Franz Peter Schubert was born on January 31, 1797, in Liechtenthal, then a suburb of Vienna (now incorporated into the city), and died in Vienna on November 19, 1828. He composed his Symphony No. 3 between May 24 and June 19, 1815, and the work was probably premiered by a private musical society in Vienna shortly thereafter. The complete symphony was not played in public until August Manns led it at the Crystal Palace in London, on February 19, 1881. The first San Francisco Symphony performances were given under Enrique Jordá’s direction in February 1957; Herbert Blomstedt conducted the most recent performances here, in October 2006. The symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. The “D” numbers attached to Schubert’s compositions relate to their entries in Schubert: Thematic Catalogue of All His Works in Chronological Order, published in 1951 by Otto Erich Deutsch. Performance time: about twenty-six minutes.
The Congress of Vienna convened in September 1814, and until it ended nine months later, the city was saturated with monarchs, ministers, and diplomats from throughout Europe; comfortable now that Napoleon Bonaparte was safely in exile on the island of Elba, they gathered to formulate a plan whereby all the nations of Europe might reach a workable balance of power based on legitimate government. Plans were rudely interrupted when, in the first week of March, Napoleon decided to spring loose. All bets were off until Napoleon met his Waterloo a hundred days later. Nonetheless, by the time everyone went home, in June, the Congress of Vienna had managed to chart a map of Europe that would hold more-or-less firm until the First World War, and it had provided Vienna with an excuse to adopt a festive air that, according to many accounts, resembled a nine-month-long carnival.
Schubert celebrated his eighteenth birthday while all this was going on, and he was beginning to hit his stride as a composer. That was not yet his profession; he endured his working hours as an assistant teacher in his father's school. But he had already composed a good deal of music, including at least one obvious masterpiece (the song “Gretchen am Spinnrade”), and he was on a roll. During his two years as a teacher, he composed 382 pieces of music. His Second Symphony occupied him during the first three months of 1815, and he embarked on his Third two months later.
Nothing in this charming work suggests the politically hyperactive world into which it was born. That role was adequately filled by (among others) Beethoven. His cantata Der glorreiche Augenblick (The Glorious Moment) was written specifically for the Congress of Vienna, and Wellington’s Victory, composed the year before, was performed to the delight of the eminent attendees. Schubert, on the other hand, was writing more intimate music, and though he would surely have welcomed more public exposure, his compositions were essentially for private consumption. Many of his pieces were unveiled in at-home musicales, and one assumes that this symphony was first played by a loosely constituted orchestra that had sprung up around the Schubert family and their friends in 1814.
Schubert’s Third Symphony is a concise, clearly plotted work that recalls the scale, and something of the flavor, of Haydn. One imagines the Haydn of the London symphonies in the slow, searching introduction in the historically “grand” key of D major. Pulsating wind chords provide a stable but energizing background for ascending scales in the strings, and the flute and clarinet engage in some dialogue that, in retrospect, we may recognize as characteristically Schubertian. After this majestic beginning, the first movement’s main section seems to slip in through the back door as the solo clarinet gently peeps out a chipper little theme with a touch of fanfare to it. The modesty of this entrance is a brilliant touch, and Schubert didn’t arrive at it without effort. The manuscript shows that he first scored the tune for oboe and horns, and then reassigned it to the strings before finally settling on the clarinet. Prominent use of the clarinet, in fact, will continue to be a feature of this symphony. The clarinet melody, a second theme derived from the ascending scales of the introduction, and a rustic oboe tune (similar in character to the clarinet melody) provide the material from which the movement develops with several twists of harmonic ingenuity.
The second movement of a typical Classical symphony would be slow, and, indeed, Schubert began his by writing an adagio theme. But he changed his mind and started over in a quicker (though still relaxed) tempo. Again, the clarinet is much in evidence, especially in the movement's central section. Midway through, the violins announce a slightly slower, exquisite melody that, while not developed in this work, looks ahead to the sense of enchantment that will often pervade Schubert’s mature music.
A vigorous minuet-turned-scherzo follows, with oboe and bassoon providing a charmed serenade for the central section. The finale, a bustling tarantella, makes much use of the rising scale figures that have been part of this symphony since its opening. Its unalloyed, dizzy exuberance has never been bettered.
—James M. Keller
This note appeared originally in different form in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and is used with permission.
More About the Music
Recordings: Carlos Kleiber conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) | Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI Classics) | Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (Teldec) | Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) | Claudio Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Deutsche Grammophon)
Reading: Schubert: The Music and the Man, by Brian Newbould (Gollancz) | Schubert and the Symphony: A New Perspective, also by Newbould (Toccata Press) | Schubert: A Documentary Biography, by Otto Erich Deutsch (Da Capo) | Schubert: Memoirs by His Friends, also by Deutsch (Adam and Charles Black) | Schubert’s Vienna, edited by Raymond Erickson (Yale University Press)