A splendid and admirably concise biography of a tragically short-lived genius.
The first biography of Franz Schubert (1797–1828) did not appear until nearly 40 years after his death, `an inconceivable lapse of time for any other leading nineteenth-century composer,` notes critic and academic Gibbs (Music/SUNY Buffalo). In the interim, all kinds of myths arose about Schubert, many persisting to this day—the gist of them being that Schubert, dismissed by the Viennese cultural elite, lived a lonely life of wrenching poverty and died in obscurity. Gibbs, in quiet but elegantly persuasive prose, refutes these notions with convincing evidence to the contrary, consisting largely of contemporary music reviews as well as letters by Schubert's many friends. Most of these friends were well placed in Viennese society and vigorously championed his music, often effectively. Because of their efforts, by the time of Schubert's early demise, he was quite well known and respected in musical circles and was posed for a brilliant career. Gibbs quotes critics of respected musical journals holding up Schubert's late large works (i.e., string quartets and piano sonatas) against those of the recently deceased Beethoven. He also clears up the much discussed mystery of the lost `Gastein` Symphony by arguing that it was never lost at all, but is one and the same as the Ninth (“Great”) Symphony. Gibbs also gives strong evidence that Schubert, irrespective of earlier biographers' accounts, was acutely aware of his gifts and aggressively promoted his own cause until unexpectedly cut down, probably a result of his health being damaged by an earlier bout with syphilis. Gibbs also deals with claims made in the last decade by musicologist Maynard Solomon and others concerning Schubert's homosexuality: he does not deny it but notes that the evidence for the speculation is extremely skimpy. The meager basis of the rumors (gushing pronouncements of love in letters to and from his male friends) is, in Gibbs’s view, simply a misunderstanding of the 19th-century European male's expression of friendship.
This slender volume, crammed with good research, should be the paradigm for the contemporary biography.