Figures of Speech HOME

Home | 2018

The death of Franz Schubert

Posted by Richard on UTC 2018-11-18 14:46.

The day the music died

Franz Schubert died on 19 November 1828, so the 190th anniversary of his passing is upon us.

The manner and cause of Schubert's death, is, calmly considered, one of the least important aspects of his biography. Calm consideration is rare, however, and Schubert's early death at 31 years old has been a subject for speculation almost since the last shovelful of soil was tossed on his grave.

For the anniversary let's take a calm and considered look at the events which led up to his death, starting from late August 1828.

Otto Deutsch's doorstops

Our main sources for this chronology are, of course, Otto Deutsch's two books Schubert: Die Dokumente seines Lebens and Schubert: Die Erinnerungen seiner Freunde. The phrase 'of course' is a gesture of acknowledgement of the completely reasonable point made by Michael Lorenz about 'the fragmentary and outdated status of Otto Erich Deutsch's Schubert Dokumente': scholars who rely simply on the contents of these monuments are inevitably heading for a fall. [Lorenz 1]

A completely reasonable and justified viewpoint, but in making it Lorenz poisons the wells for all of us generalists. Serious archival research is certainly needed, but the non-specialist reader cannot be expected to wait until all the known unknowns and even some unknown unknowns have been clarified. Few people who are interested in Schubert have either the time or the stamina to plug their way through these two doorstops, let alone keep up with the research that is scattered across numerous expensive journals.

Our position on this website is that we do our best with what we have got, which is – just as it is for everyone else – Otto Deutsch's master works. Where new research exists, we take it. This approach might be described as 'respectful ignorance'. We do, however, wish that more generalists would be conscious of the problem which Lorenz has highlighted.

Unfortunately, there is so much nonsense written about Schubert for the consumption of the general reader that we are happy if we just get the essential points of the tale into some reasonably reliable perspective.

Chronology of a death

Let us first establish with the help of Deutsch a chronology of the events of the end of Schubert's life as far as we know them from late August 1828 onwards. There is a tabular summary chronology at the end of this section.


In an entry in his diary for 26 August, Franz Hartmann tells us of a boozy evening in the Gasthof Eiche, with Schubert and Lachner present, which went on until almost midnight. The aspect of this event which gains our attention is that of the dog that did not bark, that is, we hear of nothing out of the ordinary about either Schubert's manner or his health. [Dok 534]

Three days later, on 29 August, Hartmann tells us of yet another boozy evening, this time in the Bierhaus in the Komödiengassel. It was a farewell party for Franz and Louis Hartmann, who were leaving Vienna after the completion of their studies to return to Linz. This final booze-up represents the drying up of the Hartmanns' diary entries of life with Schubert in Vienna, which have kept us entertained and informed for the previous three years.

Once again, no dog barks: we hear of nothing out of the ordinary and can only assume that the event is simply carousing business as usual for the Schubert friends. [Dok 534]

In August, therefore, based on what we have found in Deutsch's Dokumente, our Schubert is in uncomplaining good health. Two and a half months later he will be dead.

September: the move to Ferdinand

On 1 September Schubert moved into a room in an apartment rented by his brother Ferdinand in a new building in Neu-Wieden, a new suburb to the south-west of Vienna.

The reasons for this move are not completely clear. In a note, Deutsch tells us without supplying any documentary evidence that the move was ordered by Schubert's doctor, but adds that the humidity of the new building and the insanitary conditions in the new suburb were anything but healthy. If that is so, then following doctor's orders was in this case just the wrong thing to do. [Dok 535]

This relocation causes us some head-scratching. In Schober's apartment Schubert had had two rooms to himself – the conditions were luxurious in comparison to those of most of his other residencies (with the exception, perhaps, of the 'Owl Tower' on his second visit to Zseliz). How much healthier could a small room in his brother's apartment be?

The head scratching does not lessen when Schubert's brother Ferdinand, in a memoir, tells us that

…already in September, Franz was sickly and dosing himself with medicines. His indisposition reduced somewhat after this.

…Schon im September (1828) kränkelte und medizinierte Schubert. Seine Unpäßlichkeit nahm indes wieder etwas ab. [Erinn 47]

Our sharp-eyed and suspicious readers will note that Ferdinand speaks of a time 'already in September' and will puzzle as to why the symptoms of illness appear after Franz had moved in with him. They cannot therefore have been the cause of the move, unless, of course, Schubert suffered health crises in August that have gone unreported in Deutsch's Dokumente. If there were indeed health crises, during August Schubert appears to have been self-medicating in the coffee houses and taverns of Old Vienna.

Furthermore, the brows of our extremely suspicious readers will furrow over Ferdinand's use of the single word 'schon', 'already'. This is a word that you would only use when you are looking back from the final outcome – that is, Schubert's death – to some anterior event, for example: 'his fate was already sealed'. The suspicion is that Ferdinand, in his own head, at a distance of around ten years since his brother's death, is 'hindcasting' the start of the illness to sometime in September.

We should anyway take whatever we read in Ferdinand's 'memoir' of his brother with great caution. In 1829, the memoir started out as an unusably erratic list of musical compositions, of which Joseph von Spaun remarked to Eduard Bauernfeld

Unfortunately, I have to fear that the notes in this booklet will not provide much material towards the sort of biography which I imagine you have in mind. The booklet contains almost nothing other than a list of just the least interesting and in part the least successful works of our deceased friend.

Leider muß ich befürchten, daß die in diesem Hefte enthaltenen Notizen zu einer Biographie, wie ich mir vorstelle, daß Sie im Sinne haben, nur wenig an die Hand geben. Das Heft enthält beinahe nichts als eine Aufzählung gerade der weniger interessanten und zum Teil weniger gelungenen Werke unseres verstorbenen Freundes. [Erinn 38f]

Then Ferdinand's memoir was edited through the years for and by Robert Schumann, who finally published it in 1839, 11 years after Schubert's death. It is by no means a contemporary record of events.

How ever we interpret Ferdinand's confused statements, we are left with a quandary: Schubert does not seem to have shown any marked symptoms before he moved in with Ferdinand, his boozy end of August would be evidence of that anyway. If we trust Ferdinand, Schubert seems to have had a brief bout of ill-health at the beginning of September from which he quickly recovered. So why in August did he decide to leave his spacious rooms in Schober's apartment, furnished with a piano, Schober's library and containing his music manuscripts for a small room with Ferdinand?

September: the move from Schober

If we look at the situation from Schober's point of view we have some speculative possibilities – no more than that. This is a place where some archival research might make all the difference.

If Schubert really was ailing, then Schober would be the last housemate he would want close to him – and vice versa. Schober had scarcely more empathy for his fellow man than a brick; he was the definition of a self-absorbed egotist. Brow mopping, hand holding, bedpan emptying, consoling and cheering were not in his skill set.

Schober was also clearly terrified of all infection risks – and Schubert knew it. Schubert's last letter to him, written literally on Schubert's deathbed, explicitly gave him an opportunity to hand over the books Schubert wanted without any risk of infection, by leaving them at Bogner's coffee house to be collected by Ferdinand. It requires little effort to imagine that Schober didn't want a dying composer in his house – whether he was his best friend, one half of the 'Schobert' or not.

Schober must also have been preoccupied – in so far as it was possible for Schober to be preoccupied with anything – with the accelerating downward slide of the lithographic printing business into which he had bought.

The business finally went bankrupt at the beginning of 1829, but by the summer of 1828 its financial fate was clear to everyone. Bauernfeld noted its near-death state in a diary entry for 22 November, the day after Schubert's funeral. [Dok 554] From a summary of Schubert's financial affairs prepared after his death by his father we learn he was in debt to Schober for around 191 florins, a debt that was paid back in early January of 1829. [Dok 571]

Perhaps Schubert, anticipating a month in Graz with the Pachlers, had already decided to move out for a while, certainly not for the first time in their relationship. Deutsch now adds some more confusion and speculation to the fog of unknowing:

According to a letter from Schober to Ferdinand Schubert on 18 March 1848, Schubert left almost all his manuscripts in the 'music room' in the Schobers' apartment, a fact which leads to the conclusion that his removal to Ferdinand was not intended to be permanent.

Schubert hat (laut einem Brief Schobers an Ferdinand Schubert vom 18. März 1848) fast alle seine Manuskripte in der „Musikkammer“ bei Schobers belassen, was darauf schließen läßt, daß seine Übersiedlung zu Ferdinand nicht endgültig gemeint war. [Dok 535]

Well, perhaps such a conclusion is justified, perhaps not. It seems reasonable enough, but we have to wonder where Schubert would have put these manuscripts in the confinement of his small, presumably damp bedroom in Ferdinand's apartment.

It's all a mystery – and so we would encourage Michael Lorenz to get cracking, do what he's good at and solve the mystery for us ASAP. Thank you.

September: the missed trip to Graz

Yet another mystery will puzzle us Sherlocks in September: the case of the cancelled trip to Graz. At the end of August, on the same day that the Eiche hosts the Schubert gang, Frau Marie Pachler writes from Graz to her aunt in Vienna.

She seems to feel confident that Schubert and Jenger will be with them in Graz in September – two tame in-house musicians to entertain their friends and write ditties and marches for little Faust Pachler to tinkle out on the piano. The following specimen of the boasting rights of the society dame will be quite familiar to moderns:

In the next month [September] I am expecting the arrival of a couple of acquaintances from Vienna; Schubert, the famed composer of songs and another musical friend by the name of Jenger, who was formerly employed in Graz but who was transferred to Vienna three years ago. Their stay with us will bring some variety into my otherwise humdrum life.

Künftigen Monat erwarte ich ein Paar Bekannte aus Wien; Schubert, den berühmten Lieder-Kompositeur, und einen andern musikalischen Freund, Namens Jenger, der früher in Graz angestellt, und vor 3 Jahren nach Wien übersetzt wurde. Da sie bei uns wohnen würden, so wird das einige Abwechslung in mein sonst so einförmiges Leben bringen. [Dok 533 Frau Pachler an Anna Morack nach Wien. [Graz,] 26. August 1828.]

On 6 September, Jenger writes and tells her that both he and Schubert have relocated. He tells her that Schubert still wants to go to Graz and will give her eight days notice of his arrival. It is a striking instance of Schubert's social independence, that he is no supine servant in the intercourse with his social betters. [Dok 537]

From Jenger's letter we also learn that on 5 September, Schubert attended the Burgtheater, not the action of an ailing man and so yet another non-barking dog.

On 25 September, when Schubert finally makes his mind up not to go to Graz, he doesn't bother telling Frau Pachler about it directly, but writes to Jenner, telling him that 'Geld u. Witterung gänzlich ungünstig sind', 'money and weather prevent it completely'. The dog didn't bark this time either: there is no mention of illness as an excuse. [Dok 537]

From the same letter to Jenger we note that Schubert has accepted an invitation to attend a musical evening with Dr Menz and Baron von Schönstein on 27 September. At the event he accompanied Schönstein in some songs and played his latest piano sonata. [Dok 538]

Jenger had been a tenant of his friend Menz for some time. We can conclude that at the end of September, Schubert is certainly not a man at death's door – far from it, as we shall find out in a moment.

No dogs have barked: we have got through September without the mention of any health problems at all.

The belief that the sickly Schubert on 1 September had gone to live with Ferdinand for his health and some medical care clearly requires some suspension of disbelief – at least on the basis of the documentary record we have. By the end of September he was quite capable of giving a house concert and playing his latest, not unchallenging piano sonata.

October: financial desperation

On 2 October, Schubert writes two tetchy letters to the music publishers Schott and Probst. The essence of the message from the composer is that the publishers ought to get on and publish the pieces that have been sitting around with them for so long. Schubert clearly needs money and has been composing with a will, that we know.

It is a continuing theme in Schubert's musical life that the music publishers of Vienna simply could not keep up with this composing tornado. He was too broke to take time off to go to Graz in September. His move in with Ferdinand in the suburbs may have been to reduce his costs (and take him away from the coffee houses of the city). Perhaps even the moneyed Schober, in the dire financial straights in which he now found himself because of the imminent collapse of his printing venture, might have been happy to get some money back from Schubert and even charge him rent (if he wasn't doing it already). Deutsch notes:

This letter sounds like a distress call. Schubert had had a bad experience with Probst in the matter of the payment for the Piano Trio in E. However, he still offered him his newest and best works. He also exaggeratedly praises their chances of performance and success.

Dieser Brief klingt wie ein Notruf. Schubert hatte mit Probst bei der Honorierung des Klaviertrios in Es schlechte Erfahrung gemacht. Dennoch bietet er ihm seine neuesten und besten Werke an. Er übertreibt in ihrer Anpreisung, was Aufführung und Erfolg betrifft. [Dok 540]

Early October: the great hike to Haydn

Schubert's health seemingly gave no cause for concern until about the middle of October. Around 5 October he even undertook an heroic three-day walking tour with Ferdinand and two other friends to visit Unterwaltersdorf and Haydn's grave in Eisenstadt – a round trip of over 100 km (depending on the route). Even Ferdinand (via Robert Schumann) reports positively on Schubert's health during this route march.

At the beginning of October he therefore undertook in the company of his brother Ferdinand and two other friends a small pleasure tour to Unterwaltersdorf and from there a trip to Eisenstadt, where he visited Josef Haydn's grave and stayed for quite some time there. During the three days of the tour he was extremely moderate in his consumption of food and drink, but was nevertheless very happy and had some cheerful ideas. But when he returned to Vienna, his indisposition increased again.

Er machte daher anfangs Oktober in Gesellschaft seines Bruders Ferdinand und zweier anderer Freunde eine kleine Lustreise nach Unter-Waltersdorf und von da einen Ausflug nach Eisenstadt, allwo er Josef Haydns Grabmal aufsuchte und sich dabei ziemlich lang verweilte. Er war während dieser drei Reisetage höchst mäßig in Speise und Trank, dabei aber sehr heiter und hatte manche munteren Einfälle. Als er aber wieder nach Wien kam, nahm seine Unpäßlichkeit wieder zu.[Erinn 47]

Otto Deutsch, still accepting Ferdinand's ill-health narrative for Schubert, gives some rather optimistic distances for this marathon and helpfully suggests that it was undertaken at the suggestion of Schubert's doctor. [Dok 541]

Measured against your author's lazy decrepitude, even a fit and well man would find such a tour a strain. It is no surprise that Schubert was indisposed when he finally returned to Vienna, his battles with publishers, his cash shortage and all the other woes that beset him.

Mid-October: the private concert in Budapest

In the Deutsch documentary record there is now silence, until a letter is written to Schubert on 11 October by Anton Schindler and Franz Lachner. The letter invites him to Budapest to listen to Lachner's opera and offers him the opportunity for a private concert (similar to that which he held in Vienna in March of this year). As Deutsch notes, it was an exciting prospect, which under normal circumstances Schubert would grasp with alacrity. Schindler himself was excited and full of encouragement:

However, you have to do something too, namely that you arrange for letters from noble houses in Vienna to be sent to their counterparts here [in Budapest]. Lachner thinks, for example, from the house of Count Esterházy; I would add that you should say a word to our trusty friend Pinterics, who would in turn get some from his princes. In particular, you should arrange for a good letter to Countess Tölöky, the chair of the Society of Aristocratic Ladies, who is the great protector of the arts here. Don't make a big thing of it, since it involves no labour and no strong-arm persuasion, rather you need only post the letters here, if we find it necessary and that's it! Getting a few 100 florins in your pocket in this way is not to be sniffed at, and you could probably profit in some other ways, too. So, get a move on! Don't hang about pondering with no dosh at the end!

Jedoch müssen Sie auch etwas dazu beitragen, et quidem daß Sie sich in Wien 5-6 Briefe aus adelichen Häusern an wieder solche hier geben lassen. Lachner meint z. B. aus dem Graf Esterházschen Hause, und ich meine auch dazu: z. B. sagen Sie ein Wort davon unserm biedern Freunde Pinterics, der Ihnen gewiß einige von seinem Fürsten besorgen wird. Vorzüglich aber verschaffen Sie sich einen guten Brief an die Gräfin Tölöky, Vorsteherin des adelichen Frauenvereins, die die größte Beschützerin der Kunst hier ist. Lassen Sie sich das nicht schwer fallen, denn es ist dabei keine Mühe und kein Kurmachen verbunden, sondern Sie geben die Briefe hier ab, wenn wir es für notwendig finden werden, und damit basta! Einige 100 fl. auf diese Art in die Tasche bekommen, ist nicht zu verwerfen, und nebst diesem können noch andere Vorteile dabei heraus schauen. Also frisch! nicht lange judiziert und keine Mäuse gemacht! [Dok 543]

The entrepreneurial life of the composer and musician in the Biedermeier Austrian Empire of music!

Mid-October: the illness reveals itself

It seems that by the time the letter arrived, Schubert was now suddenly beyond all alacrity. The first symptoms of his illness became apparent. After the arrival of Schindler's letter around the middle of the month there is documentary silence until 31 October, when Schubert is revolted by the taste of some fish that was served to him in the Gasthaus Zum roten Kreuz in Himmelpfortgrund, which had been since the days of their first school in the area a regular meeting place for the Schuberts. Ferdinand first tells the story, which is then picked up much later by Schönstein, among others.

On the evening of the last day in October he wanted to eat fish [31 October 1828 was a Friday, a day of meat abstinence for Catholics]. As soon as he had eaten the first piece he threw his knife and fork down onto the plate and claimed that this fish disgusted him horribly and he felt as though he had eaten poison. From this moment on Schubert ate and drank almost nothing more and took only medicines.

Da er nun am letzten Oktober abends einen Fisch speisen wollte, warf er, nachdem er das erste Stückchen gegessen, plötzlich Messer und Gabel auf den Teller und gab vor, es ekele ihn gewaltig vor diesem Fische und es sei ihm gerade, als hätte er Gift genommen. Von diesem Augenblicke an hat Schubert fast nichts mehr gegessen noch getrunken und bloß Arzneien genommen. [Erinn 47f]

The fish was probably not the cause of Schubert's infection, but rather an early symptom of it.

Early November: patient in denial

Nevertheless, at the beginning of November Schubert is still quite active. In addition to his continual composing activities, on 3 November he set off early in the morning and walked from Neu-Wieden to the Parish Church in Hernals, a distance of about 7 km, to listen to a performance of Ferdinand's Requiem. After the service he undertook a further three-hour walk to get home. Ferdinand tells us, to our complete lack of surprise, that Schubert complained of exhaustion on the way home. [Erinn 47f]

Ferdinand is no storyteller at the best of times; his memories of these important days between October and November are especially desiccated even by his own high standards. Let's moisten Ferdinand's dry tale with some juicy but reasonable speculation.

What, our readers surely ask themselves, were Ferdinand and Franz Peter both doing in Himmelpfortgrund on the evening of 31 October? Himmelpfortgrund, the former family home and their joint birthplace, is around 5 km away from their current domicile in Neu-Wieden.

If we ask ourselves what would bring the Schubert family together around that time we might reasonably think that they came together to mark the Feast of All Saints (1 November) or All Souls (2 November). The two important feast days are frequently run together for the tradition of remembering the souls of the dead and for visiting and decorating the graves.

It is barely conceivable that a pious and close family such as the Schuberts would not make the effort to observe this day. After all, they have ten dead children to remember (Franz Ignaz, Elisabeth, Karl, Franziska Magdalena, Franziska Magdalena, Franz Karl, Anna Karolina, Petrus, Josef and Aloisia Magdalena), the first wife and mother, Elisabeth (†1812), and uncle Karl (†1804). According to Deutsch, Elisabeth was buried in the Währinger Allgemeiner Friedhof, close to Himmelpfortgrund – where, in 1830, her husband would join her. [Dok 582]

The following day, 4 November, Schubert joins Josef Lanz for his first counterpoint lesson with Simon Sechter. [Steblin 226]

From then on, day by day, the disease takes its course in Schubert's tired body. On 10 November he is too ill to join Lanz for the second lesson at Sechters.

Early November: Josef Lanz's confusion

Recent documentary research by Rita Steblin and Frederick Stocken has shone some light on Schubert's desire take lessons from the composer, musical theorist and Principal Court Organist Simon Sechter (1788-1867) in order to improve his counterpoint skills.

She recovered the account of that period written by Josef Lanz (1797-1873), a fellow composer and an almost exact contemporary of Schubert, who intended to share these lessons with him. The account was written in 1857 in the form of a letter to the would-be Schubert biographer Ferdinand Luib. The final version of that letter is lost, but Steblin unearthed Lanz's drafts and notes for the letter.

We are searching for the barking dogs of Schubert's last illness and so can leave the discussions of the complicated provenance of Lanz's draft and the musical implications of what he writes for others to deal with. We just want to know: do any dogs bark in Lanz's testimony?

Well – yes and no. Lanz's memoir is yet another of those documents dredged up from memory thirty years after the fact. So, for that interesting moment on 10 November when Schubert is too ill to attend the second lesson, Lanz tells us the following:

When I wanted to fetch him in order to go to Sechter for the second or third time (he was already at that time living with his brother in the Wieden suburb), he said to me that it was very unpleasant for him to have to break the arrangement right now, but it would be impossible for him to go with me because he felt very unwell. [Steblin 235]

So far, so consistent with everything else we know. Then thirty years of synaptic rearrangement kick in:

'I have absolutely no appetite', he said to me, but at the same time he reached for a croissant and began to eat.'Now', I said, 'your lack of appetite can't be so bad from what I see.' 'Ah, it's only a craving', he replied. [Steblin 235]

The reader can make of that what he or she wishes. And then, when something has been made of that, can go on to digest the next sentence:

When I visited him again, he was in fact not yet in bed, indeed in the room ready in his overcoat, and he played his Rondo in A major for four hands with me. [Steblin 235]

Exactly when this visit ('again') took place is a mystery; a mystery, too, that Schubert 'was not yet in bed' – the cancelled Sechter lesson was on 10 November and we know from reliable contemporary accounts that Schubert took to his bed on 11 November (see our remarks under that date).

The phrase 'ready in his overcoat' implies that Schubert was being collected by Lanz to go somewhere, perhaps a mystery third lesson, or perhaps still the second lesson or… who knows?

By now we have become so inured to such puzzles that we can take in our stride the image of the weak and mortally ill Schubert banging out his four-handed Rondo with Lanz on a non-existent piano (there was no piano in Schubert's room).

In an afterthought in his draft, Lanz then offers us a little bit of extra information that seems quite plausible:

It must be noted that Schubert had already not been completely well for a few weeks and often complained of stomach pains. That is why he often went to the coffee house in the Singerstrasse in order to drink black coffee, although he had been advised against it. [Steblin 236]

The coffee house in question is Bogner's. Schubert did indeed suggest this to Jenger at the end of September (Thursday 25) as place to meet him: Samstags Nachmittag zwischen 4 u. 5 Uhr, 'the afternoon of Saturday ... between four and five o'clock' (Saturday 27). [Dok 538] As we shall see later, Bogner's is also the proposed drop-off point for the books Schubert requested from Schober on 11 November.

We note in passing here that once Schubert moved in with Ferdinand in Neu-Wieden, the haunts of his city life, Bogner's among them, – so convenient from Schober's apartment in Tuchlauben – are all now quite distant. Although he may have slept at Ferdinand's house from 1 September onwards, he would clearly have kept up his contacts with his old haunts as long as he could – that is, we mustn't see the move to Ferdinand, at least at the beginning, as some kind of monastic retreat.

Lanz completes his account of Schubert's last days with some vague, dateless gossip that unfortunately brings us not much further:

A few days after that I heard that Schubert had a nervous fever and my doctor dissuaded me from visiting him. Randhartinger told me that he had found him very dejected and that Schubert had said to him: 'I do not know what our Lord God has in store for me.' Schober … said to me that Schubert was not well at all, and in a few days he passed away.

When he lived with his brother he wrote a very great deal, helped by the comfort that he had there, and he had perhaps overstimulated his nervous system. But, as my doctor said to me, despite this, with his good constitution it would not have been difficult to rescue him. [Steblin 236]

Early November: Baron Schönstein's confusion

We now have to confront a reminiscence of Baron von Schönstein's which he wrote down in January of 1857 – almost thirty years after Schubert's death. We have had occasion before to point out how jumbled and unreliable Schönstein's memories are. Schönstein tells us that

About ten days before his death Schubert dined at my house in the company of several other friends. He was very cheerful, indeed, exceptionally jovial, into which mood he had been set by the large quantities of wine – of which he was no despiser – which he had drunk during the evening. He had eaten, so I believe, the above-mentioned fish, which had nauseated him and given him the feeling that he had been poisoned at his brother's house several evenings before that. The poison seemed to have had no lasting effect, however, since on that evening at my house he was completely well and, as already said, exceptionally jovial.

Zehn Tage ungefähr vor seinem Tode soupierte Schubert nebst mehreren anderen Freunden bei mir. Er war sehr heiter, ja ausgelassen lustig, in welche Stimmung ihn wohl der an diesem Abend in größerer Menge genossene Wein, von welchem er überhaupt kein Verächter war, gebracht haben mochte. Den erwähnten Fisch, welcher ihm Ekel und das Gefühl, als hätte er Gift genommen, verursacht habe, hatte er, wie ich glaube, bei seinem Bruder mehrere Abende vorher genossen; das Gift scheint aber nicht nachteilig gewirkt zu haben, denn er war an jenem Abend bei mir vollkommen wohl und, wie gesagt, ungemein lustig. [Erinn 118]

'About ten days before Schubert's death' would locate the boozy evening as taking place around 9 November – completely out of the question given the advancing state of Schubert's illness at that time. Schönstein remembers Ferdinand's story of Schubert's revulsion at the fish on 31 October, which is just the sort of story that would be passed around in the friends' gossip. In Schönstein's mind, the incident with the fish took place 'several evenings' before the boozy evening in question and at Ferdinand's house.

It is difficult to imagine that Schönstein is completely inventing this memory; it is more likely that he has simply dated it wrongly. We would suspect that the boozy dinner was in reality the musical evening with Menz and Schönstein which took place on 27 September, which would make the fish episode reported by Ferdinand take place four days later. The location was therefore not Schönstein's house but Menz's house – still, not bad for a memory from 30 years after the fact.

If this is so, then the musical evening is one more piece of evidence for the the basically healthy condition of Schubert during September – and yet one more strike against Ferdinand's assertion that Schubert was sickening and self-medicating before he moved in with him on 1 September.

So, after dealing with the Schönstein misdirection, we can return to the course of Schubert's developing illness.

Mid-November: the letter to Schober

On 11 November Schubert takes to his bed, finally giving up the struggle to work and walk his way through the illness. Ferdinand, in his account once more unreliable, dates this as 14 not 11 November.

Also on 11 November (presumably – the letter is undated) Schubert writes to Schober asking for some books to distract him from his torpor. He tells Schober he has not eaten or drunk anything for eleven days, confirming the outbreak of the early symptoms of the disease as taking place around the beginning of November, after his encounter with the fish that so revolted him. He is not yet quite totally bed bound, but shifts from bed to chair and back. This last letter of Schubert's, though it contains some characteristically Schubertian humour ('conscientiously' etc.), is frequently quoted by people who want to feel sad.

Dear Schober!
I am ill. For the last 11 days I have not eaten or drunk anything and shift exhausted and staggering from chair to bed and back. Rinna is treating me. If I eat anything it is brought back straight away. Be so good and help me in this desperate situation. Of [James Fenimore] Cooper's books I have read The Last Mohican, The Spy, The Pilot, The Pioneers. If you have something else by him, I pray you to deposit it with Franz von Bogner in the coffee house. My brother, conscientiousness itself, will bring me the same conscientiously. Or something else.
Your friend Schubert.

Lieber Schober!
Ich bin krank. Ich habe schon 11 Tage nichts gegessen u. nichts getrunken u. wandle matt u. schwankend von Sessel zu Bett u. zurück. Rinna behandelt mich. Wenn ich auch was genieße, so muß ich es gleich wieder von mir geben. Sey also so gut, mir in dieser verzweiflungsvollen Lage durch Lecktüre zu Hülfe zu kommen. Von Cooper habe ich gelesen: Den letzten der Mohikaner, den Spion, den Lootsen u. die Ansiedler. Solltest Du vielleicht noch was von ihm haben, so beschwöre ich Dich, mir solches bey der Fr. v. Bogner im Kaffehh. zu depositiren. Mein Bruder, die Gewissenhaftigkeit selbst, wird solches am gewissenhaftesten mir überbringen. Oder auch etwas Anderes.
Dein Freund Schubert. [Dok 546 Dieser letzte Brief von Schuberts Hand ist undatiert, er trägt den Vermerk: „Erhalten den 12ten November 1828. Fr. v. Schober“.]

Schober never visited Schubert. It is obvious from the carefully worked out deposition strategy that Schubert never expected him to.

But we are still surprised by the manner of Schubert's sudden and tardy reaching out to the old friend, especially as, when it finally does happen, it occurs on the level of book borrowing. Any books that Schober might have sent would have probably come too late for the James Fenimore Cooper fan to read – hope springs eternal in the dying breast. But the surprise does not end there.

Schubert's bleak statement at the beginning of the letter surprises us, too: 'I am ill'. Ferdinand told us that Schubert had been ill for some time, and that this is why he moved from his comfortable rooms with Schober to his cramped room with Ferdinand. Were the symptoms that apparently drove the kränkelnden, 'ailing' Schubert away from Schober's rooms not 'illness'?

Did Schubert move simply because of some vague ill-health? Was Schober afraid that his friend's indispositions were really late symptoms of the syphilis they had shared five years before? Did Schober, now apparently completely cured, fearing contagion just from his friend's physical presence, ban Schubert from his household entirely?

Schubert himself had feared during the dark days of the syphilis in 1823-25 that he would never be well again; it seems not unreasonable that, in the light of all these unspecific maladies, all this ailing, the imaginations of both men were working overtime. Was Schubert's relatively abrupt departure from his comfortable rooms in Schober's apartment not a desire of Schubert's but a demand of Schober's? A more or less gentle ejection, in other words?

If so, then a lot of the problems we encountered in attempting to digest the story of Schubert's move to Ferdinand's evaporate. Schubert didn't need to be really ill and didn't need the special care from Ferdinand and his family. Hence all the walking and fresh air. He just had to put a cordon sanitaire between him and Schober – and do that quickly. For that purpose, the room in Ferdinand's apartment was easily available. Who knows?

The general tone of Schubert's letter surprises us, too. After outlining his present miserable condition to Schober he asks for help – an absolute, grudging minimum of help, in fact, just some books – and he does so with a remarkable turn of phrase: Sey also so gut, mirzu Hülfe zu kommen, 'be therefore so good as to come to my aid'.

Native speakers of German must form their own opinions, but for your author this is the kind of pleading command that a parent would use who was trying to reason some obedience out of a refractory child. A hint of impatience, a hint of desperation, a hint of menacing politeness, a hint of an end of tether at the supermarket checkout when there are too many witnesses around to permit a furtive whack across the bottom: an imperative sey (in 'du' form) concluded with an hesitant second conjunctive zu Hülfe kommen. Then all softened with a weak verbal joke at the end. It is a strange way for a sick man to write, that's sure.

There is yet more surprise at the eleven days of unpleasant illness that Schubert has endured without contacting Schober or being contacted by him. There must have been a schism between them about something. Might it be Schubert's ejection from Schober's apartment? We speculate? We speculate.

The 'Schobert', that 'yolk and the white of the one egg', really was a strange beast: was this appeal for books really an appeal for Schober himself, the dominant partner of this odd couple? As far as we know, Schober never came, nor wrote nor – it seems – sent any books. So many questions, so few answers.

The last days

In the next few days Schubert has visitors who are made of stronger and kinder stuff, notably the old friend Joseph Spaun and the friend of his later years Eduard Bauernfeld. Moritz Schwind was away in Munich. The visitors describe Schubert as being not without hope of recovery.

The tale that on 14 November a chamber music ensemble came and played a Beethoven string quartet for him is probably nonsense. [Dok 546]

On 17 November Bauernfeld and Lachner visit him and find him alert, but that evening a delirium sets in.

The following day, 18 November, the delirium develops and becomes continuous; it is difficult to restrain Schubert on the bed. The following day, 19 November, after more delirium, at three in the afternoon, Schubert dies.

Bauernfeld expresses the suddenness of it all in his diary entry:

On Monday I still spoke with him. On Tuesday he was delirious. On Wednesday he was dead.

Montags sprach ich mit ihm noch. Dienstag phantasiert er. Mittwoch war er tot. [Dok 549f]

Overview timeline, August-November 1828

A compact timeline of Schubert's last four months, based on the information available in Otto Deutsch's two tomes.

26.08 Marie Pachler expecting Schubert/Jenger visit in September.
26.08 Hartmann: Boozy evening in the Eiche.
29.08 Hartmann: Boozy evening in the Bierhaus.
01.09 Move to Ferdinand's apartment.
06.09 Jenger to Pachler: Schubert in the Burgtheater; Schubert still wants to come to Graz and will let her know.
25.09 Schubert to Jenger: cannot go to Gratz – no money and bad weather.
27.09 Musical evening with Mens and Schönstein.
02.10 Letters to music publishers: get on with it!
05.10 Three day walking tour to Haydn's grave.
11.10 Invitation to Budapest for 20.10.
31.10 Revulsion at fish in Zum roten Kreuz.
03.11 Walk to Hernals for Ferdinand's Requiem; 3 hour walk back.
04.11 First lesson with Sechter.
10.11 Second lesson with Sechter missed.
11.11 Schubert takes to his bed.
11.11 Letter to Schober: 11 days without food or drink.
16.11 Doctors' meeting; occasional delirium.
17.11 Visits by Bauernfeld, Lachner, Spaun and Joseph Hüttenbrenner around this time; permanent delirium sets in in the evening.
18.11 Schubert struggling (Typhomanie); Lachner's report.
19.11 15:00, Wednesday, Schubert dies.
21.11 Funeral.

The medical perspective

What was this illness that came so silently – as a thief in the night – and killed Franz Schubert? It is at this point that we need a medical opinion – and for that we have Professor Dr Anton Neumayr, who wrote a piece on the medical aspects of Schubert's death in volume 1 of his 2007 work, Berühmte Komponisten im Spiegel der Medizin.

Neumayr, who died 96 years old in 2007, was a high-ranking doctor in Vienna, a professor specialising in gastroenterology and a Director of a clinic, so in relation to the medical details of Schubert's last illness he can be expected to know whereof he speaks. He was also a top-rank pianist, chamber musician and music historian.

According to Neumayr, we have to consider three potentially overlapping illnesses: Syphilis, exhaustion and typhoid fever.


It is still often asserted that Schubert died of syphilis, an assertion that pleases the moralists no end, those who like creative artists to lead morally questionable lives, probably as a proxy for our own mild deviances.

In Schubert's case this is bunkum. There is nothing in the manner of Schubert's dying during his last four months which has anything symptomatically in common with syphilis.

Neumayr is of the opinion that Schubert did indeed have a syphilis infection in late 1822, but that this was cured in Schubert by the end of 1824. [Neumayr 313] He bases this opinion on the lack of traces of syphilis found on the exhumed skull of Schubert at both exhumations (13 October 1863 and 23 September 1888). [Neumayr 309]

This conclusion would also fit in with a point we emphasised in our piece on Schubert's syphilis: that syphilis is not necessarily a death sentence – the majority of sufferers seem to get over it after a year or so of unpleasantness. Whether they were helped or further harmed by the treatments of the time to which they were subjected is another question – and fortunately one we do not have to answer here.

We concluded at the time we wrote our piece that Schubert was merely unlucky in the persistence of the disease, unlike Schober, who seemed to have shaken his infection off completely and lived a long life after it.

In coming to this view we followed the widely held opinion that the various ailments that Schubert reported in the years following 1826 were manifestations of the return of latent syphilis symptoms.

In practice, though, patients tend to bundle all their ailments together as aspects of the same illness, Neumayr, a senior doctor, has the experience to disentangle these symptoms. Having ruled out the persistence of syphilis he therefore sees the presence of another illness that is completely unconnected with it: exhaustion.


The most frequent complaint, Schubert's recurring, splitting headaches, were not unusual for a very short-sighted person wearing the spectacles of nearly two centuries ago and working in the dim surroundings of one or other of the hovels in which he lived, candle-lit in the evening. It would be something of a surprise if he hadn't had headaches, given Schubert's work rate and the hours he spent drafting, composing, rewriting, proofreading and correcting.

Neumayr's experienced medical analysis is not fooled either by what is frequently held to be another symptom of lingering syphilis, the pains and weakness in Schubert's arm in April 1824, which meant that he could not play the piano for some time. In Neumayr's opinion this was nothing more than a muscle strain caused by overdoing things, which once rested, disappeared, never to return. [Neumayr 290]

Neumayr believes that Schubert's malaise in the years after 1824 was fundamentally that of a body rebelling at Schubert's treatment of it. The list of his compositions in 1828 is quite astonishing. It was also a time when he had no opportunity to take one of the summer tours that he had so enjoyed in previous years. Even the trip to play the organ at Heiligenstadt was closer to work than to relaxation.

It is more likely that the general ailments with headaches and hot flushes were the result of an incredible creative activity during these months [than symptoms of syphilis].

Viel eher könnten die von Schubert geklagten allgemeinen Beschwerden mit Kopfschmerzen und Hitzewallungen die Folge einer geradezu unfassbaren schöpferischen Tätigkeit in diesen Monaten gewesen sein. [Neumayr 314]

By the autumn of 1828 Schubert had had no break at all from his ceaseless activity. In an attempt to regain his health, the already exhausted composer took a walk of around 100 km, lasting three days, to Unterwaltersdorf and Eisenstadt. He felt well on the tour itself, but relapsed almost immediately he returned to Vienna. He really just needed a rest from the rest. On the walk his eyes were rested, his mind cleared, but his body fatigued.

His exhaustion was made worse by his depressive mental state. We have much evidence of Schubert's depressions. Joseph Spaun tells us of his dark mood in the time he was composing the Winterreise

For some time Schubert was gloomy and appeared to be worn out.

Schubert wurde durch einige Zeit düster gestimmt und schien angegriffen. [Erinn 160]

He could still be the life and soul of the coffee house on occasions, but the basic tenor of his life was that of the disappointed workaholic who was, despite all his heroic efforts, permanently strapped for cash. Of the few documents we have from this time, Schubert's pleading and sometimes quite abrupt correspondence with music publishers stands out. The logjam of his works overwhelmed the music publishers, and his crazed productivity meant that new logs were added to the jam on almost a daily basis.

Typhoid fever

There can be no doubt that Bauchtyphus, what we know today in English as typhoid fever, was the disease that killed him. The timing and sequence of Schubert's symptoms are closely aligned with what we know of the typical progress of the disease. [Neumayr 314]

It was an extremely common disease of the time – Schubert's mother had died of it – and although the doctors of the time were clueless as to its cause and their treatments were largely pointless and ineffective, they saw the disease day in and day out and could recognise it without difficulty. Neumayr writes of the 'staircase-like progress of the fever'. [Neumayr 314]

The first steps on that staircase were not easy to distinguish from all the other fevers of the time, but for Schubert's doctors, during their consultation on 16 November, a key diagnostic indicator had finally appeared: the first of the series of deliriums which had just set in, which was the point when the fever turned into Nervenfieber, 'nerve fever' – that is, typhoid fever. It was at that moment that they changed Schubert's treatment to reflect the new diagnosis. [Dok 547]

The characteristic diagnostic factors were the relatively comprehensible utterances during the typhoid delirium, which were distinguished from the simple ravings of other types of delirium, and the phase of struggle, shortly before death. [Neumayr 315]

It goes without saying that today's antibiotics dispose of typhoid fever with little effort, even the simplest isotonic rehydration can positively influence the outcome substantially.

What's left?

190 years after the fact it is high time we took the emotion out of Schubert's death. In 1997, just short of 170 years after the fact, Christopher Gibbs perceptively picked up the expression used frequently by contemporaries as well as later writers: 'poor Schubert'. [Gibbs 36]

Franz Schubert was born with many disadvantages – physical, social and economic. Like his father, his uncle and his brothers Ignaz and Ferdinand, the social position into which he was born offered him a life of more or less mindless drudgery just above the bottom of the feudal pond that was Austria at that time, in contrast to the water lilies who floated effortlessly upon its surface and drew their nourishment from its mud.

That life would be lived in almost complete anonymity and at the end of it he would disappear into the mud just as his ancestors did and just as his brothers would have done. It would not necessarily have been an unhappy life, rather a life of modest ambitions, modest expectations and modest achievements in line with those of the reference group for that social position. There were many whose lot was much worse than his – very many. They usually have no story that anyone knows.

But poor Schubert was born with two great curses. Curse one: he was a composer of genius with a great lyric talent. Curse two: he had a work ethic to match.

His adult life of about 15 years, from his departure from the Stadtkonvikt to his death, is a story of his survival in the stagnant depths of this pond. He had seen the light from above, the flickering sunlight of 'pure art' and the 'sublime', to use the language of his idealistic youth, and those two great curses of genius and drive forced him every day to engage in the impossible upwards struggle that was his destiny. His life was a journey to escape those limitations. Any day without struggle would see him sink downwards a little bit deeper in the turbid waters of the Austrian Empire.

It was a journey with many setbacks – hence the frequency of the expression 'poor Schubert' noted by Gibbs – but nonetheless an heroic journey.

We've made this point before about Schubert, but it deserves repeating, particularly if the talk is about 'poor Schubert'.

Without Franz Peter's heroic life in the monomanic pursuit of his genius, his father, his uncle and the Moravian village they escaped from would be mere footnotes or forgotten; his brothers, ditto. They would all have decomposed namelessly into the ooze of history at the bottom of that Austrian pond.

Nearly everyone in the glittering and not so glittering 'circles of his friends' would now be almost completely forgotten: Baron Schönstein and his friend Count Johann Esterházy, the distant, ineffectual twig at the outer edges of a dynasty; Michael Vogl, who sang forgotten roles in now forgotten operas; the ranks of lower and middle order civil servants minding the Empire of Paperwork. There were artists around Schubert who did something in their own right – Schwind, Kupelwieser, Bauernfeld etc. – but all of them today are either forgotten or merely minority interests.

Schubert, through his musical genius, brought lasting historical interest to those with whom he was associated; he raised an entire platform of those second and third raters above the waterfall of history, which would have otherwise swept them away.

Without that heroic life, people around the world today who happen to be called 'Schubert' would not be desperately researching to establish some hereditary link to someone in the bloodline of a man who died wifeless and childless. Museums, collectors and dealers around the world would not be hoarding scraps of paper bearing some squiggle of his.

His death was unfortunate, but not tragic or predestined. Those who hint at premonitions of his own end – in Winterreise, for example – and see his work as leading up to that death, or see his desperate activity in his last year as some conscious or subconscious way of completing his life's work – well, they need to get a grip.

Just like every seriously ill person before and since, Schubert was hoping for his survival right up to the moment that the last two days of delirium seized him, both Spaun and Bauernfeld tell us that. We only need to recall the manic walking he did in the hope that fresh air and exercise would cure him to appreciate just how much Schubert wanted to live.

Grillparzer, in his much criticised inscription for Schubert's grave, hit the nail on the head:

The art of music buried here a rich possession, but still many more beautiful hopes.

Die Tonkunst begrub hier einen reichen Besitz, aber noch viel schoenere Hoffnungen. [Dok 549f]

Schubert had achieved much but, had he lived, much greater would have come. The proposition is incontestable and Schubert himself, still driven to achievement throughout the final weeks of his terminal illness, would have seen it that way, too.

His last public act was to begin lessons by Simon Sechter in the subtleties of fugal composition, meaning that less than a month before he died he was still fighting for self-improvement. We can regret the loss of what might have come, but in his heroic journey we have to agree with Robert Schumann: 'He did enough'.


All sources are in German, unless otherwise noted. All translations ©FoS.

Dok Deutsch, Otto Erich, ed. Schubert: Die Dokumente Seines Lebens. Erw. Nachdruck der 2. Aufl. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1996. [DE]
Erinn —, ed. Schubert: Die Erinnerungen Seiner Freunde. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1997. [DE]
Gibbs Gibbs, Christopher H. '"Poor Schubert": Images and Legends of the Composer', in Christopher H. Gibbs (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Schubert, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 36-55. [EN]
Lorenz Lorenz, Michael. 'The Financial Circumstances of Franz Schubert's Parents: New Documents', 2017. Online. [DE]
Neumayr Neumayr, Anton. Berühmte Komponisten im Spiegel der Medizin, vol. l, Wien: Ibera Verlag/European University Press, 2007. [DE]
Steblin Steblin, Rita and Frederick Stocken. 'Studying with Sechter: Newly Recovered Reminiscences about Schubert by his Forgotten Friend, the Composer Joseph Lanz' in Music and Letters, Volume 88, Issue 2, 1 May 2007, Pages 226–265. DOI [EN].