eschews detailed musical analysis in favour of an easy to read account of Schubert's troubled life (The Express)

her biography is an intelligent, provocative and scrupulously researched attempt to make sense of the fragmentary mosaic of the composer's life (Richard Wigmore, BBC Music Magazine, October 1996)

Elizabeth Norman McKay has created a biography of amazing proportions. The detail and research which is so evident throughout the book takes the reader to the heart of Schubert's world and is life in Vienna in the early years of the 19th century. McKay is a sympathetic biographer and charts his descent into hedonism with great restraint. His biography makes fascinating reading. (Philippa Boston, Oxford Times)

McKay gives an admirable account of the 'Bildung Circle' to which Schubert belonged as a young man. (The Musical Times/November 1997)

a painstaking, lucid and sober biography which should be valued by both the general reader and the specialist...The great strength of McKay's biography lies in its ability to temper a formidable assembly of meticulously researched facts with gentle interpretation of them, born of obvious long thought and considerable intuitive empathy. (Gramophone)

a no-nonsense survey of his life, can be recommended to anyone with an interest in the composer, whether well-versed in music or not...an excellent book that, at 350 pages, is also a masterpiece of compression. (The Daily Telegraph)

a fascinating read and a book that is likely to remain the standard English-language life of Schubert for the forseeable future. (Opera)

About the Author

Elizabeth Norman McKay was formally Tutor in Piano and Visiting Professor at the Birmingham Conservatoire, and is the author of several publications on Franz Schubert and his music.

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Customer Reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars
3.3 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An enlightening portrait of a complex man. 12 Mar 2005
By "rban1"
As a performing musician, for a long time I had problems reconciling the traditional image of the genial, affable picture of Schubert with some of the dark, almost savage, passages in his music. At last, in Dr McKay's fine biography, we have a much clearer picture of these dual aspects of Schubert's personality, and some of the reasons behind them.
There are descriptions of Schubert as a benign, generous man by his friends, mainly during the early years of his short life. During Schubert's latter years, unfortunately, many of these friends noticed a significant change as he became increasingly unpredictable in his behaviour. His abusive outbursts and rages, while often under the influence of alcohol, and his unreliability, saw him begin to lose many of these friends, while others despaired for him. It appears that Schubert suffered from a form of manic depression, which was exacerbated when he contracted syphilis in 1822.
So many biographies written by classical music experts are dry and colourless. Dr McKay has written a scholarly biography, but one that is also a fascinating read. There appears to be more limited source material about Franz Schubert than for many other major composers, and the biographer has to be quite a detective in putting together the various clues to build her portrait. But where there is uncertainty in areas of his life, Dr McKay has made educated and informed guesses, which strike the reader has entirely plausible and illuminating.
For all those interested in delving into the personality of the man behind the music, then this book is essential reading.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Schubert - a biography 2 Feb 2010
This is an excellent book on Schubert. Written in a modern, non judgemental way which takes the reader sensitively through the life of this remarkable composer and man. I read it in 2 days and was gripped from start to finish. I recommend it most highly for all who want to gain an insight into the wonderful music of this composer who sadly died at such a young age.
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0 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars not received 17 Sep 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have received messages from nearfine and for that I am grateful for explanation. I now wait to see if I receive a replacement, which they have offered. I cannot criticise their approach. The blame I ostensibly attached was unjustified for I felt at the outset the problem and blame lay with the shipping and post not with nearfine. They I believe have no responsibility as to the loss.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars EXCELLENT BIOGRAPHY OF SCHUBERT 25 Sep 2009
By Steven H. Propp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828) was perhaps the first truly "Romantic" composer. McKay paints a darker portrait of the man than one normally hears.

He was virtually a prodigy as a youth. His "productivity over the next few years was astonishing ... in the period from November 1814 to September 1816 while he was working as his father's assistant, Schubert composed in the time left to him after school-teaching some 360 of his total of around 1,000 works. These included four symphonies, four works for the theatre, three Church masses and many shorter sacred works, two string quartets, and some 250 songs." She also notes that "Throughout his early years he based his music on classical forms and structures, with classical textures and instrumentation." In 1819, he began setting more complex and philosophical texts (e.g., by Goethe) to music, with mixed results.

A friend of Schubert's reported that "Anyone who knew Schubert knows how he was made of two natures, foreign to each other, how powerfully the craving for pleasure dragged his soul down to the slough of moral degradation." In 1922, "His personal life, however, was moving incerasingly in a socially less admirable direction." McKay suggests that "it is possible that he enjoyed smoking opium, although it is likely he was never addicted to it," and "he was not averse to the sexual favours for sale in brothels or meeting-places for prostitutes, where syphilis was endemic." But ultimately, "A period of capricious sensuality and irresponsibility ceased abruptly at the end of 1822 when he developed the first symptoms of venereal disease." He later became seriously ill "with a recurrence of secondary and infectious syphilis."

She reports that "After he contracted syphilis, Schubert was often in pain and distress and lost the capacity for uninhibited joy. His music was frequently born out of suffering..." "His drinking habits became more serious after the onset of syphilis, when he was seeking relief from his worsening depressions..." Unfortunately, "it is probable that some of his friends were unable to tolerate his unpredictable behavior, embarrassed by his abusive outbursts or rages under the influence of alcohol, irritated by his unreliability and ill manners, dismayed or disgusted by some of his sexual activities." In fact, his famous "Unfinished" Symphony was unfinished precisely due to his syphilis.

Concerning the suggestion that he was gay, "The possibility that Schubert was homosexual, even a pederast seeking young male partners under the cover of a secret society in Vienna, has been exhaustively aired and argued since the idea was first mooted in 1989. As there is no definitive evidence for or against Schubert's homosexual or bisexual tendencies, the possibility must remain unless or until such evidence emerges. However, whatever his persuasion, his sexual extravagances were an embarrassment to his family and many of his friends; and they were responsible after his death for the suppression or destruction of evidence for the dark side of his character."

Although he composed much sacred music, McKay points out that his Masses always omitted the words from the text, "I believe in one catholic and apostolic church."

Observing that "He rarely opened his heart to other than closest friends," she suggests that "On the evidence from Schubert's life over the following years it becomes a virtual certainty that he suffered from cyclothymia" (a mild form of manic depression).

This is a stark portrait of the composer, yet a fascinating one, that will be of interest to many.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Most comprehensive Schubert bio 14 Jan 2009
By Andrew Reeder - Published on Amazon.com
This book debunks many of the myths about Schubert and shows us the real man. I disagree with the previous comment that it dwells unnecessarily on syphilis and depression. The cheerful, gregarious genius is there as well. One of the great achievements of this book is to show the development of the composer in sympathetic and believable ways. While I am a professional musician, I am glad that the author eschewed musical analyses, which in most composer biographies are both boring and wrong. The book also give enough background about the time and place to allow us to see Schubert in the proper context. As a former resident of Vienna I was happy to see exact locations of houses, concert halls, etc. given. My one small complaint is the organization of the book into both time-periods and subject matter. This made for a bit of repetition and confusion, but was not a serious problem.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars For those who love Schubert... 27 Sep 2007
By Caroline Harvey - Published on Amazon.com
This biography covers the typical details of the composer's life from birth to death, albeit quite in-depth. The author chooses to rely on depression and syphilis as recurring themes tying this work together, while disagreeing with another scholarly article as to the date Schubert contracted syphilis. This volume was intended for the general interest reader (according to the preface), but is quite scholarly with numerous references on each page, and myriad names of acquaintances, family, and friends. One almost needs a supplemental guide to keep track of all the characters. The "select" bibliography is quite thorough, as are the two indexes on both musical works and general topics within the biography. The author is quite credible, however; she was granted honorary membership in the Schubert Institute, United Kingdom (SIUK) and previously wrote an authoritative book discussing Schubert's dramatic works
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