The son of a schoolteacher, Schubert demonstrated special musical gifts from a young age. Even as a student, he produced a steady stream of musical works, taking the best-known pieces of Haydn, Mozart (and later, Beethoven) as his models. Schubert was a voracious reader, and devoured volume upon volume of lyric poetry by Goethe and other German writers. His first masterpiece, written when he was sixteen, is the song Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) . In this song, Schubert created a powerful dramatic scene in miniature.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Schubert was not a virtuoso performer, though from his piano writing one must assume that he was a very fine player. This denied him from the kind of public exposure that had helped the early careers of Mozart and Beethoven. Although he was surrounded with a group of devoted friends and supporters, his lack of recognition was frustrating. He never had much money and lived hand-to-mouth. Despite the hardships he endured, he was exceptionally prolific.
Schubert worshipped Beethoven and was especially awed by the master's late works. Schubert's mature symphonic and chamber works clearly reflect this crucial influence. Schubert had his own, very personal style, however. Where Beethoven created works by using very simple, sometimes blunt musical ideas and developing them into something colossal and extremely concentrated, Schubert's works unfold through a series of extended melodies--like the telling of a story.
Schubert's greatest contribution is arguably his huge output of songs. He expanded the expressive possibilities of this form in unimagined ways. A work such as the great song-cycle Winterreise (A Winter's Journey) , a unified set of twenty-four songs, is a dark psychological portrait of an outsider's rage against society--accomplished with only a voice and piano.
Schubert contracted syphilis sometime in his twenties and was ravaged by its symptoms in his last years. He died at the age of thirty-one (even younger than Mozart), before his genius had even been recognized.