Schubert: Symphony in C major, D.944, The Great

Symphony in C major, D.944, The Great

Franz Peter Schubert
BORN: January 31, 1797. Liechtenthal, then a suburb of Vienna (now incorporated into the city)
DIED: November 19, 1828. Vienna

COMPOSED: Between the spring of 1825 and the winter of 1826

PREMIERE: In 1827 or 1828 Schubert heard it played in a sight-reading rehearsal by the Vienna Society of the Friends of Music. The work was not performed publicly until after his death: the finale alone on April 17, 1836, at the Redoutensaal in Vienna, with Leopold Jansa conducting; the entire symphony (with some cuts) on March 21, 1839, when Felix Mendelssohn conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the premiere

US PREMIERE: January 1851. Theodor Eisfeld led the Philharmonic Society of New York

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns; 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

DURATION: About 60 mins

THE BACKSTORY  To make sure we’re all on the same page, we had better be explicit about just which Schubert symphony is being played here. You will find this symphony, the last one Schubert completed, sometimes called his Eighth and sometimes his Ninth, most frequently the latter. You may even run across an old recording that calls it his Seventh or stumble across mention of it as his Tenth. The simple answer for this confusing situation is that not a single one of Schubert’s symphonies was published during his lifetime—nor, apart from the piece at hand, until more than half a century after his death. If they had been, Schubert doubtless would have shipped them off to his publisher as he completed them and they probably would have appeared in print numbered in proper chronological order.

Barring that, it was left to musicologists to try to put Schubert’s production in proper order, and that task was undertaken principally, and with compelling accuracy overall, by the scholar Otto Erich Deutsch, whose role in things Schubertian is immortalized by the “D-numbers”—short for “Deutsch” numbers—that are attached to all the pieces in the catalogue of Schubert’s works. Deutsch was on target when he catalogued Schubert’s first six symphonies, which is to say all of them through the first of his symphonies in C major (D.589), a.k.a. Schubert’s Sixth.

Beyond that, Schubert wrote only one more complete symphony, the C major work we hear at these concerts. Deutsch assumed—and for a long time, so did everyone else—that this symphony dated from Schubert’s final year, since the first page of its manuscript bears the composer’s notation “March 1828.” More recent studies by the musicologist Robert Winter, involving analysis of the paper on which that music is inscribed, leave no doubt that the actual date of composition was a couple of years earlier. What the “March 1828” inscription refers to remains a mystery, but it simply was not the date of composition. In any case, this would have been Schubert’s Seventh Symphony.

But then there was another important piece to be dealt with, the so-called Unfinished Symphony, which comprised only two completed movements (dated October 20, 1822, on the manuscript) and a sketch for a third movement. As it happens, nobody knew about the Unfinished Symphony until it emerged in 1865 and, shortly thereafter, received its premiere. At least at that point you would think the Unfinished would have taken its rightful place as Schubert’s Seventh Symphony, pushing the work at hand to position number Eight. But when a complete edition of Schubert’s works was finally issued in Germany, between 1883 and 1897, the editors decided to call the Unfinished the Eighth Symphony; this, they felt, would acknowledge that enough of it existed to merit status as a full (if incomplete) symphony, and yet it would not detract from the C major Symphony’s more honored placement in the lineup of completed symphonies. Then, too, several documents made reference to a symphony Schubert was working on during the summer of 1825 while on vacation in the Austrian towns of Gmunden and Gastein—a symphony for which no score could be found. Today we know that this was the C major Symphony played tonight. But back when people still believed that the C major wasn’t written until 1828, they thought it wise to hold open spot number Seven in the chronology for this mystery symphony, which was hopefully referred to, in absentia, as the Gastein Symphony—and that made the Unfinished Symphony his Eighth and the C major his Ninth. (Let’s not get into the next chapter of this imbroglio, Schubert’s so-called Symphony No. 10, assembled by musicologists out of sketches he made in the last weeks of his life.)

It all adds up to a mess unrivaled in the annals of symphonic repertory. (Well—rivaled perhaps, though not exceeded, by the various editions and re-editions of Bruckner’s symphonies.) You can call this Symphony No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, or No. 10 and you will be perfectly correct and incorrect at the same time and nobody will know for sure what you’re talking about. Fortunately, we have nicknames at our disposal. Symphonic nicknames are usually bestowed well after symphonies are written by people other than their composers. And so we can call the principal problematic pieces the Unfinished Symphony in B minor (D.759) and the Great Symphony in C major (D.944), the latter nickname seemingly derived from the fact that Schubert mentioned in a letter that some large-scale chamber pieces he was working on would serve as preparation for a “grosse Sinfonie”—a “large” or, if you will, “great” symphony—he intended to write (which would be this piece).

It did turn out to be a “great” symphony in both quantity and quality. Robert Schumann, wearing his critic’s hat for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik on March 10, 1840, presented a long and rapturous review of the piece when it was published a year after its premiere. In fact, it was Schumann who had been largely responsible for that premiere; he had “discovered” the manuscript in the possession of the composer’s brother, Ferdinand Schubert, and had passed it along to his friend Felix Mendelssohn to introduce. “Here,” Schumann wrote,

beside sheer musical mastery of the technique of composition is life in every fiber, color in the finest shadings, meaning everywhere, the acutest etching of detail, and all flooded with a Romanticism which we have encountered elsewhere in Franz Schubert. And this heavenly length, like a fat novel in four volumes by Jean Paul—never-ending, and if only that the reader may go on creating in the same vein afterwards. . . . It is still evidence of an extraordinary talent that he who heard so little of his own instrumental work during his lifetime could achieve such an idiomatic treatment both of individual instruments and of the whole orchestra, securing an effect as of human voices and chorus in discourse. . . . The brilliance and novelty of the instrumentation, the breadth and expanse of the form, the striking changes of mood, the whole new world into which we are transported—all this may be confusing to the listener, like any initial view of the unfamiliar. But there remains a lovely aftertaste, like that which we experience at the conclusion of a play about fairies or magic. There is always the feeling that the composer knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it, and the assurance that the gist will become clearer with time.

THE MUSIC  Grandeur does indeed inform this symphony, whose four movements usually cover between forty-five minutes and an hour in performance—a discrepancy that underscores the variety of opinion about whether structural repetitions are necessary or not and, ultimately, how this piece ought to sound. The symphony opens with a solo by the horn, the quintessential Romantic instrument, intoning a spacious, dignified melody that will not only serve as an essential musical cell for the introduction but also play a role in the Allegro ma non troppo movement that emerges from it, particularly in its snowballing coda. “[A] sense of security is established right at the beginning in the splendid, Romantic introduction,” wrote Schumann, “although everything is still veiled in secrecy. Brilliantly novel, too, is the transition to the Allegro; we are aware of no change of tempo, but suddenly without knowing how, we have arrived.” The movement grows and grows still more as Schubert’s themes accrue into a towering structure that integrates melodies, rhythms, and tonal areas in a way that rivals more or less contemporaneous symphonies by Beethoven (even Beethoven’s Ninth) and foreshadows the monumental movements of Bruckner and, at a greater distance, Mahler. Quite a few early listeners were baffled by this movement, as by the symphony as a whole; the work’s scope fell so far beyond Classical norms that they viewed it as an essentially unstructured outpouring of too much music, and Schumann’s words “heavenly length” became the piece’s most famous description (with naysayers sometimes overlooking the “heavenly” part). As late as 1892 we find George Bernard Shaw, an often perspicacious music critic, complaining that “a more exasperatingly brainless composition was never put on paper.” Only after listeners became truly comfortable with very large-scale compositions did the structural integrity of Schubert’s Great Symphony become clearer. In fact, analysis of the Great Symphony suggests that its elements are manipulated a good deal more tightly than the materials of the Unfinished Symphony (which nobody complained about)—although, of course, the Unfinished was far shorter overall, being really only half a symphony.

The second movement usually begins as a proud, even haughty march, entrusted first to the solo oboe and then to larger forces. The corresponding marches of Beethoven’s Third and Seventh Symphonies may come to mind. The march plays itself out and yields to an almost chorale-like expanse of lyricism largely centered on the string section. After a mysterious transition, the oboe returns with its march theme. Schumann was ecstatic about that particular transition, which extends itself deeply into the fabric of the movement. “A horn is heard from a distance,” he wrote. “It seems to come from another sphere. Here everything listens, as if a heavenly spirit were wandering through the orchestra.”

Though it is the shortest movement, the richly scored Scherzo seems easily as expansive as anything else in this symphony, since its scope so far surpasses what a listener would have expected from a movement that traditionally served as something like a sorbet between courses. Again we may find ourselves thinking ahead to the solid, galumphing symphonic scherzos of Bruckner. Listening to the trio I am struck by how much Schumann must have felt drawn to it. The contours of its melody prefigure the second song of Schumann’s Dichterliebe (“Aus meinen Tränen spriessen”), a cycle composed only a couple of months after he wrote his review of the Great Symphony.

So we arrive at the finale, another big-boned essay in exuberance. It would have to be big to serve as a logical conclusion to a symphony of this scale, and Schubert uses its fifteen minutes to “wrap things up” in every way possible, by recalling melodic bits, rhythmic figures, and key relationships we have already witnessed in the earlier movements. In a central episode, woodwinds present a melody reminiscent of the famous tune from the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which had been unveiled in Vienna in May 1824, about a year before Schubert set to work on his Great Symphony. Beethoven’s Ninth would serve as challenge and inspiration to practically every nineteenth-century symphonist, and Schubert’s reference here—as well as a couple of eerily reminiscent fortissimo outbursts a few pages later—confirm his place at the head of that procession of orchestral masters.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. 

(October 2017)