Thursday, July 2, 2009

Reading Schubert's 4th

Franz Schubert wrote his c-minor Fourth Symphony in 1816, when he was only 19 years old. He titled it his "Tragic" Symphony, though it takes a bit of imagination to hear anything tragic in it. Sure, it's in a minor key, like no other symphony by Schubert except the "Unfinished." Apart from that, the sense of nervous agitation in the first and especially the last movement, and the violence of the Minuetto, it doesn't present much that the modern ear can identify as tragedy. Perhaps, in the subtler "classic" idiom of Haydn and Mozart, wherein the young Schubert here demonstrates his mastery while beginning to stretch in a "romantic" direction, we must allow for a lower threshold of tragedy. Or perhaps we may count it a tragedy that Schubert never heard it performed. It didn't get a premiere until 1849, on the 21st anniversary of its composer's death.

Here is the first of four connected videos of Lorin Maazel conducting, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra playing, each of the movements of this symphony. I apologize for the "skip" in the last movement. I thought it was well done, though at times I wondered how anyone could follow Maazel's gesture. The players are interesting to look at, particularly the principal oboist, who mugs like a cartoon character in the throes of apoplexy. But enough silliness. Let's talk about this symphony.

Movement I opens Adagio molto (very slowly), with an introduction full of tortured intervals and sudden falling motifs. From the opening loud unison C, it takes only ten measures to arrive at an equally loud G-flat Major chord, diabolically far from c minor. The obsessive muttering over the same, distressed phrase continues in that key, the upper and lower strings passing the melody back and forth, like an extremely bitter pill being rolled from one side of the mouth to another. Consider the musical tastebuds it pricks from the G-flat chord in measure 10 to the beginning of the Allegro vivace at the pickup to measure 30: First A-flat, then D-flat; then F, and D-flat again; then descending, with accompanying falling motifs, from A-flat through G-flat, F, and E-flat, to D; modulating simply but forcefully to G, the dominant of C-minor; and squeezing as much suspense out of that dominant as decently possible, before resolving back to C-minor at the beginning of the "fast, lively," main sonata movement.

As this opens, the violins introduce the First Theme, hushed yet passionate, over an agitated string accompaniment. The full orchestra breaks in at bar 39 for a loud transition passage full of descending arpeggios, alternating with soulful phrases based on the slow intro. In this way Schubert creates a semblance of thematic interest while shifting through a number of keys. He finally unveils the Second Theme at bar 67, beginning in the key of A-flat. Again, this theme is introduced by strings alone, followed by a repeat with winds added.

But then, Schubert transgresses sonata-form orthodoxy just a bit, by beginning to develop fragments of this theme against a background of string tremolos, broken triads, and sustained clarinet notes. Again our toes touch ground in several keys before a series of explosive, unison notes (descending from G to C) heralds the codetta. This wraps up the exposition with a colossal chain of chromatic chord progressions, driven by the rhythms of a triumphal fanfare, arriving finally at a firm A-flat cadence. Or rather, not finally. Because just when you think the expo is finished, Schubert wittily tacks on an augmented-sixth-chord transition back to C minor.

At this point in the score, a repeat sign directs us back to the beginning of the Allegro vivace. Unhappily, Maazel and the BRSO (see video above) ignore this repeat and go directly into the Development, a nowadays-too-common form of abridgement that they also inflict on the fourth movement. In my opinion, more is lost than gained by omitting the repeat of the Exposition. We buy ourselves a bit of time, but at the expense of the composer's intended proportions, and of the chance to appreciate the double entendre of the final notes of this section. For on the first iteration, bars 131-133 form a remarkable transition back to the beginning of the sonata; while on the second, they function as the first tremor of the tonal earthquake of bars 134-138.

After this shock is over, you are prepared for absolutely anything to happen as the development commences. So the strings-only reprise of the first theme, transposed down a whole step to b-flat minor, comes as surprisingly unsurprising. Schubert expands the scope of this theme, however, moving the melody to the bass line, then treating it to a touch of fuguelike stretto, then pulling it apart and messing with the bits. Then the Recapitulation introduces it again, as at first, but in g minor this time. The recap proceeds as though the entire exposition had been ratcheted up one click around the circle of fifths, modulating predictably to E-flat (relative major of c minor) in time for the second theme, all the way up to the bar 236, where the big surprises begin.

At bar 236, instead of copying bars 89 ff. and pasting it up a fifth, Schubert unexpectedly veers into the same key in which we originally heard the codetta. Trust me, the sense of surprise will not be lost on your ears, even if you don't understand the key relationships involved. From bar 88 to 89 Schubert had shifted from a d-flat minor chord to E major; at bar 235-236, where we would expect the equivalent passage to move from a-flat minor to B major, it resolves instead to E major again, and we're suddenly back in the exact same music, key and all, as the end of the exposition. But this doesn't last long. When the music slams into C major at bar 244, it's for keeps this time. The riff that enabled the Exposition to end in A-flat is replaced by a simple cascade of descending thirds, keeping the codetta solidly in C major. Even with those chromatic chains still in there, it leads back time after time to the dominant G and the tonic C. As an extra bonus, as if that isn't convincing enough, Schubert adds a quick coda in which ascending scales reassert this dominant-tonic relationship, concluding with seven solid bars of the C-major chord.

I won't drag out my analysis of Movement II very much. It's a lyrical Rondo, marked Andante and in A-flat major, again opening with a theme introduced by the strings alone. This gentle refrain is contrasted with a stern episode in which variants of an anguished, ascending phrase and a three-note moaning motive call back and forth across a pounding 16th-note accompaniment by the second violins and violas. After the second such episode, the final refrain is accompanied by a similar 16th-note figure, transformed however into something sunnier. The movement ends with a sweet coda in which the woodwinds trade fragments of the refrain theme over a triplet accompaniment in the strings.

Movement III, a minuet marked Allegro vivace, is one of those pieces that looks different on paper than it sounds. This will be because of the harsh accents that make much of it sound more like 2/4 time than the 3/4 in which it is written. In its loud unisons, its twisty chromaticism, and its heavy-footed rhythm it sounds more like something to hide from than something to dance to. I don't mean this as a criticism; I like this movement. But Schubert must have been thinking on a Scherzo brainwave, rather than a Minuet one, when he wrote this. It's an angry, threatening, possibly inebriated dance, in which even the relatively calm bits take on a sarcastic resonance. The Trio is much more classically ordered, but even it has its mysterious side, its hint of uncertainty and even menace. Schubert also added tonal variety to the symphony by placing this movement in the key of E-flat, rather than (according to classical precedent) the symphony's main key of c minor or C major.

The Allegro finale is an extremely busy-sounding movement. The strings saw away almost constantly in rapid 8th notes, accompanying a theme that either comically or tragically vibrates with nervous energy. Even the major-key, skippy bits seem only to smile over an internal panic. By bar 63, the music seems to be positively hopping up and down with anxiety, flapping its hands in a birdlike manner. In bar 85 we encounter a second theme in the predictable key of A-flat, but more interestingly, a theme broken up between the first violins and the clarinet, like two children cheerfully calling back and forth over the hubbub. This theme grows and develops, building eventually to the explosive codetta, beginning at bar 129. Here phrases that seem related to the first theme pile up at great length (and height) to a huge E-flat-major cadence.

Then, following a repeat of the Exposition (omitted by Maazel & co.), the Development begins with the movement's first moment of relative calm. It is, however, a calm disturbed by sneaky presentiments. After a moment of complete silence, the "skippy bits" from the first group resurface in the unexpected key of A major, then in F, then in D-flat, before dissolving into motives that Schubert subjects to some of the craftiest development in his symphonic career -- all by way of modulating to C major for the Recapitulation.

Once again, Schubert gets around the problem of how to round off the movement in the same key of C by veering, quite early, into a minor and letting the remainder of the recap play out a third lower than the expo. So the second theme, instead of its original key of A-flat, returns in F; and the codetta ratchets itself up chromatically, not to E-flat, but at last to C. I suppose this "transpose the whole exposition" procedure saved Schubert a lot of trouble; he certainly used it a lot. The result, however, is a bit unexpected. The final cadence is delayed by a coda, in which Schubert plays around with the C/A-flat key relationship. It's a highly amusing game that makes this symphony's concluding pages especially colorful and impressive.

Since my teen years, this work has been one of those old friends who is always welcome to drop in. It's nice to catch up with it once in a while. Lasting about half an hour, it never overstays its welcome. Scored for a classical-sized orchestra with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings (with the basses doubling the cellos an octave down), it adheres to the traditional number (four) and order of movements (slow movement second, minuet third). It exhibits classic proportions and key relationships, but with a presentiment of the romantic era with its richer harmonies, its coarser dynamics and textural contrasts, and its emotions more vivid because less veiled.

If you had first heard this symphony after listening to loads of Haydn and Mozart, you would have thought: "Gee, I never realized Haydn felt that strongly," or perhaps, "Whoa, Mozart's taste really isn't what I thought it was." But only someone ignorant of Beethoven's first eight symphonies (which had all been written by 1814) would have thought so. Young Schubert was independently working through some of the same discoveries Beethoven had already made. His revolutionary achievements would mostly go unnoticed until decades later. But now we can appreciate this moment in Schubert's formation, and in the formation of Romantic Music, on its own terms. Isn't it wonderful?

IMAGES: Schubert, Schubert, Schubert, and Schubert. This image (at left) is supposed to represent Schubert at about the age when he wrote this symphony. It's very pretty but... well, really! It's kind of hard to believe, isn't it?

1 comment:

Gretchen am Spinnrade said...

That's because it's not him. Check this out: