Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony: Part 3

Continued from an earlier post, a series that begins here, this is part of an "Up Close and Personal" post about Schubert's final symphony which the Harrisburg Symphony is performing this weekend. The concert - which celebrates the 10th Anniversary Season with conductor Stuart Malina - also features the Piano Concerto No. 1 of Felix Mendelssohn with Maestro Malina as both soloist and conductor, as well as a jaunty Divertissement by Jacques Ibert.

The performances are Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. The orchestra's executive director Jeff Woodruff will be offering the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

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Just after his 20th birthday, Franz Schubert moved out of the family home and away from the school-teaching he hated so much. He moved in with a poet-friend, Franz Schober, a well-to-do middle-class fellow with no particular talent for much of anything. He now moved within a circle of artists, real or imagined: in a later age, they might be called “bohemians.” They were certainly not so far afield from society to be the equivalents of beatniks and hippies but in 1820s Vienna, any discrepancy from normal was considered shocking.

Since the threat of Napoleon had finally disappeared after a generation's worth of almost constant warfare, the Austrian government with its network of spies and secret police apparently needed something to do. While it was an age of comfort, now, after years of political and economic uncertainty, the government found in young people a potential threat, especially those who met in secret societies to discuss politics and who wrote poetry about immoral things like unrequited love and young lovers committing suicide over a broken heart. Schubert's reading circle (or book club) met to discuss the latest literature and to share their own poems with each other – Schubert, being a musician, shared the songs he wrote with them, instead – and then go out and get plastered at the local tavern. Soon they became the object of police scrutiny. At one time, a few of the members were detained by police and questioned, even Schubert himself, once. The group decided to disband even though they would never have thought of themselves as a threat to the stability of the Austrian Empire!

There was also very likely drugs involved – probably opium. In 1822, there's an indication that Franz Schober, a worldly, much traveled man, preferred “the Turkish pipe” to the “more easily obtained liquid laudanum.” Opium was easily available in Vienna through the flourishing coffee trade with Turkey. Friends indicated the pipe was in evidence at meetings where Schubert was mentioned as attending: whether he inhaled or not, no one says, specifically.

In 1822, he began another symphony. This one was in B Minor. And it is a world apart from anything he had composed before. Was his new-found independence, his Bohemian friends and their anti-social lifestyle enough to unlock a new creative world?

But there was something else new in his life this year. We don't know exactly when he began composing the B Minor Symphony, the one officially known as “The Unfinished,” but we know he started the full score on October 30th, 1822. It was around that time that he became aware of the first symptoms of a disease that no one talked about, the scourge of the lower classes (easier to hush up among the wealthy) and of the immoral. It carried such a social stigma with it, people found other ways to describe its course, leading to deafness, insanity and a miserable death. Syphilis.

Shortly after Schubert recuperated from his first bout with the disease, he took a line from a song, “Der Wanderer,” music set to the lines about the Wanderer's description of the sun as cold, blossoms withered, life old and he himself a stranger everywhere. He used this not-very-melodic fragment as the basis for the 2nd Movement of a four-movement virtuosic piano piece (intended for no one in particular to perform: technically, it was beyond Schubert's own pianistic abilities) which became known as “The Wanderer Fantasy.”

Around this time, he had completed scoring two movements of the B Minor Symphony. He began sketching the third movement but stopped after writing nine measures, though sketches exist for the start of the next phrase. These first two movements are incredibly dark and intense, like nothing Schubert had composed before; this third movement reverted to the relaxed, dance-like style not very different from his earlier symphonies. Perhaps he felt it was too modest an idea to follow those first two movements.

And so he put it aside. Later, he would give the score to friends of his who lived in Graz - the brothers Anselm and Josef Hüttenbrenner (see right, a watercolor with Anselm in the center and Schubert on the right) - but they didn't know what to do with it. He had wanted them to present it to the Graz musical society but they felt embarrassed by the fact... well, it's not finished... So it lay hidden in a pile of papers in their closet until they showed it to a conductor friend 43 years after Schubert had put it aside. Johann Herbeck tried to act perfectly calmly and not start salivating when they showed it to him: a previously unknown work by a composer now being regarded as a master, what a find! It was given its first performance in 1865, 37 years after Schubert's death. The Brothers Hüttenbrenner had no idea what they'd been sitting on: Schubert, famous? But he was our old friend and... well, anyway, the mystery as to why The Unfinished Symphony was left Unfinished began and has never really been answered.

Given the fact there are several other unfinished symphonies – and quartets and operas and masses and piano sonatas and songs – it doesn't seem that unusual for Schubert, for whatever reason. No chance to get it performed? Not sure it was going in the right direction? With two movements like that, you would think he would go back and try to find a third and fourth movement that would match it. But he didn't. Could he not understand what he had composed in those two movements?

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Which brings me to his “other” symphony, the “Great C Major.”

When I was still a student back in the 1970s, it was generally considered Schubert's Great C Major, his last symphony, was composed during the last year of his life. It would seem that everything he had written since he abandoned the B Minor Symphony led up to its culminating position in Schubert's output. He wrote several large-scale works during the last months of his life: the Deutsch Catalogue I mentioned (my copy was from the 1951 edition, republished by Dover in 1995) even lists the Symphony in C Major, D.944, as having been begun in March, 1828. During the late summer, he wrote the String Quintet in C Major (one of his most sublime works) and then through August and October, the 14 songs that were later grouped together as “Schwanengesang” or Swan Song. In September, he wrote the last three piano sonatas (D.958 in C Minor, D.959 in A Major and D.960 in B-flat Major), each one a vastly-scaled masterpiece, finishing the B-flat Sonata on September 26th. There were four short church pieces in October along with the sketches for another symphony which, however, doesn't figure in Deutsch's catalogue because the manuscript was discovered only more recently. It's in D Major and in three movements, but enough of it to be complete in form if not in detail to indicate its scope. There is not enough of it extant to indicate whether it would have been a “Greater” Symphony, but it might explain why scholars believed the Great C Major was the symphony Schubert was working on a month before he died.

After completing the song (with clarinet and piano), “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (Shepherd on the Rock) in late October, he had an attack on October 31st which is considered the start of his final illness. He died on November 19th at 3pm, two months short of his 32nd birthday. If Beethoven had died that young, there would only be one Beethoven symphony to marvel at today, not nine.

Now that we have the manuscript of that other unfinished symphony from his final year, what about the Great C Major?

Another thing I remember from my music history classes in college was that there was another symphony by Schubert that as late as 1971 was still lost. Everybody called it “The Gastein Symphony” because he was supposed to have written it while traveling through Gmunden and Gastein during a summer holiday in Upper Austria. The vacation's goal had been Salzburg but in all he spent seven weeks in Gmunden and another three in Gastein between June and September.

The mythology concerning this symphony, no doubt a masterpiece, coming as it did between the B Minor and the Great C Major, had publishers leave a space for it in Schubert's catalogue, once his music was finally becoming published (mostly through the behind-the-scenes efforts of Johannes Brahms). The “Little” C Major Symphony was No. 6, the Unfinished B Minor was No. 8 and, considering there were other unfinished symphonies lying around, the Great C Major has at times been called No. 9 or No. 10. But there was no Symphony No. 7 – at least, not yet.

In fact, the belief in this missing Symphony No. 7 ("the Gastein Symphony") led no less than Joseph Joachim to orchestrate the Grand Duo in C Major for Piano Four-Hands (D.812) in 1855, a very orchestrally-conceived work which Schubert composed in 1824, the summer after he'd written the D Minor String Quartet (the "Death and the Maiden"). Many musicians were convinced that this piano duet was really the sketch of a lost symphony in disguise. It is, certainly, an expansive work (see the letter quoted below about the string quartets of 1824).

Then one very important detail surfaced in the last 25 years of the 20th Century. Somewhere between November 28th and December 31st, 1825, Franz Schubert apparently presented the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde – the Society of the Friends of Music, the most important musical organization in Vienna – with a score of a symphony. In fact, of a symphony in C Major.

Since he was still working on it when he wrote to them about it, offering them the score, it could not have been the Symphony No. 6 in C Major which had already been performed by Schubert's amateur “reading orchestra” in the home of Otto Hatwig in the fall of 1818.

Then, checking the records of the society, two other facts came out: one was that the score had been sent out to have the parts copied for an impending performance. This was not done in a most timely fashion, as it happened, since the rehearsal wasn't scheduled until sometime in early 1827. The society's orchestra read through the piece, found it too long and too difficult to play, so it was put aside.

We already knew that, when Schubert died the following year, the Society announced they were going to play his last symphony – the one that most people agreed he was working on when he died. But now it seems it had been written before 1828 and they'd decided not to play it in 1827.

So perhaps someone in the Society was feeling guilty about this earlier rejection of the work and decided to program it again, this time for a concert on December 14th, 1828, not quite a month after the composer's death. Unfortunately, the same problems remained: too long, too difficult to play. So instead they played the earlier C Major Symphony at one of its Sunday afternoon concerts. It was, after all, the last symphony Schubert had completed – except for the Great C Major which was just, well... too long and too difficult to play. So the score and parts were shelved.

Another item often overlooked or unnoticed was this: Schubert had been elected to the Gesellschaft der Musikfruende when he was 25 years old, the year he composed the B Minor Symphony. He had made some friends who were well placed in musical circles in Vienna and he had gained a promising reputation as a composer of songs though his symphonies were unknown. He had been sponsored as a deputy of the society's inner circle (not quite a board member but more than just being a member of the club) so when, in 1825, his finances, never in good shape, were a mess, some of these friends who were Directors of the Society decided to grant him an award of 100 florins. I'm not sure how much that might be, compared to today's economy, but it was a tidy enough sum to help tide him over until he could get things straightened out.

Unfortunately, the Director's meeting to discuss this grant coincided with Schubert's letter about giving them the score of his new symphony. This would then make the grant look like payment for the score which they could not do – deputies could make gifts of their music for the possibility of performances without being paid for them: it would have set a bad financial precedent for the Society. So it was agreed the money would be paid out of the “expense account” instead and handed over as quickly as possible before Schubert would give them the new score. It was decided that if the funds were not available in the account immediately, the Secretary (the uncle of a close friend and fan of Schubert's) would provide the money on a temporary basis. Three days later, the money was given to Schubert with a letter stating their appreciation for his “excellence as a composer.”

All of this points to a large scale new work, not an already existing one. When would he have written such a grand-scale symphony as the one we call “The Great”?

Well, there's the old legend of the “Gastein Symphony,” written on that idyllic holiday during the summer of 1825.

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With his singer-champion-friend, Michael Vogl (seen on the left in this caricature with Schubert drawn by one of his friends), who performed Schubert's songs frequently in Vienna, the composer took off in May 1825 on an extended vacation, one of those “walking tours” that took them from the Imperial Capital ultimately to the city of Mozart's birth, Salzburg. Whether walking or going by carriage, they would stop at places along the way. The first two weeks were spent in Steyr and Linz where both had many friends. There was a side-trip to visit the great church at St. Florian's, which would figure so prominently in the future career of Anton Bruckner who had just been born nearby about eight months earlier. Then they spent six weeks in June and July in Gmunden which Schubert described as a beautiful town on a beautiful lake near some not so beautiful salt mines. Then they went back to Linz and Steyr for another 2 weeks or so. From there, they went to Salzburg where they spent about 3½ weeks, most of it, actually, in the rural suburb of Gastein. Then it was back to Gmunden for another week before they returned to Steyr and Linz, spending about 3 weeks before going home to Vienna.

There was much music-making on this holiday, with or without Vogl who often took side-trips elsewhere to visit friends, leaving Schubert alone for some long stretches so he could concentrate on some composing. He had begun – and left unfinished – an expansive Piano Sonata in C Major: Robert Schumann later owned the manuscript but the incomplete third and fourth movements were later separated from it, giving the sonata the odd nickname “Reliquie” or Reliquary. But the next month, he wrote – and finished – another piano sonata, this one in A Minor which was published the following year as the 1st Grand Sonata which he dedicated to the Archduke Rudolf, the same archduke by the way who figured so prominently in Beethoven's story: the one who had become the Archbishop of Olomouc in 1819 and a cardinal the following year, the occasion for which Beethoven composed his Missa Solemnis which wasn't ready until its premiere in 1824.

In August, probably while staying in Gastein, Schubert composed another large-scale piano sonata which would be published as his “2nd Grande Sonata.” It was while working on this piece that he was trying to continue sketching a new symphony, one he'd been forced to set aside a month earlier when they'd left Gmunden. While no letter survives that specifically mentions “I am working on a new symphony” much less “one in C Major (and boy, it'll be great!),” he apparently did tell some of his friends about it. One of his closest friends back in Vienna wrote to him that they were all quite hopeful about his new symphony: in fact, the father of a friend of theirs was going to sponsor a celebratory concert, “the best opportunity so far of having it performed.” Friends he'd stayed with in Linz later told their friends that Schubert had been working on a new symphony while staying with them and that “it should be ready this winter in Vienna.”

Ironically, another guest in Gastein that same time was Constanze von Nissen, better known as “Mozart's Widow.” Did they ever meet? Or at least did Schubert see from a distance the woman who'd been such a major part of his Divine Mozart's life? There is no record of such an encounter.

But most of what he composed during this holiday were songs – including one well-known one, “Ellen's 3rd Song” from Sir Walter Scott's “The Lady of the Lake.” We know it better as the “Ave Maria.”

At any rate, that October, Vogl and Schubert returned to Vienna. Schubert must have finished his new symphony and was working on the score that winter when he offered it to the Gesellschaft der Musikfruende for possible performance that season. But instead, it was rejected and set aside.

That Schubert never mentioned the work again is probably typical of his insecurity and feeling that, well, he had plenty of time to write more, where that came from. How else can you explain anyone writing a piece like that and just saying “Oh, okay,” and essentially throwing it away?! Perhaps it explains why he didn't go on to write any more symphonies, either, at least until that final summer almost three years later? Instead, he wrote his G Major String Quartet (D.887) – another long-spinning, far-reaching, grandly expansive work – in a span of 10 days, followed a few months later by an equally expansive Piano Sonata, also in G Major (D.894) which was eventually published as the “4th Grande Sonata” (I'm not sure what happened to the 3rd one...). These would eventually be followed by the String Quintet and the last three piano sonatas, all written in the last few months of his life, each a work of heavenly expanse even if his life was left inexplicably unfinished.

Earlier, by March of 1824, Schubert  had finished two string quartets: the one in A Minor (D.804, known as “The Rosamunde”) and the other in D Minor (D.810, known as “The Death and the Maiden”) - you can read more about them in my post over at the Market Square Concerts blog for a recent performance by Brooklyn Rider. The third, the G Major, didn't materialize until a particularly indolent and rather miserably rainy summer almost two years later.

In a famous letter dated March 31st, 1824, after going on about how miserable his health had been recently (following a recurrence of the symptoms of syphilis) and how depressed he was to still be living under the circumstances, Schubert went on quite positively that “I have tried my hand at several instrumental works... two Quartets... an Octet, and I want to write another Quartet; in fact that is how I want to work my way towards composing a grand symphony.” Hardly the thoughts of someone feeling he was near death...

So, during the summer of 1825, then, he had finally managed to start – and eventually finish – a grand symphony. Given the other facts that have since fallen in line, that symphony could only have been the C Major Symphony, “ein grosse Symphonie.” Great, indeed.

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Oh, and to add to the mystery and confusion, now people want to renumber the symphonies, since the "Gastein Symphony" (the lost 7th Symphony) and the Great C Major are one and the same. So you might run across the Symphony No. 7 in B Minor ("Unfinished") and the Symphony No. 8 in C Major ("Great"). Well, that's just great...

Incidentally, Brian Newbould has realized (as much as one can) the other unfinished symphonies of Schubert which Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields had recorded for Philips: you can't call it the "Complete Symphonies" of Franz Schubert since at least four of them are incomplete and "The Complete Unfinished Symphonies" sounds a bit odd, too. Whether or not art imitates life, nobody ever said life was easy.

- Dr. Dick

Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony: Part 2

Continued from an earlier post which included video clips of a performance of the complete symphony with Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1973.

Schubert's final symphony is on the program this weekend with the Harrisburg Symphony as Stuart Malina celebrates his 10th season with the orchestra, including a performance of Mendelssohn's 1st Piano Concerto which he will be in the dual role of soloist and conductor. Performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum.

This post continues getting "behind the scenes" with Schubert's symphony and its place not only in the composer's life but in the history of his time.

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Looking back at the history of the symphony as a form, by the early 1800s – Beethoven wrote his 9 symphonies between 1800 and 1825 and Schubert died in 1828 – the typical symphony was still primarily just another work on the concert program that included overtures and concertos mixed in with operatic excerpts and chamber music. The orchestra consisted of strings, pairs of woodwinds, horns and trumpets plus timpani and a piano in the orchestra that took the part of the usual harpsichord left over from the Baroque (early-18th Century) days which was still playing “continuo” parts (filling in the harmony), remaining as an excuse for the conductor (such as he was) to have a place to sit. As the harpsichordist/conductor became less necessary, the first violinist (concertmaster) took over the role of setting the tempo and getting things started. For this reason, the concertmaster is still referred to as “the Leader” in British orchestras.

Earlier symphonies had grown out of the opera overture which in Italian was called “sinfonia” (many of which were in a traditional 3-part fast-slow-fast structure). Their purpose in the concert hall was to act as a kind of overture to usher the audience into the concert program. Since there were no lights to dim at the start of the concert, the audience would be alerted to the fact the music had started by playing the music – one reason many of these symphonies then had “slow introductions” so that people could get themselves settled by the time main part of the 1st movement started (comparable, I guess, to pop radio DJs talking over the intros to songs, something called "hitting the post" by the time the singer entered).

With Haydn and Mozart, the form became more expanded not just by the addition of a fourth movement (actually, by inserting the third movement: a dance, usually a minuet). They became more “commanding” and it was especially someone of Haydn's celebrity that helped create the “celebrated symphony” that became, in a sense, the major work on the program – or at least the major reason to have a symphony on the program.

Even though Beethoven's music later became the foundation of the symphonic repertoire, during his own lifetime symphonies by Adalbert Gyrowetz, Andreas Romberg and Peter Winter were played more frequently in Vienna than Beethoven's. Despite the existence of the “Eroica” Symphony in 1803, it really wasn't until 1813 that people were becoming aware of something new in the air – what we would later call “The Romantic Era.” Up until this time, Beethoven was then considered the culmination of the Classical Era, having expanded the symphony from Haydn's model, emphasizing the slow introduction and creating more intensity and overall scope as the movement developed. In fact, “development” is the primary way Beethoven expanded the symphony beyond the length of the form he'd inherited: by using themes that were built on motivic gestures like the famous four-note motive that opens his 5th Symphony, Beethoven could build up a thematic idea, then break it down into its components to put it through dramatic paces with more harmonic variety and modulations through various keys that would make it sound (in comparison to the traditional, old-fashioned symphony's tonal vocabulary) quite dizzying from the usual expectations. The symphony had, in effect, taken a more dramatic, dynamic and overall grander role in the program.

Schubert, who grew up in Vienna during this time, wrote his first symphonies when he was a teen-ager. He was 16 when his Symphony No. 1 in D was first performed by a student orchestra on October 28th, 1813, a few months before Beethoven's 7th Symphony was given its world premiere in Vienna.

Because Schubert's teacher was Antonio Salieri, one of the grand old musicians from the late-18th Century system of court composers and by nature already conservative in the 1780s when confronted with someone like Mozart, it's not surprising to find Schubert regarding Beethoven's new symphony much the same way traditional-minded music lovers of the 20th Century who loved a good tune had regarded Schoenberg.

In his diary in 1816, Schubert wrote this entry after a dinner and private concert celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Salieri's arrival in Vienna:

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“It must be fine and enlivening for an artist to see all his pupils gathered around him, each one striving to give of his best for his master's jubilee, and to hear in all these compositions the expression of pure nature, free from all the eccentricity that is common among most composers nowadays, and is due almost wholly to one our greatest German artists [Beethoven]; that eccentricity which combines and confuses the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, heroism with howlings and that which is most holy with harlequinades, without distinction, so as to goad people to madness instead of soothing them with love, to incite in them laughter instead of lifting them up to God. To see such eccentricity banished from the circle of his pupils and instead to look upon pure, holy nature, must be the greatest pleasure for an artist [Salieri] who, guided by such a one as Gluck, learned to know nature and to uphold it in spite of the most unnatural conditions of our age.”
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We tend to forget that even a work as revered today as Beethoven's 7th was once “contemporary music.”

Schubert's idol – as indicated in an earlier entry – was Mozart, “O Divine Mozart.” But like many youthful attitudes, this view of Beethoven would eventually change. Or at least, led by new ideas he would now absorb from Beethoven as he continued to expand his musical language, Schubert would find himself moving along the same path toward a similar goal. Curiously, many of Beethoven's works we'd think influenced Schubert were being written at the same time Schubert was composing them: perhaps it was something in the air?

If you are familiar with Schubert's symphonies, you may wonder (as I always have) at the difference between his B Minor Symphony, the “Unfinished,” and the ones he'd written before it. More people are concerned about why it was left incomplete, but I think more fascinating (and impossible to answer) is, “where did this new, mature style come from?”

Keep in mind, out of all the symphonies Schubert wrote, there are really only two in the standard repertoire, two recognized masterpieces: the “Unfinished” and the “Great.”

His 5th Symphony, a very classical and polite symphony (like Haydn, it called for only one flute and didn't even include trumpets and drums) did everything a teacher like Salieri could wish for. It was composed in 1816, the year Schubert wrote that diary-entry about Beethoven's eccentricities. That would make sense, then, the music that resulted from the student's aesthetic.

But the next year, he began work on a symphony in C Major that would be his first conscious attempt at expanding his symphonic language – in fact, he was beginning to make a conscious effort to expand his musical language in general, now that he was no longer studying under Salieri's however lax supervision. This Symphony No. 6, the “grand symphony” that would become known as “The Little C Major,” was completed in February of 1818, shortly after his 21st birthday. The manuscript calls it “ein grosse Symphonie,” a “large symphony” where grosse can also be translated as Grand or... well... Great.

In May that same year, he began a symphony in D Major. According to Otto Deutsch's catalogue of Schubert's works (the D. you see following Schubert's work refers to the Deutsch Catalogue: the Symphony No. 6 in C Major, D.589, means it was 589th work Schubert began), there are sketches for seven movements – seven?? – written down in what would be called “piano score,” everything reduced to two staves playable at a piano. He never finished even one of the movements.

In 1820, there's another famous unfinished work, a new string quartet in C Minor, D.703. The first movement is complete, but the 2nd movement breaks off after 41 measures, though it is never called “The Unfinished Quartet.” It's known as the “Quartetsatz” or “Quartet Movement.” But very clearly, there is something very new and different in his style, here.

The following year, there was an attempt at starting another, clearly large-scale symphony, this one in E Major begun in August, 1821. Basically, the whole length of the symphony is there, but only in bits, none of them completely filled in: some are in full score, others sketched in piano score with only outlines of the melody and bass parts (no inner harmony). Why did he stop?

When we hear many of Schubert's youthful instrumental works and the various masses and operas, they usually sound “derivative,” copied (at least stylistically) from the vast amount of music that was prevalent in his day, though much of it now forgotten. It is when we hear his songs that we're often astounded to consider he wrote so many mature-sounding ones when he was quite young – in fact, the same years he was turning out these derivative-sounding instrumental works and operas. How could a song like “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (written when he was 17) and “The Erl-King” (written when he was 18) sound so much more mature than a symphony he wrote when he was 21?

Part of it could be he was trying to get accepted by the music-loving public with such “public works” as symphonies and operas (he wanted more than anything, throughout his life, to succeed on the opera stage because that was where the money was). His songs were written for a smaller, private audience, and perhaps he didn't care about conventions and pleasing a larger, less aesthetically-inclined audience?

Only partly possible, because many of the many string quartets he composed at the same time were no more far-reaching than the public-oriented pieces. Yes, but then these string quartets were mostly written for amateurs, specifically the Schubert Family Quartet with his brother Ferdinand playing 1st Violin, another brother playing 2nd, the composer himself playing viola and their school-teacher father playing the cello. You could hardly write demanding and far-reaching new music for amateurs, especially when your function was to produce something to entertain your family and friends until someone came along and invented the television set.

Perhaps the reason is that there were acceptable models for his instrumental works and especially for the church music he composed. In the opera house, he could hardly be as bold as someone like Carl Maria von Weber was because so far, who knew who Franz Schubert was to risk staging one of his works? So he tried to compose within acceptable norms. Unfortunately, for all the magic he could create in a single short song, he seemed to lack any dramatic sense over an extended time-frame. He wanted nothing more than to be recognized as a composer of operas and yet he seemed to have no real talent for it.

But when it came to the German Song (or Lied), there really were no models, at least from any 19th Century sensitivity. And so he was able to find (no pun intended) his own original voice. He became much more self-assured in writing songs than he had so far been able to do in his symphonies and string quartets.

It became clear that, somehow, he must bring this sense of assuredness and originality into his other music. By this time, Beethoven had ceased to be full of eccentricities: perhaps he was on the right track, after all? And, well, Schubert was young and had his whole life ahead of him.

To be continued...

- Dr. Dick

Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony: Part 1

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony's concert celebrating 10 seasons with conductor Stuart Malina - how time flies - features the maestro as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Felix Mendelssohn but in the double role as soloist AND conductor! Also on the program is the witty Divertissement by Jacques Ibert; on the second half is one of the greatest symphonies in the repertoire. In fact, it's so great, everybody calls Schubert's final symphony "The Great C Major Symphony."

The performances are this Saturday evening at 8pm and again Sunday afternoon at 3pm at the Forum in Harrisburg. Come an hour early and you can catch Harrisburg Symphony Executive Director Jeff Woodruff talking about the program and the celebration around Stuart Malina's 10th Anniversary Season with the orchestra.

This post is Part 1 of the on-going series "Up-Close and Personal," getting behind the music with some of the major works in classical music.

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So we might as well start with the question, “Why is Schubert's 'Great C Major Symphony' called that?” Certainly, there are other “great” symphonies out there, aren't there, maybe even in C Major? What's so special about this one by Schubert?

There was always some mystery about this symphony. When you consider Schubert had died just two months short of his 32nd birthday and this incredible symphony, regarded today as a masterpiece, lay unperformed until 11 years after his death, it makes you wonder.

The nickname came about not because of any sense of reverence, belated or otherwise, but to distinguish it from an earlier symphony he had composed that was also in the key of C Major. The Symphony No. 6 in C Major became known as the “Little C Major” and his last symphony became known by comparison, in German, as the “Grosse” which can also translate as “large or great.” So Great was initially meant to refer to its comparative size but with the critical and popular reaction about its scope and sense of majesty, “great” eventually was accepted to refer to its magnitude.

I was reading one music-lover who was saying the only mistake Schubert made was calling it “The Great” when he should've called it “the Colossal.” In fact the nickname had nothing to do with whatever Schubert called it.

Ironically, Schubert's 6th Symphony, completed in 1818 days after he turned 21, was his first attempt at writing what the Germans called “ein grosse symphonie.” This meant a symphony not necessarily on a larger scale but with a “larger” orchestra – in the context of the times, primarily an orchestra that included trombones. (This has always been a matter of some pride among trombonists who are likely to counter observations that their instruments, devoid of keys and valves, failed to evolve any further like their fellow brass instruments, the horns and trumpets, had done, saying instead the trombone had already reached an earlier stage of perfection).

But a work that was primarily a slightly larger than normal symphony in its instrumental forces is one thing: expanding it to one that was nearly twice as long as a standard Haydn symphony was something else.

Here is Simon Rattle, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, talking about his approach to Schubert's “Great” C Major Symphony in a recording released in 2006 by EMI.
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While YouTube can be a treasure trove for finding recordings or performances on-line – legal or otherwise – I have only been able to find one performance of the entire work by one conductor with one orchestra. It's Karl Böhm, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1973. The orchestra is HUGE by comparison to what Schubert would have expected – even compared to the pared-down scale that Simon Rattle indicates in his own introduction to his recording of the piece (above). So while you can hear all of the “Great C Major Symphony” in these eight clips – limited by time constraints, no different than having to flip the side of an old 78rpm recording to hear a whole movement – it is not necessarily the typical approach, stylistically or aesthetically, we might be used to or prefer today.

But it gives an idea of the scope of the entire work. The first movement's slow introduction is almost 4 minutes long – but then he doesn't take the repeat of the first main part of the movement, the Exposition, as was traditionally indicated (it's also possible the person posting this edited it out). By not taking the repeat, you can shorten the over-all length of the work but you also damage the over-all proportion of the movement. With familiarity, though, the need for the repeat is not always necessary today: in the days before recordings when you might only hear a work like this once or twice in your lifetime, hearing the different themes and the way they're stated in this exposition would be reinforced by hearing it repeated.

Böhm also doubles the number of woodwind players, part of the tradition to balance the large string section of a modern orchestra – this is what gives the symphony such a “fat” romantic sound (what classicists might call a “gross symphony”) and which surprises listeners who might be hearing it for the first time with a smaller orchestra than 75-100 players and realize how lean the textures can be and, actually, how “classical” a symphony it is, despite its scope and size.

The main theme, when it finally arrives, is very dance-like – think of Beethoven's 7th with its long slow introduction before breaking out into a dance-like first theme. Schubert here uses figures to accompany a simple theme which is actually built out of small fragments, itself – almost in a minimalist way, building through repetition and frequent modulations, driving the music forward. The Development Section, where material from the first part, the Exposition and is then taken through various dramatic treatments, begins at 6:52...

The 2nd clip begins with the Recapitulation when the material we'd heard in the Exposition is now restated in its more or less original form as a sense of resolution of all the tension that had been building up in the course of the development section.

1st Movement - part 2 =

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2nd Movement - Part 1 =

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2nd Movement - Part 2 =

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3rd Movement – Part 1 =

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3rd Movement - Part 2 =

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4th Movement, part 1 =

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4th Movement, part 2 =

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In this performance, the symphony is over 51 minutes long.

One of the things that fascinates me is hearing something like the 2nd theme in the last movement which begins at 1:47 in this next-to-last clip. At 2:02, the closing phrase of this theme so strongly resembles a fragment from the Ode to Joy theme of Beethoven's 9th, I can't think it's an accident. Beethoven's symphony was premiered on May 7th, 1824. Schubert (as we'll see) composed his "Great" C Major Symphony (usually numbered his 9th) mostly during the summer of 1825. Did he hear Beethoven's 9th? I couldn't imagine he would have missed it, yet I have found nothing in any of the biographies to indicate he had or hadn't. Certainly, the choral finale aside, there is much in common with these two expansive works, at least when compared to the standard symphonic fare of the day. Not that Schubert was imitating Beethoven: despite his earlier misgivings about eccentricities (see Post #2), Schubert clearly realized he and Beethoven were very much on the same page when it came to expanding the symphonic form, in fact expanding their musical language in general.

Back to this performance: with such a large orchestra and so many string players playing what Schubert clearly marks at a very fast tempo, you can only go “so” fast. This is the movement that proved so problematic to the players of Schubert's day: it was rejected for its first performance in 1826 simply because the work was, aside from being too long, too difficult to play, especially the last movement.

After Schubert's death, a memorial performance was also canceled for the same reasons: instead, the orchestra played the “Little” C Major, figuring perhaps one C Major Symphony was as good as another (it was, incidentally, the first public performance of that work, one that had been written ten years earlier). Schubert's brother Ferdinand tried to get the last movement performed by itself in 1836, thinking perhaps to benefit from devoting all the rehearsal time to the most difficult movement. The violins just said “No.”

There was also considerable disagreement about its first performance when Mendelssohn conducted its world premiere in Leipzig in 1839 but a performance in Vienna that same year was again canceled – too long, too hard. Paris in 1842 also said “no thank you” and when the orchestra in London balked at Mendelssohn's trying to force them to play it in 1844, they again declared the work unplayable. Mendelssohn agreed to canceling the performance but then refused to play any of his own music on the same concert – the first performance in England of his “Ruy Blas” Overture which of course had been the entire selling point of the program.

Obviously, the nickname "Great" was not a universal and immediate reaction, despite Robert Schumann, who is credited with "discovering" the work, writing about its "heavenly lengths." To many people in the mid-19th Century, it was just too long.

Then along came Bruckner - who would not have existed as the symphonist as we know him without Schubert's late works - and eventually Mahler, so in hindsight perhaps we think, "Okay, Schubert - not so long, after all..."

These days, with period instrument performers used to ignoring 19th Century traditions and by using a much smaller orchestra – one more comparable to the size of an orchestra in Schubert's day – you might get an idea from THIS performance how fast that last movement COULD go – and why it might be considered so difficult for a whole string section to keep up with the intended tempo. Of course, faster tempos will shorten the work's duration, won't it? But be warned: a friend of mine described this performance as “Presto come un pipistrello dall'inferno” -- “Very Fast, like a Bat out of Hell.”

In this more recent performance, Franz Brüggen conducts the Dutch Radio Chamber Orchestra.
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There's more historical background to the symphony and the creative path Schubert took to write it in my next post.

- Dr. Dick