Sunday, June 17, 2012

B minor Symphonies

Richard Taruskin's five-volume history of music, the Oxford History of Western Music, keeps giving me ideas for posts. In discussing Schubert's Unfinished Symphony he mentions the very few other symphonies in this key. Let's have a look at them.

You would think that there would be scads of symphonies in this key, only two sharps away from A minor, but no. The only previous one by a major composer is one of a group of six written by C. P. E. Bach in 1773 for Baron van Swieten. It is in three movements, Allegretto, Larghetto and Presto. It is not a lengthy work and is for strings alone.

The decade of the 1770s was noted for its "storm and stress" mood in music. The symphony had traditionally been rather a cheerful, convivial kind of music. But composers soon started to use the resources of the orchestra to paint some darker moods. Still, until the 19th century, symphonies in minor keys are relatively rare. Mozart's 40th Symphony in G minor stands out for that reason. In 1772 Joseph Haydn wrote a symphony in B major and cast the second movement in B minor. The work is scored for two oboes, bassoon, two horns and strings. Here is the whole symphony. The second movement, Poco Adagio starts around the 5:30 mark. It is in the style of a siciliana.

Given that fairly modest background to the idea of a symphony in B minor, Schubert's Unfinished stands out even more strongly. Every composer, at least in those days, probably had a few unfinished symphonies in his drawer. When you start to compose quite often the music just doesn't unfold as it should, or you get side-tracked into some dull ideas or just lose your way. So there they sit, sketches of potential works. Schubert had a few unfinished symphonies of his own. But The Unfinished is a bit different. There is a manuscript full score of the first two movements, two pages of a Scherzo, a piano sketch of the rest of the Scherzo and that's it. The nickname "Unfinished" may be just that, a nickname for a piece that Schubert decided was complete after just two movements. It was written in 1822, before the "Great C Major" that I discussed in these two posts. Like a number of Schubert's larger works it was never performed during his life. The Unfinished wasn't even published until 1866!

The symphony begins with a mysterious "preface theme" in the low strings. In the score it is phrased in two-measure groups, but it is just as easily heard as 2 + 3 + 3 as I have bracketed it in the example below. Here is the opening group of themes from the first movement:

Click to enlarge

Despite the fact that the nearest model for Schubert in the symphony genre was Beethoven, and despite the fact that Beethoven did use "preface themes" (usually to replace a slow introduction), this sounds nothing like Beethoven. That opening theme in the bass is very mysterious. You could say, "yes, but Beethoven had a very mysterious beginning to his 9th Symphony in D minor, did he not?" Yep, but the 9th Symphony of Beethoven was written in 1824, two years after this one! This symphony, apart from being in a very unusual key, has also very unusual themes. The texture here, with the strings accompanying the winds in the third theme above, owes little to Mozart and Beethoven, but we find it in Rossini, in the overture to the Barber of Seville, for example. Now let's listen to the music. Here is the whole Unfinished with the score:

There is just a touch of the operatic in the first movement, especially in the forzando chords in the full orchestra that from time to time punctuate the texture, followed by suspenseful pizzicati. Twice we return to that bass "preface theme" and each time it seems more ominous. What Schubert is doing here is inventing how to create romantic subjectivity in music. This was first done in the smaller forms, the songs and impromptus heard in the salons where Schubert achieved his success. Now he is moving it to the larger concert hall. He had no immediate influence because no-one heard this music until the second half of the century, but when they did, it made a huge impact on the romantic symphonists like Brahms and even Mahler.

There was one other symphonist who felt the impact of the Unfinished and that was Tchaikovsky whose 6th symphony is not only in B minor, but also ends with a slow movement! Here it is:

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