The third piece performed on the October 24th concert is Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. This is the program note written by Robert Gonzalez, violinist in the GDYO.
Symphony No. 8 in B minor (“Unfinished”) October - November 1822
Franz Peter Schubert
Born, January 31, 1797 Vienna – November 19, 1828.
Franz Schubert is one of the most brilliant composers of the early romantic era. His contributions include many compositions of chamber music. The most widely known include The Trout Quintet and Death of a Maiden. Schubert wrote many songs and elevated the genre from folk tradition to an accepted classic form. In all, he wrote nine symphonies. But of all his musical accomplishments, Schubert remains first and foremost a great symphonic composer. He wrote nine symphonies total. Ironically, his best known and perhaps most beloved is his Eighth Symphony, the symphony which “Mr. Schubert never finished.”
As a child, Schubert played in his family quartet. All his family members played string instruments, but Schubert first learned the piano. Young Franz was later introduced to the violin by his father Franz Theodor who was a school master and also enjoyed playing the cello. After several years of study, Schubert showed great musical talent but was still pressured to be a school teacher like his father. In 1808 Schubert won first place in an open competition as a choirboy, and his talent was recognized by Anton Salieri, famous composer of the time and court composer to the emperor. Eventually, Schubert’s parents relented and allowed him to seriously study music.
In 1810 Schubert began to work on his earliest songs and essays in cantata form. He began writing his first symphony in 1811 at the age of fourteen. This work in D major was finished by 1813. Over the next twelve years, Schubert wrote nine symphonies, which many times were compared to those of Haydn and Mozart. It was not until his Eighth Symphony that Schubert began distinguishing his own unique style of symphonic composition. He incorporated key complexities and unforgettable melodies, but his Eighth Symphony remained unfinished. No one knows exactly why he left it incomplete, but it still stands as one of the most beloved symphonies of all time. Schubert wrote the Eighth Symphony in a period of great artistic struggle. His operas were very poorly received by the public. These were years when he wrote a much higher percentage of unfinished works than at any other time in his career. He finished the first two movements of the Eighth and almost completed a sketch for a third movement, a Scherzo. He actually orchestrated the first nine measures of the third, and then set the work aside.
One theory explaining why the eighth symphony was left unfinished is that Schubert recognized many similarities between his score and Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony. He feared he would be accused of plagiarism. Another is that he simply felt he could not create subsequent movements that were as good as the first two. Still, other people feel he may have had so many ideas in his head that he put it aside in favor of exploring other ideas.
At that time Schubert’s fame did not come from his instrumental work but rather from his lieder or art song. Considered one of western music’s greatest composers of song, Schubert took lieder to a deeper level than any composer before him. Most of his melodies are memorable and many unforgettable. Schubert’s richness in keys is another unique quality in his work. His Lieder are bolder than his early instrumental work. He took liberties in key changes with songs that he never did in his instrumental work. It was not until the Eighth Symphony that his monothematic structures come to full maturity in orchestral work.
A year after abandoning the Eighth, Schubert gave the manuscript to his longtime friend Josef Huttenbrenner, who did nothing with the work for three decades except create a piano duet arrangement out of portions of it. In 1865, long after Schubert’s death, the “Unfinished Symphony” premiered in Vienna.
Conducted by Johann Herbeck, the first performance of the Eighth Symphony showed how different and unique this work was as compared to Schubert’s earlier symphonies. The first movement begins with a very low and somber theme from the double basses and cellos, followed by a whispering accompaniment played by the violins. Then, the clarinet and oboe take over and play the melody in unison creating a unique sound that had never been written before. The second theme begins with cellos playing a charming melody, possibly the symphony’s most familiar theme, which then gets passed onto the violins. The piece suddenly goes to a dark place as soon as the violin melody is completed. The mood shifts rapidly and often from extreme bliss to darkness and back again. The hectic and nervous changes perhaps reflect the mental state of the composer during the difficult period when he conceived this work.
As compared to the abruptly changing first movement, the second provides a momentary break starting with the violins playing an enchanting melody. The primary theme is reintroduced with little variation. A shocking flute and oboe duet first draws us in with its beauty only to betray us with chaos. It invites us and then abandons us. Had Schubert finished this work, perhaps the teasing aspects of the second movement would have been resolved in the fully developed third and fourth movements. But even without a satisfying musical conclusion to this symphony, we remain enchanted with its singular melodic focus that keeps our full attention from beginning to end. In fact, that attention takes us into the parking lot and stays with us on our ride home from the concert hall. Though Schubert left us wanting more from this masterwork, what more can we want than the melody that Mr. Schubert DID finish.
The Symphony No. 8 in B minor is written for strings, flute, oboe, bassoon, cornet, trumpet, trombones and timpani.
- Robert Gonzalez, violin