Saturday, October 10, 2009

Reading Schubert's 6th

Franz Schubert's Sixth Symphony, nicknamed the "Little C Major Symphony" by way of distinguishing it from his "Great" C Major Symphony (No. 9), was completed in 1818 when its composer was just 21 years old. It wasn't performed until 1828, the year of Schubert's death. Though it isn't among his mature masterpieces, sounding (like all of Schubert's early symphonies) somewhat like "Haydn Plus," it is still a lovely piece straddling the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras.

To be more specific: it has less contrapuntal rigor, developmental intricacy, and structural tautness than the great symphonies of Haydn; but it is marked by daring harmonic and dramatic touches that Haydn would have considered uncouth. That's how you can spot an early Schubert symphony when it plays on public radio. If you're thinking, "This could almost be by Haydn, but he would never have done that," consider Schubert a suspect. (If it's for strings only, however, it's probably one of Mendelssohn's youthful string symphonies.) After Symphony Six, it only remained for Schubert to move out of Haydn's shadow and integrate his novel style into an entirely original art form, as he did in his last two extant symphonies. For the nonce, the Sixth offers a fascinating glimpse of the brash, youthful Schubert still operating at an intermediate stage of discovery. And whatever its place in music history, it is a fine piece of music, worth listening to.

Movement I begins with an Adagio introduction that establishes a gentle, pastoral atmosphere. When the Allegro begins, its playful first theme is introduced by flutes. After a somewhat odd-sounding transition to the dominant key of G, the second theme is also introduced over woodwinds over a rhythmic string accompaniment figure. Schubert gives considerable breathing room to this theme (and playtime to the winds, for that matter), before building a clever bridge, first to a repeat of the Allegro so far, then to the brief development section. The retransition, bringing us back to C Major for the recap, is a bit less convincing. The second theme comes back, most properly, in the key of C, though the transitional passage linking the two groups is just as remarkable as the one in the expo section.

The movement ends with queer little coda that toys with the first theme, then accelerates to a series of extroverted chord progressions that would make for a really out-of-character ending, then finally settles on an extended cadence based again on the first theme. It's one of those movements that make you pray, "Please, don't let it end that way!...Oh, thank God!"

Movement II, Andante, moves to the key of F and a world of bucolic innocence. There is a hint of slow dance in it, too - the chaste kind of slow dance, where his hand never ventures below the small of her back. One may think of a young couple stepping slowly yet lightly through the Austrian countryside. A contrasting middle section picks up the energy level, injecting a tint of playful adventure to the outing. Again, notice the extensive and imaginative way Schubert employs the wind instruments. Eventually, the theme from the opening returns, overlapping with the middle part's energetic rhythm. It's such fun that the 8-odd minutes of the movement seem to pass very quickly.

C Major returns as the key of Movement III, a Scherzo in a Presto tempo. It skips along, laughing merrily, until the second part of the scherzo, which momentarily adopts a slightly more serious mien. One can't help but be impressed by the fluency and sophistication of young Schubert, who never seemed at a loss for a bold stroke of color. The rather slower Trio (in E major) features an oddly-proportioned melody for the woodwinds, complete with an echo at the end of each phrase, a string accompaniment moving with a heavy tread, and a silly contrasting idea that seems to run around aimlessly. The sum of it all is an effect of time arrested, of one impatiently waiting to get back to the fun of the main Scherzo - like when you run out of the theater in the middle of an enjoyable movie, only to end up hopping up and down in a long line for the toilet. Happily, the good part is still in progress when you get back to the Scherzo.

The finale, Allegro moderato, opens without preface upon a charming theme that begins with two separated, repeated notes, followed by a decorative turn around the same note. Schubert messes around with it in a relaxed, cheerful mood for about a minute and a half. Then a fanfare intrudes, introducing some rather empty, transitional material. Nothing quite like a second theme appears until about 2'10", when the winds introduce a vaguely teasing melody in A major. Another fanfarelike gesture introduces a sort of codetta, telescoped into the type of development section that consists of a harmonic transition passage nearly devoid of thematic interest - though one may spot a resemblance, now and then, to material Schubert developed at great length in his Ninth Symphony.

After a bizarrely extended cadence in which the flutes remind one either of a lot of birds singing or like the cogs and flywheels of a cuckoo clock, the recapitulation ensues. The teasing, second theme arrives in D major this time. The textural and textual thinness of the long codetta/development combo challenges you to read it carefully (with your ears, of course), to winkle out of it every morsel of Schubert's genius, here applied with uncharacteristic spareness. This brings the movement within about 1'20" of its end, the rest being a muscular coda whose rhetoric will already be familiar to those who have enjoyed Schubert's 4th and 5th symphonies.

I saved this symphony for the last "Reading Schubert" post because it is, frankly, the least satisfying of his nearly-great symphonies. When it comes to his first three symphonies, you're on your own. You will probably find, as I have found, that they're very clever pieces for a boy between the ages of 16 and 18. They show a lot of potential, and they also share recognizable features with his later symphonies, but you have to be a Schubert nut to go to the trouble of finding them and listening to them. I'm a Schubert nut. I got that way, however, not by listening to his symphonies, but by singing, playing the accompaniment of, and listening to his songs. He also left behind a spectacular body of music for piano and for various chamber ensembles, such as string quartet and quintet; and some lovely choral music, including slightly heterodox Masses that deserve mention for their sheer lyrical gorgeousness. His really good symphonies are just the icing on the cake!

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