Schubert: Symphony in B Minor, D. 759, Unfinished

Franz Peter Schubert was born in Lichtenthal, a suburb of Vienna, on January 31, 1797, and died in Vienna on November 19, 1828. The score of the two movements of his unfinished B minor Symphony is dated October 30, 1822. The first performance of the Unfinished was given under the direction of Johann von Herbeck in Vienna on December 17, 1865. Theodore Thomas conducted the first performance in the United States at a Thomas Symphony Soirée at Steinway Hall, New York, on October 26, 1867. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work in January 1912 with Henry Hadley conducting; Michael Tilson Thomas led the most recent performances in May 2009. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; three trombones; timpani; and strings. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

The most obvious question about the Unfinished Symphony we cannot definitely answer, though I shall offer a guess. The title page is signed and dated Vienna, October 30, 1822. Six months later, Schubert was awarded a Diploma of Honor by a musical society in Graz. He intended to send a symphony in thanks and, for the moment, gave the two extant movements of the B minor Symphony to his friends, the Hüttenbrenner brothers, who had actually presented the diploma to Schubert. What we don't know is why Schubert did not complete the scherzo (it exists in fairly complete piano sketch and the first nine bars are fully scored) and why he never began the finale at all.

The existence of this music was public knowledge from at least 1836 (Schubert had died in November 1828), but the manuscript remained in the possession of Anselm Hüttenbrenner until 1865, when the conductor Johann von Herbeck retrieved it and conducted the first performance. It might have gone worse: Josef Hüttenbrenner's maid used the manuscript (and only copy) of two acts of one of Schubert's operas for kindling.

At the first performance, von Herbeck appended the last movement of the Symphony No. 3 as an incongruous finale. August Ludwig (1865-1946), a German composer and critic, was the first of several musicians to be seized by the idea of finishing the Unfinished. He added a "Philosopher's Scherzo" and a "March of Destiny." Partly through custom, but also because of something inherent to the spacious close of the Andante, most of us have no difficulty in accepting the two wondrously beautiful movements as a complete statement.

Between 1813 and 1818, Schubert had easily--almost casually--written six symphonies. Then he enlarged his idea of what it meant to compose such a work. The B minor is actually the third unfinished symphony by Schubert from the years 1818-22, altogether a time in which Schubert leaves many fragments. The most likely reason for abandoning the B minor Symphony is that he was at a loss how to continue. He had written two movements new in melodic style, in the bold mixture of breadth and concision of their structure, in the warm glow of their orchestral sound, music like no other heard before, music ready to claim a place in the symphonic tradition as Beethoven had redefined it in the last two decades. In the first movement, Schubert had also discovered a new bent toward drama, a capacity for fierce music.

But the delightful scherzo is not on that level. Beethoven, moreover, had forever changed the concept of finale when he began writing pieces whose center of gravity was at the end rather than the beginning. The finale had become the movement toward which the entire work tended and in which all its tensions were resolved. The problem of inventing worthy finales unsettled composers all the way through the nineteenth century and beyond. Schubert began to come to terms with this new finale problem only in his last year. In the winter of 1822-23 he may well have felt unequipped and unready.

The first movement of the Unfinished brings us one of the most famous tunes in the world. No less remarkable than the tune itself is that it, too, is unfinished--broken off in extraordinary gestures of pathos and drama. It is also the only moment of sweet lyricism in a movement otherwise dark and troubled.

The second movement is calmer in spirit, though its most memorable feature is the still and strange passage for violins that introduces the second theme. Upon this inspired moment, now newly skewed in its harmonies, Schubert builds his lingering coda. (I should guess that in his finale, Schubert would have "composed out" the possibilities at which he hints in these mysterious last minutes.)

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca)  |  Carlos Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Schubert: The Music and the Man, by Brian Newbould (Gollancz)  |  Franz Schubert: A Biography, by Elizabeth Norman McKay (Oxford)  |  Schubert: A Documentary Biography, by Otto Erich Deutsch (Dent; reprinted Da Capo)  |  Schubert and His World: A Biographical Dictionary, by Peter Clive (Oxford)  |  Schubert: Memoirs by His Friends, also by Deutsch (Adam and Charles Black)