In Beethoven’s Shadow

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“The greatest misfortune of the wise man and the greatest unhappiness of the fool are based upon convention”. – Franz Schubert

A few weeks ago my father, my daughter Hannah, and I went to the Boulder Symphony to listen to Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”. Before the performance, Boulder Symphony’s conductor, Devin Patrick Hughes, gave a very interesting lecture on Schubert.

Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” – conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Beethoven’s genius and fame were (unintentionally) very toxic for his contemporaries (like Schubert) and composers who lived long after his death (Brahms and many others). Schubert grew up in Vienna, a few blocks away from Ludwig Van Beethoven and died less than a year after Beethoven. There are conflicting theories about whether Schubert ever met Beethoven. We know that he was a huge fan of Beethoven’s music. He was Beethoven’s pallbearer. He asked to be (and ultimately was) buried next to Beethoven.

Imagine living in Vienna in the early 1800s and trying to compose your own music when you have heard the ingenious 7th symphony composed by a fellow who lives a few blocks down the road. Any sound that comes to your head will seem to pale in comparison, and anything you put on paper will somehow seem insignificant.

Schubert was able to at least partially overcome the toxicity of living in Beethoven’s shadow, as he was one of the most prolific composers of all time, composing till his last breath. But living in Beethoven’s shadow prevented Schubert from publishing a lot of his work, as he felt unworthy of publication.

Tragically, Schubert lived all his life in dire poverty and only became famous after his death. Schubert would have been utterly shocked that, 200 years later, his name would be mentioned in the same breath as Beethoven’s. He would also be surprised that today he is known as one of the great symphonists. Schubert did not hear most of his symphonies performed, as they went unpublished.

Schubert’s 9th symphony was rediscovered by Robert Schumann. Today Robert Schumann is known as a great composer (and as the husband of Clara Schumann – another great composer). However, in his time he was a very well-respected and popular music critic. Schumann visited Schubert’s brother in 1838, ten years after Schubert’s death, and discovered the unpublished manuscript of a symphony. Schumann was shocked at how wonderful the symphony was and brought it to Felix Mendelssohn. Today Mendelssohn, too, is known as a great composer, but at that time he was also a very famous conductor. Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Schubert’s symphony, which today we know as the 9th.

There is an interesting lesson here: The greatness of others can be intimidating, and it could injure our own creativity if we let it. We should allow it to inspire us but not allow it to put us down.

I would be remiss if I did not mention how much we enjoy going to the Boulder Symphony. We live in Denver. The Colorado Symphony would be a much easier and shorter commute. But last year one of my readers introduced me to his father, Tony Santelli, who is on the board of the Boulder Symphony. Tony raved about the symphony, and we had to check it out. Unlike the Colorado Symphony, which employs its performers, the Boulder Symphony is run on pure love (most of its musicians are not paid).

I like the unpretentiousness of this experience. It lacks the fanciness, the black ties and clicking of Champagne glasses of your usual urban symphony. The performances takes place in a Presbyterian church that seats only a few hundred people – a very quaint venue with terrific acoustics. During the intermission you can come up and chat with the performers and even with the very talented conductor.

Obviously, I have no frame of reference, but I would like to imagine that in the time of Schubert and Beethoven, many orchestras resembled the Boulder Symphony – orchestras for commoners where people came not to show off their designer dresses but purely because of their love for music.

I am Jewish and, as was well-demonstrated by Tevye in The Fiddler on the Roof, Jews crave tradition. If you do something twice, it automatically becomes a tradition. The last two times we went to the Boulder Symphony we stopped by Lark Burger before the performance, and after it we walked to downtown Boulder and the kids loaded up on sugar at a candy store. (I bribe my kids with burgers and sweets so they’ll keep coming with me to classical music concerts.)

Finally, I am writing this at midnight, listening to great music and thinking how lucky I am that a few of you will actually read these words. To these few – thank you.

Article Categories:
Franz Schubert
Leonard Bernstein


  • Peter D says:

    Thank You,Vitaliy!
    That’s all I need to say

  • Chuck in Vancouver says:

    I don’t know when this was written as I see no date… Anyways I landed on it while looking for anything connecting Schubert and Beethoven. It’s not too hard to imagine the huge influence and also impediment the elder genius must have been on the younger one. I was thinking about this after listening to a wonderful LP of Schubert’s B flat major piano Sonata played by Artur Rubinstein (at the age of 82!) That piece was composed at the same time as two others about a year before Schubert’s death. I have no doubt the young Franz had the elder Ludwig’s “3 late piano Sonatas” (Opus 109-10-11) in mind during that prolific period of his all too short life. Art is ultimately tragic in that recognition is not an intrinsic part of the creative process. One can only feel grateful that such great geniuses have passed among us and helped elevate our lives above the mundane…

  • A very interesting article. I too have always felt that Schubert lives in Beethoven’s shadow.

  • Malcolm says:

    Vitaliy, thanks for this. I enjoy classical music, but am not very knowledgeable about it. Really enjoyed this piece by Schubert! Thanks for sharing this too!

  • Yvonne Scannell says:

    I am so inspired by your writing. You are so cultured and intellectual and you have really great values. I love how you refer to your children. How lucky they are to be in your family. And Dad’s paintings are fantastic.
    You are right about the USA. As someone said recently, we used to admire it, not we pity it. So tragic.

  • Bernard Newman says:

    `Beethoven more than one composer out of writing symphonies (Brahms for one). Schubert also died very young.

  • zA short note to say thanks for bringing me classical music in an interesting way with snippets of information about the composersa nnd their times. And thanks too for the personalness in your notes … I enjoyed hearing about how you bribe your children into attending concerts. I wish my parents had done so.

  • Paul Nielsen says:

    Mr Katsenelson, very recently stumbled on you thru a Ben Carlson, Wealth of Common Sense podcast comment. I am so happy I did as you have rekindled (62 now) my love for classical music that I spent my childhood growing up with! The technology to access all these wonderful recordings today is absolutely amazing and streaming them on my Sonos a delight. These composers and their music were genius. Imagine living during that time……

  • What’s up, its fastidious post about media print,
    we all be familiar with media is a wonderful source of information.

  • Hormazdiyaar Vakil says:

    Thank you Vitaliy. I began my day listening to this great piece of music. It sure made my day.

  • Classics Buff says:

    Schubert was a Candlebearer, not Pallbearer, at Beethoven’s funeral.

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