Tuesday, February 23, 2010

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.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

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:

- - - - - - -
“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.”
- - - - - - -

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

No comments:

Post a Comment