FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Symphony No 8 in B minor, D.759 (Unfinished) (1822)

 i.    Allegro moderato

ii.    Andante con moto

Schubert was the son of a Viennese suburban schoolmaster who was poor but enlightened, so although the composer’s early life was deprived in terms of a comfortable home, by the age of 11 he was a chorister in the Imperial Chapel and receiving a sound training from Beethoven’s teacher, none other than the composer who had been Mozart’s great rival, Antonio Salieri. Even at this early age the creative fires burned within Schubert particularly in the field of setting poetry, and although his first official works date from the age of 15, sketches for songs have been found from his time in the Chapel which fed into mature compositions. By the age of 18 he had already written nearly a quarter of his eventual nine hundred-plus works, including dozens of Lieder (Art-songs) and five delectable, Mozart-inspired symphonies, but life remained difficult, however, partly because he found it hard to make money from his talent. The only performances of his works which he was able to obtain were by local amateur artists, which earned him little or nothing; in addition his health was poor and he had to be supported financially by friends, which caused him severe depression. He also failed to establish what might have been at least some regular income since he had a complete aversion to teaching music, although he had been a schoolteacher for a while as a teenager.

 

Nevertheless music poured from him almost as if he knew all along that his time on earth would be limited, and he graced almost every genre from chamber music and song to religious music and even opera, together with symphonic orchestral music – although wouldn’t it have been wonderful, given his exalted gift for melody, to have had a Schubert concerto or two?

 

In 1821 he made extensive sketches for a 7th Symphony, in E major, but failed to complete it – so in fact there are two Schubert Unfinished symphonies. There have been a number of completions of No 7, although some editors have actually numbered the B minor symphony as No 7we know the B minor as No 8 from the original version of the most comprehensive catalogue of Schubert’s works, that by the scholar Otto Deutsch, published in England as recently as 1951, but revisions of Deutsch are suggesting now that No 8 really should be No 7 – old habits die hard however! Incidentally, Deutsch’s chief challenge was that only about a hundred of the composer’s works were actually published in his lifetime. In fact we owe the discovery of many of his works to musical detectives such as Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms and our own Sir Arthur Sullivan, who on a trip to Vienna in 1867 unearthed no less than six of the nine symphonies and a number of other works. The Great C Major symphony, No 9, had been found mouldering in a drawer by Robert Schumann in 1838 ten years after Schubert’s death.

 

So, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Some eighteen years after Beethoven’s Eroica had broken the symphonic mould, now came Schubert’s B minor in a new mould all of its own, in its way an elemental experience just as potent as the Eroica. The scarcely-relieved tragedy of the first movement and the bleak lyricism of the second offer a complete emotional experience, heralding the burgeoning Romantic movement. Its apparent structural incompleteness has always been an enigma, however, particularly since Schubert lived for a further six years after its composition. Theories abound. Was he just too busy to complete it? Was the onset of the syphilis from which he was to suffer for those last years of his life a debilitating force just at the wrong time as he worked on the latter movements? It seems the theory that he came to feel that the work was perfect in only two movements does not hold water – for one thing it ends in the wrong key, E major, only part-way through what might have been projected as a symphonic key-structure – so it seems most likely that the work remains incomplete by accident.

Reinforcing this theory is the fact that, having dedicated the work to the Graz Musical Society, Schubert somewhat ill-advisedly gave the score as it stood to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a member of the Society, but Hüttenbrenner failed to pass the score on and only revealed that he had it 43 years later in 1865 when he was 76 and, perhaps, realised that he ought not to reach the end of his life without revealing his secret, in case the work proved to be a masterpiece. His confidant was the conductor Johann von Herbeck, a staunch advocate of Schubert, who would conduct the premiere in December 1865, but even he refused to acknowledge the lack of subsequent movements and apparently added the hopelessly inappropriate finale of the D major Third Symphony.

 

It seems that the score entrusted to Hüttenbrenner comprised the two movements we know, together with some sketches for a third movement, the first two pages in full score and the remainder in short score, missing most of the Trio section. It seems also that these pages were torn from the main body of the score and found separately. In fact in 2003 the MSO gave the first British performance of a completion of the Scherzo and Trio by Laurence Wright, a former teaching colleague of MSO principal trumpet Bob Steele. Sketches possibly for a last movement were, it is thought, pressed into service instead for his opera Rosamunde. There have been many completions of the latter two movementsbut the overwhelming majority of performances present the two movements alone as an organic whole, the first orchestral evidence of Schubert’s very own, hugely powerful voice.

 

Allegro moderato: Cellos and basses intone a darkly tragic prelude to the bleak first subject, which is sung by oboe and clarinet accompanied by muttering strings. Drama simmers close to the surface, but as a crisis finally materialises, made still more powerful with the addition of trumpets, trombones and timpani, the horns and bassoons offer some solace, introducing the lyrical second subject, first in the cellos. Peace reigns only briefly, however, and after the exposition repeat the development takes us into desolation and anguish. Following the recap of the main themes the coda finishes the movement almost in nihilism.

 

The Andante once again offers some comfort at the start, horns and bassoons introducing the consolatory first theme against a lyrical counter-melody in the cellos, but the mood changes rapidly into anger, and then becomes bleaker as the first violins are left alone to herald anxious syncopation as a bed for questioning woodwind, and soon conflict rules.  Finally the work ends in cold-comfort, perhaps revealing the composer’s sense of impending doom.

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