Schubert, Unfinished

It is the stuff of legend.

A dusty manuscript lies hidden in a desk draw of Anselm Huttenbrenner, a minor composer, for 43 years. In a letter to conductor Johann von Herbeck, Huttenbrenner describes it as his most prized treasure. One look at the score and von Herbeck is convinced and gives the music its premiere. The audience, not knowing what to expect, takes in the first few bars of rumbling, nervous strings. A clarinet and oboe enter, singing a song of woe. The audience is stunned: It’s Schubert, risen from the grave 37 years after his death.

From a first-hand account:

When, after a few introductory bars, clarinet and oboe sound una voce a sweet melody on top of the quiet murmuring of the strings, any child knows the composer and a half-suppressed exclamation “Schubert” runs hummingly through the hall. He has hardly entered, but it is as if you knew his steps, his very way of opening the door… The sonorous beauty of both movements is enchanting.

Eduard Hanslick

The first movement opens in near silence and in B Minor, Beethoven’s “black” key. First, the low strings play a barely perceptible theme, followed by the violins playing an ostinato that gives the impression of nervous energy. Schubert indicates that the cellos and basses should pianissimo, but the theme they play is central to the entire movement. But as soon as we begin to grapple with this dark and forbidding opening, Schubert brings in the winds, specifically the clarinet and oboe referred to by Hanslick in the above quote, who sing a song of such supreme melancholy as to melt the heart of anyone who hears it.

Schubert, as noted previously, was not very interested in developing themes. Where Beethoven would start breaking apart his themes as soon as they were introduced, Schubert merely repeats his. And who can blame him? It is a gorgeous theme, a prime example of why Schubert remains to this day the King of Song. But as we approach the end for the second time, Schubert’s mood turns black, with violent B Minor chords jolting the music from its melancholy. This dark and violent mood will not endure, as Schubert transitions to G Major and lets perhaps a bit of muted sunshine in for his second theme. If audience members are prone to humming a tune coming out of the concert hall, it is certainly this second theme, one of Schubert’s most famous. But why? There isn’t much going on in here harmonically or rhythmically. And yet, the music easily conjures up images of imperial Vienna in sepia tones, flecked by nostalgia and the barest tinge of regret. As always with Schubert, what appears to be simple is, in fact, supported by meticulously composed structures.

But we must wake from this sweet dream and wake we do, again with those violent chords sounding like an alarm clock at 6am on a Monday morning and sending us into the development section. Schubert amps up the drama with soaring music that, surprisingly has little to do with any of his themes. Instead, he relies nearly entirely on developing the accompanying rhythms for his two main themes, propelling the music forward until the opening rumbling strings return to start the recapitulation. Schubert repeats this trick at the start of the coda, unifying the entire movement around this “shadow theme.” The music, stuck rhythmically, swells in dynamics and pitch until it breaks across a chord of blackest resignation.

Up to this point, composers had varied the tempos of successive movements. Schubert, however, uses tempo to link the second movement to the first. Taken at a similar tempo, some musicologists have observed that the second movement is the “negative image” of the first. Although the pacing of the music remains more or less the same, the second movement opens in E major and moves to minor before returning to major; accordingly, the black mood of the opening movement is dispelled for golden sunshine. And when the minor second theme enters, the accompanying rhythm is identical to the major key second theme of the first movement.

Yet as the drama intensifies, it is the minor key that dominates, complete with thundering brass. But this is no ordinary development section and Schubert’s music has become unmoored from traditional form, transitioning freely to new keys. Just before the end, the music nearly comes to a stop, with solo violins taking the music to far flung keys before magically resolving back to the tonic. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure how Schubert pulls this off. It is deceptively simple–where Beethoven was forever jamming his music back into key, like a sticky gear box on an old sportscar, Schubert’s violins float peacefully from key to key before settling naturally back into the tonic. Breathtaking.

And then, just like that, it’s all over. Two utterly earth-shattering movements and nothing more.

Conductors have employed several strategies to avoid the profound sense of frustration brought upon by this premature ending. At the premiere, von Herbeck tacked on an unrelated final movement from one of Schubert’s earlier symphonies to give a sense of closure. Other conductors have made dynamic mountains out of the final cadence of the second movement to suggest finality. These are decidedly poor interpretive choices.

There is no question that Schubert had intended his symphony to have the traditional four movements. In the original manuscript, Schubert had noted a few measures of a Scherzo movement. A full piano score for that movement was subsequently unearthed. Naturally, this led some composers to finish the Scherzo. Some musicologists argue that Schubert tore the fourth movement from his notebook and repurposed it in his incidental music for a ballet, Rosemunde. But these are rarely performed: Two movements are all we have and when Schubert’s so-called Eighth Symphony is performed today, two movements are typically all we get.

Unsurprisingly, Herbert Blomstedt’s 2022 recording with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (my new reference recording for Schubert’s Great Symphony in C) gets it exactly right. The frustration at the premature ending is exactly the point. Here we have the perfect summation of Franz Schubert in music: Utterly brilliant and leaving us desperately wanting to hear more. Schubert and his symphony are, in a word, Unfinished.

Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, “Unfinished”, D.759

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