Franz Peter Schubert 1797-1828
( Originally Published 1935 )
Symphony in B minor ("Unfinished")
I. Allegro moderato
II. Andante con moto
Schubert composed his "Unfinished" symphony when he was twenty-five, when the tragedy of his short, humble and poverty-stricken life was eating into his soul. There is the story that he composed the two movements in gratitude for having been elected an honorary member of a music society of Linz. Only a little time before he had been hurt and bitterly discomfited by the refusal of the Society of the Friends of Music of Vienna, based on a technicality, to admit him to membership. We know this latter thing to be true, and we know of poor Schubert's gratification when the smaller and less important society accepted him. As for the question of his purpose in composing the fragments of the "Unfinished," the facts, as mod-ern research has proved, disagree with the legend; but the principle involved in the legend holds true as a revelation of Schubert's character. He could have done just that. He could also have written these in-comparable movements for no purpose whatever save relieving his mind of the pressure of inspiration. He could have tucked them in a drawer and forgotten them because of the importunities of new ideas al-ways thronging through the mind of a man whose creative fertility has become proverbial, who thought nothing of composing eight songs in a clay., and whose creative fever burnt him up in his thirty-first year. Also—what remains perfectly possible---there might be in existence, in some hiding-place, the two missing movements of the "Unfinished" symphony. They might still turn up, as new Schubert manuscripts often turn up, for his productivity was incredible.
The story of the discovery of the "Unfinished" symphony, which Schubert never heard, is a curious one. It is told by the conductor Anton Herbeck, the man who took the music from its hiding-place and made it known to the world. Herbeck had been apprised by Josef Hüttenbrenner, an intimate friend of Schubert's youth, years after Schuberc's death, that Josef's brother, Anselm, who fancied himself considerably as a creative musician, possessed many Schubert manuscripts—among them, said Josef, a "B minor symphony, which we put on ,a level with the great symphony in C, his instrumental swan song, and any one of the great symphonies of Beethoven." For some years Herbeck had put this matter aside, but in 1865, thirty-seven years after Schubert had died, Herbeck was in Graz, Styria, on a trip for his health, and he decided, if possible, to secure the symphony. He encountered Anselm, old and infirm, at an inn where the quondam friend of Schubert was in the habit of breakfasting,. The two men spoke together, then repaired to the tumble-down cottage where the toothless Anselm was passing his last days. Herbeck said that he wanted to give a concert consisting of the works of three contemporaries, "Schubert, Hiittenbrenner and Lachner. It would be excellent if Schubert could be represented by a new work." Anselm gave Herbeck the choice of any one of ten overtures which he had composed, and added: "I have still a lot of things by Schubert. Look them over and help yourself." Herbeck, if he felt excitement, concealed it as his eyes fell on the MS. of the B minor symphony. He said, "This would do. Will you let me have it copied?" and Anselm replied, "There's no hurry. Take it with you." And so it was that Schubert's "Unfinished" symphony made its first public appearance on a program between an overture by one Hüttenbrenner and a set of songs, not by Lachner, but by Her-beck, who was apparently willing to figure in such company!
In addition to the two movements which Herbeck had unearthed, there were 130 measures of a third movement, of which nine were orchestrated. The photographic reproductions of Schubert's manuscript display the two movements and the fragment of the third in replica.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that the third part belongs to the others. An examination of the reputed third movement of the B minor symphony up-holds the view of Herbert F. Peyser, who, in an article upon the history of the B minor :symphony, in the "Musical Quarterly" of October, 1928, concludes that the few measures of the third movement do not belong to the completed movements at all; that they are decidedly inferior to the first and second and that the prima facie evidence points to an entirely different origin of the extra measures. Could they not have been found in the same pile of music paper and by mistake included with the other two movements of the symphony? Whatever the explanation, the two movements that exist are among the highest creative flights Schubert ever took, and are the most concise and concentrated in their workmanship of all his symphonic writings. They show what might have happened if Schubert could have lived the allotted span of mortal years and received a tithe of the attention and encouragement given to his contemporary Beethoven.
It was given to Schubert to answer human experience with music of a beauty that gives us ineffable consolation and surcease from pain. The somber and purely Schubertian phrase for the 'cellos and basses which makes the introduction is a confounding stroke of genius, establishing, in ten measures, mood and a thematic corner-stone of the movement. Then we hear the murmuring accompaniment of the strings that reminded Schubert's admirable biographer, Edmonstoune Duncan, of the sea. Over the tossing figure the oboe sings its haunting complaint. The same astonishing conciseness noted in the introduction is observed by the preparation for the second theme with a few chords of the strings and the sustained tone of the horn. Everything in the symphony is the essence of Schubert, and the second theme for the 'cellos is one of his sheer inspirations. Passages of its development are wildly dramatic and at the end the phrase of the introduction returns with a stripped tragic power worthy of Beethoven.
How divinely far from the world of men is Schubert's slow movement with its strange peace, its rapt meditation and compassion, its prescience of another sphere!
It would be a pleasure, and useful as a background for this symphony, to say much of Schubert himself, his simplicity, his loving-kindness, his essential solitude, in the midst of unceremonious friends and boon companions that he loved; his pathetic need; his bit-ter griefs, of which he complained only in terms of song; the singular purity of his soul. Also his pranks and impromptu performances as pianist, when he would improvise waltzes and country-dances for good company at an inn in the mountains; his good-natured fury because he could not play the difficult finale of his own "Wanderer" fantasy; the dismal lodgings with the poet Mayrhofer; the days when Schubert wore his spectacles to bed in order that he might be ready to go on with his compoosing the instant he awakened; the clothes he shared in common with companions as poverty-stricken as himself; his happy escapes from the society of aristocrats to that of peasants and housemaids; his performances of his song "The Erl-king" on a hair-comb. There never was so lovable and improvident a man., unless it was Mozart, and even Mozart knew more of the world and the ways of great society. Schubert, after the funeral of Beethoven, whom he adored, drank a toast to the one of his group who should be the next to go. That one was Schubert himself, and a few days before his death a friend rushed out and sold a number of his greatest songs for a few cents apiece. Schubert once said, "My music is the product of my genius and my misery, and that which I have written in my greatest distress is that which seems best to the world." But the epitaph, more poignant than any other could possibly be, of this life cut short, is the 'Unfinished" symphony.
Symphony No. 7 in C major
I. Andante; Allegro ma non tropo
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace; Trio
IV. Finale: Allegro vivace
The "Unfinished" and C major symphonies are the ones of the ten that Schubert composed which survive him. The other symphonies, in greater or lesser degree, are formative. These two are without a parallel in symphonic literature. In a way they supplement each other. The one is a song of which humanity can know the beginning, but never the end; the other is one of the most sublime outpourings of joy in the literature of music.
The great Schubert C major symphony lasts for nearly an hour of wonderful sound. The composer's inspiration does not flag for a moment. The solo horn that opens the work sings its way straight into the blue. This melody, characterized at first by an Olympic serenity, winds through different registers and choirs of the orchestra. As the mood becomes more exultant, counter-figures are wreathed about it. It is flung out mightily by instruments in unison. Calls from afar echo thunderously down corridors of space and time.
The tempo quickens, to usher in the main body of the movement, which, above all, and like the rest of the symphony, is a play of rhythms. For this is the symphony which, more than any other, merits the title Wagner gave Beethoven's Seventh—"The Apotheosis of the Dance." .
The opening theme combines within itself two rhythms, a decisive beat in "two" time, and a triplet.
I figure that leaves the earth with a rapturous flutter of wings. The two rhythms sound sometimes in succession and sometimes simultaneously; until preparation is made for the second theme. This is a dance measure, the melody given wind instruments, with whirling accompaniment figures for. till: strings—an orchestral device often found in this symphony. And thereafter songs pour from the instrurments in such profusion that there is scarcely time for the development of one idea before another crowds swiftly upon it. The movement ends with the orchestra intoning in great unison the theme of the introduction
In the slow movement there is the tinge of Hungarian melancholy which affected every great composer who lived in Vienna, saving only the deaf Beethoven, who could not hear the gypsies. The oboe, after some introductory passages by plucked strings, intones a melody in the minor key which oboes and clarinets repeat in thirds. The strings respond with a more flowing phrase. Full chords of the orchestra, in march rhythm, are echoed by the woodwinds. A new and dreaming phrase for the strings is heard, followed by the horn, of which Schumann spoke .when he said, probably referring to this place, that it "seems to come from another sphere, while everything listens, as though some heavenly messenger were hovering around the orchestra." When the march is resumed the motion is augmented by extra rhythmical figures played by trumpets, horns and other accompanying instruments. And now comes the one place in the symphony where tragedy lifts its head and utters a sharp cry of pain. It is a passage of drama, a cry of agony, suddenly broken off, and followed by a pause of silence. Then the solo cello is heard, an answer of infinite tenderness. The music modulates into the major tonality. In due course the minor key re-turns and the march theme files off in the distance.
The scherzo, grandly designed like all the rest of the symphony, begins with a vigorous peasant step, and exuberant gayety. The contrasting middle part, the trio, is a melody which epitomizes all that is poetical, sentimental, nostalgic, in the nature of the Viennese, of whom Schubert was one. The starry evening! The swaying dance! Or, let us say, the purpling hills and the wistful thoughts of the little man who, so far as we know, never experienced woman's love, though he dreamed and sang of it in unforgettable strains.
What could be done after all this? What only Schubert could do! His finale is Dionysiac. The orchestra is possessed of an intoxication only matched by the potency of the ideas. It is a vertiginous whirl of inspiration—the dance-apotheosis. Toward the end four great C's, an intensive rhythmical development ,of the accompaniment figure of the second theme, earlier announced, are sounded in earth-shaking unison by massed instruments, as if winged Pegasus, poised for his flight, stamped the world in his impatience and joy. Shouts of the entire orchestra answer him; the symphony sweeps tumultuously to its close. It is all prodigious past the telling.
No more than the "Unfinished" was Schubert to hear this last of his symphonies. He is said to have intended it for the Musikverein of Vienna, which found the composition too difficult to play. It was per-formed by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, December 14, 1828, a few weeks after Schubert's death. It was repeated by the same body a year later, and then lay forgotten until Schumann visited Schubert's brother Ferdinand in 1838 and sent a copy of the symphony to Mendelssohn in Leipsic. He, making some cuts in it, gave it repeated and successful interpretations.
This music is so simple and so frank that at first you may take it for granted. The better you know it, the more impressive it becomes. Though it follows generally classical precedent, it is not work of the Beethoven tradition. That was left for Brahms to carry on. Because of its completeness as well as its prodigious inspiration this symphony of Schubert's is perhaps the only work of sufficient greatness before Brahms to take a commanding position in the wake of the immortal Nine.