The Great(est) Symphony

‘I was utterly enraptured and only wished that you were my wife and that I could also write such symphonies.’

Robert Schumann (to Clara, who would soon be his wife)

One of the many works that Schubert left for posterity on his deathbed was the finished score for a symphony in C. It was discovered by no less a luminary than Robert Schumann, gathering dust in a trunk of Schubert’s possessions that was in the care of his elder brother Ferdinand. The year was 1838 and Schubert had been dead for a decade. Vanishing few people can simply look at a score and hear the music in its totality. Of those few, Robert Schumann–a great composer in his own right–had few equals. What a moment it must have been for him, presented with dozens of Schubert’s unknown compositions and then to pluck this one–a monumental symphony–from the lot and “hear” it for the first time.

There is no question that Schumann fully understood the importance of his discovery. He immediately wrote to his friend, the composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn, who at the time was leading Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the greatest ensembles in all of Europe (which remains true today—more on that later). Mendelssohn, arguably the greatest talent of his age, knew exactly what he had been given (after a suitable arrangement had been negotiated with Ferdinand Schubert) and gave the symphony its premiere in 1839. Sort of.

The scope of Schubert’s last completed symphony is monumental, nearly as long as Beethoven’s Ninth (and without a chorus to liven up the finale). With all the repeats taken, the symphony takes the better part of an hour to perform. Mendelssohn therefore chopped up the symphony, performing only the first two movements, without the repeats, and with another work sandwiched in the middle. This sort of programming was not unusual back in the day and Mendelssohn was rightly concerned that audiences of the time might lack the stamina and concentration to appreciate such a work. He was right–they didn’t. When the symphony was finally performed in its entirety, it was roundly derided (even if Schumann insisted that it was “universally admired”). Today, it stands shoulder to shoulder with the greatest symphonic works in history, if not at the very summit.

For a composer who excelled at the miniature (songs and chamber works), this symphony seems to come out of nowhere and tantalizingly hints at what we might have expected from Schubert had he lived a longer life. I don’t know if Schubert’s last symphony is the greatest ever written, but it is the one I come back to most frequently. I just love it to bits. This is why.

It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.

Arnold Schoenberg

The curse of the Ninth Symphony begins here. Beethoven famously wrote only nine symphonies, but was sketching out a tenth when he died. Schubert likewise composed nine symphonies, leaving behind a piano score for what would have been his tenth. And so when Bruckner died after writing his ninth symphony, a shadow fell over composers attempting a 10th. It would take a Russian of sterner stuff to conclusively slam the door on that myth, but that’s a story for another day.

Back to Schubert. He appears to have begun sketching out what would become his Ninth Symphony in the summer of 1825, about a year after Beethoven had premiered his Ninth Symphony. Why is this significant? Because Schubert was there, no doubt lurking in the back stalls and marveling at his hero’s lastest creation. There is no doubt that Schubert was deeply inspired by Beethoven and Schubert’s ninth would mark a significant departure from his earlier, more classical, symphonies. In fact, this is why this symphony is known as The Great, to distinguish it from Schubert’s Sixth Symphony, the “Little” C Major Symphony.

Inspired as he was by Beethoven, Schubert was nonetheless a profoundly different composer than his hero. Beethoven increasingly came to experience music rhythmically, through the harmonic development of short motivic elements. Schubert, in contrast, experienced music melodically. This isn’t to say that Beethoven completely dispensed with melody–his Ode to Joy (whether or not it was intentionally borrowed from Mozart) is a singular melody in the history of music. Schubert does, of course, incorporate rhythmic devices into his works. It is simply a question of primacy: Schubert is more Beatles; Beethoven, more Led Zeppelin.

Schubert’s Great Symphony opens with solo horns, presenting a melody of “radical simplicity.” Historically taken at a very slow tempo (see, e.g., Bernstein for the most extreme example), further study reveals that Schubert intended this passage to be taken at something closer to double time. The theme gets passed around, first to the woodwinds and then the strings. Ultimately, the same melody is repeated five times. Why? Much like Beethoven, Schubert is training your ear for much of what is to come. We don’t object to Beethoven’s repetitiveness, whether it is his four-note motif in his Fifth Symphony or that endless parade of Es in his Seventh, because his use of rhythm makes the music interesting. Schubert, characteristically, uses melody—and subtle variations in the melody—to keep the music moving forward. It is as if Schubert has opened the door to his music and invited us in. The main theme, which always reminds me of a dance, emerges. It is, in effect, an even faster version of the opening melody. A second theme is introduced, characteristically in the woodwinds. This is one of the many examples of Schubert’s insertion of song in his symphonic works. The opening melody comes back, in the trombones, leading into the allegro section. In great performances of this work, I get the sense of Schubert as grand wizard, conjuring up bits of melody across the orchestra to create a seamless whole. More than any of Beethoven’s symphonies, Schubert paves the way for Bruckner—repetition of simple melodies, which are combined rather than developed.

Schubert would show a different way forward. Music would not need to be violent, almost ugly, to say new things. … Development sections, for instance, would not have to argue, they could tell stories. As Beethoven had dramatized Classical form, Schubert would lyricise it.

Roger Norrington

Schubert’s unique genius is on full display in the second movement, and Andante that many (if not most) musicologists correctly argue replicates a simple song in symphonic form. Here, in 1825-26, is the seed that would flower into Gustav Mahler, several generations later. Substituting an oboe for the human voice, Schubert spins of song of such beauty that it is only upon repeat listening that you discover that within the seven-bar opening (in the bass), you find all of the themes of the movement. Finding inspiration in Beethoven’s Seventh (the famous Allegretto) and Ninth (the Adagio), Schubert effortlessly scales the emotional heights that only his idol, heretofore, had reached. In one remarkable passage, Schubert transitions from A Minor to A Major, led by the horns, which Schumann wrote were “calling as though from a distance, that seems to come to us from another sphere and everything else listens as though some heavenly messenger were hovering around the orchestra.” Schubert’s inspiration did not come solely from Beethoven. Riffing on one of the most famous chord progressions in music history (from Pacabell’s famous Canon), Schubert transforms it into a soaring melody of pure bliss. But all is not all light and joy in this movement—darkness and terror creep in, foreshadowing the final two movements. Schubert brings us here through rhythmic devices—a dotted rhythm and a motif of two quarter notes. And when it is time to return to the light, Schubert does something radical. I have previously observed that in many ways silences are the key to understanding Beethoven. Schubert now takes this lesson to extremes. Just when the musc threatens to rip everything asunder, Schubert gives us a pause. While marked only for one measure, conductors often stretch this pause for dramatic effect, leaving us in the throes of Schubert’s horror show. Informed by what would come later, I half expect Schubert to ditch tonality here, plunging into pure dissonance. But instead he gives us silence. And what a brilliant choice that is, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps. Perhaps predictably, it is the cellos that restore the calm and bring the music back, albeit somewhat uneasily, home. For anyone who would dismiss Schubert as simply a composer of simple songs, this movement conclusively puts that to the lie.

Schubert’s Scherzo opens in characterically rollicking form. Building on thematic rather than rhythmic repetition, Schubert uses sequences to create tension. And if this wasn’t moving beyond Beethoven enough, Schubert’s soaring, melodic trio stretches out the music in ways that Beethoven never did.

But this is all prologue, as Schubert wraps up his orchestral legacy with a tour de force finale. Using two motifs worthy of Beethoven to push the music forward, Schubert whips the orchestra up into a barely controlled frenzy. Of course, this is Schubert and not Beethoven, so we are never far from the light and in the middle of all this angst, a dance breaks out. Much has been made the development section of this movement. Here, Schubert clearly quotes Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme. If anyone was wondering how composers would cope with the seismic event caused by Beethoven’s Ninth, Schubert answered the question almost immediately. Here, and lest anyone had missed all of the clues from the earlier movements, Schubert formally acknowledges his debt to Beethoven by quoting what was to become his most enduring melody. And then, to top it all off, Schubert (much like Beethoven was wont to do) throws the rulebook out the window by starting the recapitulation in E-flat rather than in the expected C. This key change darkens the music, acknowledging the moments of horrors heard earlier in the piece. But Schubert eventually finds his way back to C by way of F major and we are off to the coda, bringing to a close a symphony rightly known as The Great.

In one of the great oversights I have made over the course of this blog, I ignored the recent recording of Schubert’s Great symphony by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under the baton of noted Schubert scholar Herbert Blomstedt, in my Best of 2022 list. Oops. While no one would expect the 95-year old maestro to still be releasing vital recordings this deep into the 21st century, apparently no one told him that. So great was my surprise that when I first downloaded this remarkable recording a few weeks ago, that it literally stopped this blog in its tracks. It is THE definitive Schubert orchestral recording. And one of the truly great recordings of all time. And what I had previously known to be simply The Great, was revealed to me to be, perhaps, The Greatest.

Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 9 in C, “The Great”, D. 944:

Blomstedt’s vision of The Great has evolved over the years and his 2022 reading is so much more vital and alive. Just compare this very well-regarded earlier recording with the mighty Dresden Staatskapelle.

Having reckoned with this unexpectedly titanic recording, regular service will now proceed.

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