Tuesday, February 23, 2010

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

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