Symphony in B minor, Franz Schubert

Schubert’s Symphony in B minor is the “Unfinished” symphony, usually listed as number eight of the ten that our friend Franz left us. There are only two movements, what seems to be the first two movements of what normally would have been a four movement symphony. The unfinished beginning of something we don’t have the end of, but what a glorious beginning it is!

Schubert
Schubert

Franz Schubert lived from 1797 to 1828, a mere 31 years old when he died, but wrote a huge amount of music in that short life. He composed symphonies, string quartets, chamber music, piano music, operas, liturgical music and the hundreds of lieder for which he was best known during his lifetime. Depending on the historian you read, he died of typhoid fever, or syphilis, or mercury poisoning while taking mercury to treat the syphilis. By any account it sounds like an unpleasant way to exit. The music he wrote is so good, especially near the end of his life, it makes you wonder what he would have written if he lived another twenty years. Schubert’s compositional career was truly “Unfinished”.

The front of the full orchestral score is dated October 30, 1822. Schubert’s normal habit would be to leave the date he started the full score, meaning the sketches and short score was likely completed earlier and he just needed to write out the orchestration. In 1823 a group in Vienna called the Graz Music Society granted Schubert an honorary diploma and he felt obligated to dedicate a symphony to them (clearly hoping for them to put on a rare performance of his orchestral music). Schubert sent the full score of two movements (plus the beginning of a third) to his friend and fellow composer Anselm Huttenbrenner who was a leading member of the Graz Music Society. Here is where the mystery begins.

Huttenbrenner never gave the score to the Society, he held it in his desk drawer unseen by the world for 37 years! The Symphony finally got its premiere in Vienna in 1865 (43 years after it was written), and was first published in 1867. Schubert never heard it played in his lifetime. This leaves us with so many questions. Why did Huttenbrenner hide the score away for so long? Did Schubert actually send only half a symphony to the Graz Music Society? Were movements 3 and 4 finished but lost, or did Schubert never finish them? Did the Huttenbrenner family maid rip out pages of the symphony to start a fire in the dead of winter? Did Schubert change his mind after writing the first two movements and decide the work was complete as it was? Why would anyone care anyway?

We care only because the first two movements are so wonderfully good, and have become one of the most recorded symphonic masterpieces of the whole orchestral repertoire. We want the rest of it. Although Schubert admired Beethoven greatly, Schubert’s music and talents are quite different. Beethoven took little motives (think da-da-da dummm) and built them into his symphonies by developing, combining and fragmenting them and wringing every last bit of music out of them. In contrast, Schubert wrote longer, lyrical, tuneful themes that did not lend themselves to the same developmental process that Beethoven worked with. Schubert’s melodies are complete ideas in themselves, and he took them through different (often unexpected) harmonic area and often put them through a process of variation rather than Beethoven’s slicing and dicing of motives.

The first movement of the “Unfinished” is an Allegro moderato in B minor that starts with a haunting theme, builds to a dramatic section with trumpets and trombones cutting loose, and ends with the ghostly haunting theme concluding the movement. The second movement is an Andante con moto in E major that would have been a slow movement in the normal four movement plan of a classical symphony. Many of the recordings I have heard play the two movements at tempos very close to one another. There are a few reasons I think this is the case. With only two movements to perform, you don’t have the contrast of slow and fast movements to contend with. Playing the first movement at a slower tempo emphasizes the ominous music of the opening section. Playing the two movements at similar tempos creates a unity between them and makes the symphony feel less unfinished.

There is no shortage of recordings of Schubert’s Symphony in B minor. Below is a  performance of the work with video of a score to follow along.  (E-mail readers click  here) I think is a good use of 28 minutes. I hope you do too.

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