Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Reading Schubert's 8th

Franz Peter Schubert's 8th Symphony in B minor has been nicknamed "The Unfinished Symphony." It's not that there aren't other unfinished symphonies, but mystery and tragedy of this particular symphony's being unfinished is especially poignant. Even as it stands - trailing off into silence after two magnificent movements - it is one of the greatest, most nearly flawless works of the symphonic art.

Schubert (1797-1828) wrote his B-minor first movement and the E-major slow movement that goes with it in 1822, when he still had 6 years to live and another whole symphony to write. He also sketched most of a scherzo, but barely started orchestrating it before he stopped working on this symphony, for reasons unknown. One can only speculate as to what kind of finale Schubert had in mind; but given the large proportions of the two completed movements, the finished symphony would probably have run for 45-50 minutes. As it is, the symphony clocks in at about 25 minutes.

Movement I is an innovative and intensely expressive sonata. It is also a very successful, large-scale structure, considering that its composer specialized in miniature musical forms, such as Lieder (art songs). His song-writing background goes a long way toward explaining the tuneful lyricism of this movement, in which nothing is quite what it seems to be. For example, the principal theme pretends to be a deep, soft, brief introduction. The next thing you hear (unless you're listening to this piece on your car radio, in which case you probably can't hear anything yet) is a rustling accompaniment. The tune to go with the accompaniment enters a few bars later - a plaintive, mysterious melody that pretends to be the principal theme, though it is really only transitional material. This builds quickly to a minor climax; then a gentle, sunny second theme emerges over a syncopated accompaniment. After everything (including the supposed introduction) is repeated, everything becomes clear in the development, which is mostly built on motives taken from that deep, ominous, opening theme. The same theme also dominates the atmospheric coda.

And now, luxuriate in the breathtakingly beautiful slow movement which alternates between two broad theme groups. The first group has a sweet, tender, delicate theme; the second alternates between bubbly, cheerful tune (introduced by the clarinet) and contrapuntal passages charged with dramatic power. The movement ends with a mild joke in which the first theme seems to be searching for the correct key.

Why didn't Schubert finish this work? Some say he must have felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of following up such a magnificent pair of movements. Or, perhaps, he simply became preoccupied with other projects, and in a lapse of artistic judgment did not consider this symphony worth completing. In any case, Schubert passed off the score of the two completed movements to a fellow-composer named Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who did not bother to have it performed until 1865! 42 years is a long time for a world-class masterpiece to spend locked in some third-rate musician's desk drawer. Let's be thankful that this paradoxical paragon of unfinished perfection finally came to light!

IMAGES: Schubert; Schubert's eyeglasses on the manuscript of one of his songs. EDIT: As a special surprise bonus, the following video is not of the symphony itself, but of the first half of a Passacaglia by Godowsky on the opening theme of this symphony. I think it's brilliant. Plus, the video enables you to follow along in the score!Be sure to follow it up with Part 2!

No comments: