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.

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

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 H├╝ttenbrenner (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 H├╝ttenbrenner 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?

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

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.

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

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.

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

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


  1. Ivanovich Falloffoff SonovavitchMarch 20, 2010 at 12:01 AM

    Beautiful blog!!!! Just reading this made my day!!!! Thanks so much Mr. Strawser...

  2. Great, Josh, glad you liked it
    - Dick

  3. Ivanovich Falloffoff SonovavitchMarch 20, 2010 at 12:27 AM

    Josh.... umm.... who is this Josh you speak of?