Posted by Richard on  UTC 2016-05-24 08:40

Ancestors? Who needs them?

Biographers rarely linger over their subject's ancestry, with good reason. Only the most punctilious scribblers write chapters that reach back beyond the immediate family, even back to ancestors who may have been just as unknown to the subject as they are to us.

Then there is the nature-nurture problem – like the poor, always with us. Entire books could be filled in the attempt to derive the subject's character and abilities from the ancestral genes and parental natures.

Out of the soil

In the case of the composer Franz Peter Schubert, the ancestors are of more interest than usual. In the course of two generations, we move from the world of feudal peasants living in a distant province of the Holy Roman Empire to the life of a musical genius in its capital, Vienna. Each of those two generations – the composer's grandparents and then his parents – took a gigantic step in raising the family out of its agricultural anonymity.

A practical point before we begin. On this journey out of the past we are going to have to cope with identifying people using multiple Christian names: a single Franz, Karl or Johann(es) will not suffice. Each family had its own tradition of names for its permutations. There were at times unwritten rules about adopting the names of particular ancestors at particular positions in the sequence, causing the same names to resurface down the generations. In our journey down these two generations I am going to have to try hard to avoid causing confusion and you are going to have to pay attention – you at the back there! You know who I mean!

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