Who was the greatest classical composer of all? Beethoven? Bach? Perhaps the best case can be made for Franz Schubert.
Schubert was born in 1797 and died in 1828. With the possible exception of Mozart, had any other of the great composers lived so briefly he would barely be remembered, and then only as little more than a sadly unfulfilled promise. Take Beethoven. Had he died at Schubert's tender age, he would have written only his first symphony, his first two piano concertos and his earliest solo and chamber music – all pleasant enough, but barely distinguishable from the works of contemporaries. No Eroica, Fifth, Pastorale or Choral symphonies, no Appassionata or Hammerklavier piano sonatas, no Archduke trio, no Kreutzer violin sonata, no Emperor piano concerto, no violin concerto, no late quartets, no Fidelio opera, no Missa Solemnis – none of the works that revolutionized their genres and changed the course of Western music.
In his incredibly short life, Schubert produced nearly a thousand works, ranging from songs to operas, with lots of sonatas, chamber music, religious works and symphonies in between. Nowadays, a very substantial number are revered as masterworks. Yet, Schubert never tasted even a hint of his current fame and died an abject failure. There had been only a single public concert of his works, and only a few songs had been published. While those wonderful songs had begun to attract attention (largely through handwritten copies), and while a circle of friends enjoyed reading through his chamber music in private gatherings, nearly his entire output was ignored and unknown. Schubert himself would have been astounded to learn that he now is often mentioned in the same breath as his idol Beethoven (near whose grave Schubert was buried, in accordance with his death-bed wish.
While others of far less talent achieved far greater and immediate fame, Schubert's lifetime obscurity was a product of his lifestyle and personality. He shunned nobility in an age when royal patronage was still the key to exposure. He loved drinking and carousing and had no interest in leading a respectable life. He rarely lived in the same place for more than a few months at a time when domestic stability was required to establish a local reputation. He earned little income and was so poor that he never even owned a piano until his final year. His mind was so fertile that he paid no attention whatever to marketing a finished composition, always moving immediately on to another project. Throughout his twenties, when he should have developed his career, much of his energy was sapped by the syphilis that eventually killed him. And above all, he was the very first great composer who was not also an established performer, and thus unable to use public visibility and box-office clout to promote his own work.
Schubert would be especially amazed to learn that he has come to be regarded as a great symphonist. Of all the genres in which he excelled, these fared the worst during his life. His first two were written for his school orchestra and the next four for an amateur group he was able to assemble, all intended to be heard once and then forever forgotten. Written in his teens, they gleam with dewy innocence, reminiscent of Mozart's juvenilia, with only the barest hint of an incursion of strife. The most popular is the Fifth, a buoyant package of joy, but even the minor-key Fourth (the so-called Tragic Symphony) is consistently playful and hardly the deep plunge into soul-stirring despair suggested by its title. Each is graced with wonderful touches paving the way toward the masterworks to come – the melodies emerge with spontaneous ease, effortless harmonies constantly take daring yet logical turns and many of the finales are based on mesmerizing repetition of a short rhythmic motif, an innovative device that would later fuel his magnificent Ninth Symphony.
While Schubert hoped (in vain) that his two mature symphonies would be performed by one of the great orchestras of his time, he had no such illusions for the first six. Their modern recognition is due in no small part to the advocacy of Sir Thomas Beecham, whose final recordings of the Third, Fifth and Sixth (on EMI CD 66999) delightfully combine relaxed geniality and elegant grace. Yet, despite many full-blown renditions, the early symphonies seem best served on record by original instrument ensembles, which come closest to conveying their modest scale and recapturing their original concept. Wonderfully clear and spirited performances by the Hanover Band are in a ridiculously inexpensive Nimbus box (11 CDs for under $30!) that includes quartets, piano sonatas and song cycles. Nicely small-scaled performances by Michael Halasz and the Slovak Philharmonic and Failoni Chamber Orchestras are on individual budget Naxos CDs.
At least Schubert got to hear his early symphonies. The two that ultimately would cement his fame were never performed during his life and remained buried long after his demise. His brother Ferdinand, with whom he had lived in his final months, sold many of Schubert's manuscripts to publishers and thus fueled a posthumous reputation that had eluded Schubert during his short, impoverished life. Robert Schumann, remembered nowadays as a composer but better known in his time as an influential music critic, visited Ferdinand in 1839 to examine the remaining scores and was amazed to discover an extraordinary complete symphony in C major (which became known as the Great so as to distinguish it from the Little Sixth Symphony in the same key). Schumann brought it to the attention of his friend Felix Mendelssohn, also now famed for his compositions but celebrated then as the conductor of the finest orchestra in Europe, the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Fired with enthusiasm, Mendelssohn gave the world premiere (albeit heavily cut) and championed further performances, despite resistance from his musicians who, despite their eminence, protested the length and complexity of the work and openly scorned it.
The score was dated March 1828, when Schubert had sent it to the prestigious Vienna Society of Friends of Music in hope of a performance, but it was returned with a terse comment that it was too difficult and pompous for their taste. At first, typical of the Romantic outlook, the tendency was to think of the symphony, presumably written only months before Schubert's death, as his elegiac farewell to life, and indeed many older performances invest it with considerable weight and profundity. More recent scholarship suggests that the work was written three years earlier while Schubert was on vacation in Gastein, Germany and in fact may have been the legendary symphony (for which #7 was reserved) Schubert was known to have written there but which has never surfaced. Consistent with the modern view of its origins, many newer renditions animate the work by treating it as a joyous youthful frolic.
Fortunately, there's no need to invest in full-priced CDs to get a variety of fine performances of the Schubert Ninth. Budget editions include the swift, sharp and hugely exciting reading of the Boston Symphony conducted by Charles Munch, unfairly typecast as a French specialist (on RCA 60792), the luminous precision of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell (Sony 48268) and the novel retro original instrument sounds of the Hanover Band in that amazing Naxos bargain box. For a few dollars more, mid-priced CDs expand the choices to include a wealth of fabulous interpretations: the sweet warmth and tenderness of Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony (Sony 64478), the deliberate but surprising delicacy of Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI 63854), the rhythmic acuity and extroversion of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony 47610), the lean, classic molding of any of the three strikingly similar recordings by Arturo Toscanini (of which the last, on BMG 60290, has superior sound) or the architectural splendor of Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic in concert (Music and Arts 795) or in the studio (DG 427 405).
The most popular of Schubert's works – the Symphony # 8, which has become known as the Unfinished – had the the longest hibernation. In 1823, Schubert gave the manuscript to the president of a Granz music society, who never bothered to deliver it to his members but instead kept it for himself for over forty years. Schubert, typically, forgot it.
What exactly is unfinished about it? It lacks the final two movements that, beginning with Haydn, symphonic convention requires – after an opening in sonata form and a slow movement, there's invariably a scherzo to lighten the mood in 3/4 dance rhythm (but often with a sardonic twist) and then an assertive finale of significant emotional weight, ranging from triumph (Beethoven's Fifth, Mendelssohn's Italian) to despair (Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, Mahler's Ninth). (Of course, there were exceptions to this pattern, including with Haydn himself.)
Commentators have waxed quite poetic describing the splendor of the two movements Schubert completed. Anthony Burton saw the first as a perfect juxtaposition of dramatic tension and lyrical ease and the second full of restless wandering and turmoil, coming to rest in other-worldly serenity. William Mann perceived the storm and stress of life contrasted with the serenity of eternal bliss in which violence and turbulence are but distant memories. The late conductor Guiseppi Sinopoli regarded the work as a deeply mystical dream-state of tragedy and lost memories. But attempts to consider the torso an entirely satisfying unified entity may be a Romantic indulgence and the mere rationalization of having to accept the portion we have. Schubert himself most likely would have raised a foaming stein and laughed at such pretension – he left extensive sketches for a third movement and even had begun to orchestrate it.
Why did Schubert stop? Speculation abounds. Some claim that he probably did finish the work but, typical of his haphazard ways, lost the second half. Others believe that he may have reworked the remainder into other pieces. Still others suggest that he changed course to suppress the painful memory of the syphilis he had just contracted. But perhaps the most likely explanation, albeit the most prosaic, is that he simply lost interest. Had Schubert lived to a ripe old age when his phenomenal inspiration flagged he might have gone back to develop ideas and fragments of the past. (In fact, he left numerous sketches for other symphonies, one of which, now labeled the Seventh, abounds in fine ideas.) But as a young man he was so full of music that new works kept pouring out as fast as he could write them down. (Indeed, friends recalled how Schubert would read a poem he liked, rush off to his room, and emerge with a masterful song in final form.) Consistent with his fertile and prolific approach he rarely reworked or recycled material; rather, he just moved forward and wrote a new piece.
In any event, the two movements of the Unfinished exert a powerful spell. The previously noted bargain Ninths of Munch, Szell, Walter, Klemperer, Bernstein, Toscanini and the Hanover Band are all paired with equally fine Eighths (although Klemperer left an even finer concert version on EMI 66868). But if you do splurge for a full-priced CD, consider Willem Mengelberg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (Biddulph 039). Bursting with inspiration and magnificent playing, its richly blended sensuous sound reaches back from our era to Schubert's through an age when artists considered themselves innovative interpreters rather than dutiful performers. Beyond forming a collaborative and enriching bond with the past, it conveys the passionate feelings and sheer humanity of expression that Schubert poured into his work but never lived to hear.
Copyright 2002 by Peter Gutmann
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copyright © 1998-2002 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.