Wednesday, June 18, 2014

New Symphony Guide

As I keep saying, Tom Service's symphony guide in the Guardian is perhaps the best educational series now available in the mass media. This week's installment is another home run with his choice of the "Great" C major Symphony of Franz Schubert.

This work is labelled "No. 9", but that is a misnomer as Schubert only wrote eight symphonies. He did sketch out another one in short score, which has been completed by others, but it is not considered part of the canon. Oddly, it would have been slightly more accurate to have kept the original designation used when it was first published in 1840 of "Symphony No. 7 in C major". The current situation is that if you buy a box of the complete Schubert symphonies, as I recently did, you will find yourself digging around looking for the disc for No. 7, which seems to be missing. That's because that's the one he didn't complete. As opposed to the "half-symphony" he did complete, the so-called "Unfinished". There, I hope I have completely confused you?

In any case, just filling in some of the information Tom passed over lightly in the midst of his over-heated prose, the symphony was competed in the summer of 1826 (Beethoven was still alive), but only received a couple of private, amateur performances. It wasn't premiered in public until long after Schubert was dead when Robert Schumann stumbled across the score and took it to Leipzig where it was premiered under the baton of Mendelssohn in 1839.

This is a spectacular piece of music, despite (or perhaps because of) its "heavenly length". It is close to an hour long in performance, but is never dull. Perhaps its strongest aspects are Schubert's command of melody and the remarkable rhythmic drive, especially of the last two movements. The opening, with the unaccompanied French horns, is glorious. You know, I have no difficulty saying that I would rate this symphony alongside any of Beethoven's for sheer musical quality and delight.

As Tom mentions, one of the areas that Schubert explores is replacing modulation to the dominant with movement to the mediant or sub-mediant. This is something that Beethoven had also explored and it became a hallmark of Romantic harmony. Schubert is often characterized as being the first Romantic composer (though writers at the time often gave that label to, of all people, Mozart). But I think, especially after listening to this symphony, that while he certainly prefigured some of the tendencies in Romanticism, he was still, through and through, a Classical composer. The last of the era. And we can hear this in his symphonies and chamber music.

So, let's have a listen to the Great C major Symphony of Franz Schubert with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by the inimitable Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

For those of you keeping score, this adds Schubert to the list of composers with two works making the series. Mozart is still in the lead with four works. Do I see Haydn creeping up on the outside?

Symphony Guide score by composer

Mozart: 38, 31, 29, 41
Beethoven: 5, 8, 
Haydn: 6, 102, 
Sibelius 6, 7,
Bruckner 8, 6
Schubert, 8, 9

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