SCHUBERT AND HIS VIENNA. By Charles Osborne. Knopf. 209 pp. $18.95.

DO WE understand an artist differently when we view him not simply within an ongoing artistic tradition -- say, the history of music or the history of painting -- but as an actor within a particular urban culture? Is, for example, our picture of Schubert altered when we see him less as the heir to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven than as an eminent Viennese of the Biedermeier era, a contemporary of the dramatists Franz Grillparzer and Johann Nestroy, and an intimate of the painter Moritz von Schwind?

In his influential Fin-de-Si Vienna, Carl Schorske explored the possibilities of this geographical perspective on cultural history. Schorske's book shed new light on such diverse figures as Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, and Arnold Schoenberg by demonstrating how their work reflected the exigencies of Viennese social and political life at the end of the 19th century. Now Charles Osborne, who has already written studies of Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini, takes up the geographical perspective on Schubert. But his heart, one senses, isn't really in it, and the results are disappointingly mechanical.

The Viennese elements of this biography are confined to three chapters, which together occupy only 23 pages. The first is an entirely gratuitous series of anecdotes about the Congress of Vienna (which took place when Schubert was a teenager). The second is a kind of Who's Who of the Biedermeier era (the years, roughly, from 1820 to 1848), and the third makes a fleeting attempt at defining the period's ethos. Osborne asserts that Schubert shared the attitudes and feelings of his contemporaries, but in truth his account points to exactly the oppposite conclusion: Schubert's greatness derived not from his Biedermeier Gemutlichkeit -- "savouring the sweetness of life and watching the passing show" -- but from his ability to transcend the facile epicureanism and overwrought cosiness of his fellow Viennese. The works that earn Schubert a secure place among the great composers -- works like the Winterreise song cycle and the B flat piano sonata -- seem utterly indifferent to the treacly bonhomie of alt Wien.

Since the book fails to take its nominal subject seriously, Schubert and His Vienna must rise or fall, like any popular musical biography, on its ability to recount the life and illuminate the art. It is more successful at the former than the latter. About a quarter of the text consists of quotations from letters and diaries, both Schubert's own and those of his friends. The early letters, mostly to members of his family, are singularly uninteresting. But when, during his twenties, Schubert began writing to the young men of his acquaintance, we get telling glimpses of his artistic opinions and emotional troubles.

The most intriguing biographical suggestion -- and the only point at which Osborne deviates from his predecessors -- is the faint insinuation that Schubert may have been homosexual. Osborne's remarks are cautiously allusive, but the hint is nonetheless firmly planted. Schubert seems to have had only one serious (and unfulfilled) relationship with a woman, after which he cultivated intense male friendships, the most passionate of them with Moritz von Schwind. Schwind, whose "youthful, almost effeminate good looks" led Schubert to refer to him as his "Beloved," apparently suffered a bout of jealousy when Schubert took up with another young man in 1825. It is all the more ironic that Schubert should have died, at 31, of complications arising from a venereal infection, probably contracted from a prostitute. Osborne's account of the progress of the disease, and of the fear and depressionthat came in its wake, is the most effective part of the biography.

THE DISCUSSION of Schubert's music is enthusiastic but unrevealing. It consists mostly of a parade of adjectives, far too many of which, I'm afraid, turn out to be "delightful." The compositions are taken up seriatim, the more important works being disposed of with a phrase or two. As one charming work succeeds another, an atmosphere of bland geniality sets in, and the reader's interest begins to flag. Osborne doesn't manage to suggest the magical combination of sunniness and despair that gives Schubert his unique musical personality. The quality is closely related to his distinctive harmonic manner, above all his ability to move from major to minor (and back again) with breathtaking suddenness, as if the emotional distance between joy and despondency had somehow been collapsed.

Osborne's failure to exploit the promise of his geographical tactic should not discourage others from pursuing it. There is an important argument to be made that would link the essential intimacy of Schubert's art with the apolitical climate of Vienna (and of Europe as a whole) in the post-Napoleonic era. Osborne hints at this possibility. He sees that the Viennese artists of Schubert's day had turned away from the great ideological enthusiasm of the previous generation toward the cultivation of domestic virtues and sociability. Biedermeier is the label we use to denote the more superficial aspects of this cultural shift. But the liberation of art from politics also opened up the prospect of a new and rich subjectivity, of which Schubert's songs and chamber works are the most glorious product. To move from the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis to Die schoene Mullerin and Winterreise is to cross one of the great cultural divides in our history, and although Schubert was indisputably a genius he did not make the journey alone. We will have a better understanding of the qualities that lifted him above his age to the company of the immortals when we can also see him as a product of that age, sharing the anxieties and enthusiasms of his contemporaries, while, of course, also transcending them.