Posted by Richard on  UTC 2016-05-24 08:45

The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away

So, after this long and at times puzzling journey from Neudorf to Vienna we are almost ready to bring our composer, Franz Peter Schubert into the world. There is still someway to go, though, because Franz Peter is the thirteenth of fifteen children. The way is dark: on the way to him there are nine dead infants to be buried.

This high infant mortality has been the cause of some speculation. One author believes that mercury, both stored in Elisabeth and Magdalena's bodies and in the environment of Himmelpfortgrund was a considerable factor.[1]

My own feeling is that we don't need to look for exotic explanations: gestation and birth in a school exposes the mother and child to every infection the herd brings in every day. Modern parents become aware of this as soon as their little darlings go to Kindergarten. The only worse place to be a baby is in a foundling hospital, where an infant's chances of survival are quite close to zero, as Elisabeth's Franz Ignaz Vietz and Magdalena's Franz Viez found out.

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Nach der Schule, 1841

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1793-1865), Nach der Schule (After School), 1841. Image: ©Nationalgalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
Microbe carriers leaving school, painted ten years after Franz Theodor died, the impression is probably not far wrong.

For nearly eight years, until Josef comes along in 1793, the first living son Ignaz Franz, born in 1785, is effectively an only child. Dead infants enter his young life and leave again shortly afterwards. It is only when the triad of male survivors comes along between 1794 and 1797 that he finally gets siblings. As the first-born, nine years older than everyone else, there is an interesting symmetry with the destiny of Johann Karl, the eldest son in Carl Schubert's family and now the uncle to this brood.

The composer arrives

Franz Peter arrives into a family of three brothers. A sister, Maria Theresia, arrives in 1801, when he is nearly five. Of that family of five, he will be the first to die in 1828.

The choice of Ignaz (English 'Ignatius') for the foundling and the first son may be a reflection of Franz Theodor's debt to the Jesuits: the founder of that order was St. Ignatius of Loyola.

It is also striking that his father's name Carl/Karl only appears from April 1787. Carl Schubert died in December of that year. That Franz Theodor should initially take Ignaz before Karl may be significant – or it may not. It may even be that 'Karl' here is more an homage to his brother than to his father. Who knows?

Franz Theodor's mother's name, Susanna, never appears. It is never used for any of his daughters or any of his brother Karl's daughters. Unlike his father Carl, her death is not recorded in his 'family list'. Perhaps the relationship of the boys to their mother was not close. It just feels strange that she was apparently erased from her sons' lives.

No. Name Birth Death Age Remarks
- Franz Ignaz Vietz 12.04.1783 27.04.1783 2w
1 Ignaz Franz 08.03.1785 30.11.1844 59y8m
2 Elisabeth 01.03.1786 13.08.1788 2y5m
3 Karl 23.04.1787 06.02.1788 9m
4 Franziska Magdalena 06.06.1788 14.08.1788 2m
5 Franziska Magdalena 05.07.1789 01.01.1792 2y6m
6 Franz Karl 10.08.1790 10.09.1790 1m
7 Anna Karolina 11.07.1791 29.07.1791 18d
8 Petrus 29.06.1792 14.01.1793 6m14d Sometimes 'Peter'.
9 Josef 16.09.1793 18.10.1798 5y1m
10 Ferdinand Lukas 18.10.1794 26.02.1859 64y4m
11 Franz Karl 05.11.1795 20.03.1855 59y5m
12 Franz Peter 31.01.1797 19.11.1828 31y10m The composer
13 Aloisia Magdalena 17.12.1799 18.12.1799 1d
14 Maria Theresia 17.09.1801 07.08.1878 76y11m

Surviving brothers Surviving sisters
Note: Franz Theodor, ever the acribic school teacher, kept his own 'family list'.[2] Franz Ignaz Vietz, born out of wedlock, was never acknowledged in that list. Because research relied on Franz Theodor's list the existence of the illegitimate child remained undiscovered until 2001. The numbering given here is as it is in that list.


How thin is the thread upon which survival hangs!

Carl and Susanna survived and prospered despite plague and hunger. They sent two sons for an education. Their son Franz Theodor – the 'gift from God' – survived where many didn't and, though young, seized the chances fate offered him in Vienna. He rejected the priesthood and brought a family into the world. The thirteenth child in that family survived where many didn't and lived an all too brief life of genius.

Without the blaze of Franz Peter Schubert's genius, the Schuberts we have encountered in our tale would be mouldering unknown in the endless darkness of history: inconsequential peasants, school teaching drudges, domestic servants and dead infants. Just names among all the other names we skip over in parish registers and lists. Who would care at all about them? Carl's Ölvater might merit a line about its obscure creator in a tourist guide, a descendant of one of those expelled after the Second World War may be ancestor hunting. Just names.

Thanks to that blaze of genius we can see their shadows, but that is all they will ever be, vague shades we summon out of the surrounding darkness.

Two and a half centuries later, when we listen to Franz Peter Schubert's music, we should at least occasionally call to mind the thin thread on which that genius hangs.


  1. ^ Hans D. Kiemle, 'Woran starb Schubert eigentlich? Ein Beitrag aus toxikologischer Sicht', Schubert durch die Brille 16/17, 01.1996, p. 41-51.
  2. ^ Deutsch, Otto Erich, ed. op. cit. p. 4f.

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