Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reading Schubert's 9th

The "Great C Major" Symphony by Franz Schubert, his last and greatest symphony, has been numbered his 7th, 8th, and 9th in different catalogues of his works. It is sometimes called the 7th because, although it was the last symphony Schubert completed, it came to light before the 8th (which, remember, wasn't performed until 37 years after the composer's death). It is sometimes called the 8th, either because it did come after the "Unfinished Symphony," or because the Number 7 is customarily assigned to an even-more-unfinished Symphony in E (which was completed in sketch form, but only partially orchestrated, before something broke Schubert's train of thought). Nowadays, however, Schubert's "Great C Major" symphony is most widely designated as his Ninth, after both the E major sketch symphony and the B minor "Unfinished"...except by those who have given up numbering them altogether and just call it Schubert's "Great C Major" symphony.

To illustrate further how confusing all this is, there is also the question of the "Gastein symphony" Schubert was supposedly working on in 1825, but which was regarded as lost for many years. The recently-discovered but probably-spurious Symphony in E, which I described here, has been put forward as a candidate for this vacancy, but more recently it has been been proved that the "Great C Major" symphony (completed in 1828) was, in fact, the self-same large-scale symphony Schubert was working on in 1825. And finally, just to make sure your last nerve is raw, further sketches have been found of another 1828 symphony, this one in D, which is now known as Schubert's 10th, or "Last," Symphony. I have yet to hear it performed.

But now, back to the 9th. The original reason this symphony was called the "Great C Major" Symphony was to distinguish this large-scale work from Schubert's 6th, a shorter symphony in the same key which is therefore nicknamed the "Little C Major" Symphony. Most of us would rather think the nickname "Great" has to do with the symphony's grandeur and sophistication, its status as the Schubert's crowning achievement, its large dimensions and its breadth of scope. Any of which would be adequate grounds for calling this symphony "Great."

The first movement opens with a stately horn solo, introducing a moderately slow ("Andante") introduction which goes on so long that it might fake you into thinking it's the movement proper. But this finally builds and accelerates into a fast sonata, based on material unrelated to the slow intro. The first subject group combines dotted rhythms, broken triads, scales, and an accompaniment of repeated chords in a rapid triplet rhythm. Schubert seems to be grappling with the very elements of music here. After about 50 bars of this, plus very little in the way of transition, a second subject group begins with a much more distinctive melody in E minor. While this subject undergoes some exposition-section development (a touch of the formal heterodoxy that contributes to this symphony's unusual length), a melancholy countersubject is introduced by the trombone in A-flat minor - making this the first symphony to give such an independent role to the trombone. The expo section closes with a codetta full of noisy grandeur; and although it adds a good deal to the length of the movement, I think observing the repeat sign is vital to appreciating the surprising harmonic turn at the beginning of the development.

The second subject and its countersubject provide most of the thematic material for the development, though the triplet rhythm from the first subject pervades a lot of it too. There are about 100 measures of development (compared to around 350 of expo, including the repeat). The recap begins as expected, with the first subject in its original key of C, and the second subject begins in C minor this time, but the structural heterodoxy continues as the music continues to modulate, reaching the D-flat minor in time for the trombone theme, which then follows its own tortured route back to C major. The recap closes with a codetta that might have been an adequate ending for the movement...but Schubert keeps going for another 113 bars!

This extended coda brings back the first subject, now in the character of "wrapping up music" as opposed to its original "getting underway" character. Schubert goes a little crazy in this coda. First, he pulls some chromatic stunts to mess around with your sense of having arrived. Then he does some lickety-split, Italian-comic-opera-overture-on-way-too-much-espresso stuff, and finally he commits the ultimate enormity against sonata orthodoxy by reintroducing the subject of the slow introduction in the very closing bars, pulling this whole huge, 15-minute movement together in an incredible unity. It's amazing.

If anything, Movement II runs a bit longer. But you hardly notice the passage of time. A sonata-rondo marked "Andante con moto," which I translate as "an ordinary marching pace" - neither funereal nor double-quick - it begins with seven measures of accompaniment that contain only a few tantalizing hints of the melody to come. It finally does come in bar 8: a rounded-binary marching tune introduced by the oboe in A minor. If this theme hasn't changed your life by bar 23, I don't want to speak to you. It has all the right things in it, and none of the wrong things: sincerity without sentimentality, good humor without shallow sparkle, strength and dignity without pompousness or brutality, gentle pathos without self-pity, wit without irony, and a steady tread without becoming tiresome.

The theme has another side to it, however. After a quietly glowing A-major passage concludes the first part of the rondo subject, the second part commences in E major: harsh, strident, and alarming, with what sounds like bugle calls in the midst of battle, and a massive unison passage. The section ends with a return to the nice oboe theme and the A-major closing passage, but then repeats with some further development of the strident material before closing again in a similar manner.

The episode, beginning in F major, introduces a sweet, hymn-like theme that achieves its own dramatic climax, and also has a second theme in D minor (I seem to recall it being introduced by a clarinet). The rondo subject (ritornello) returns, with some variation suggesting, again, signals from a distant battle. This time the strident part takes the ball and runs with it, undergoing a considerable amount of development and reaching the loudest climax of the piece so far...and then, after a pause, very softly and hesitantly, a new theme appears (which is really based on the first subject).

This strange moment past, the episode material returns in varied guise (and in A major this time), having seemingly picked up an electric charge since we last heard it. This added energy breaks forth in an emphatic climax. The second theme (now in F-sharp minor) leads to a soft transition back to the final ritornello, in which the rondo subject is almost immediately interrupted by coda figuration that combines bits of all the themes.

Some time ago, I blogged a poem I wrote based on the third movement. It says what I feel about this movement, apart from noting that it's a pretty much orthodox Scherzo-and-Trio structure, only in more of the character of a rustic Austrian dance with lots of colorful leggings, wooden clogs, and tassels galore. The remarkable thing about this movement is that it is so long. Built to the proportions of this nearly hour-long symphony - I should have warned you before about how much time you would need to set aside for this! - this scherzo alone, with repeats, runs for around 11 minutes.

Then the finale hits you, runs right over you, and speeds off into the distance before you can get a good look at its plates. It only runs slightly longer than the scherzo. It opens with flourishy triplet material based on the C-major triad, loudly accented dotted figures, and running parallel thirds that seem to be building up to something. That pretty much sums up this whole first subject group, which (like its counterpart in the first movement) seems to be leading to something else, although it goes on for over 100 bars. A long transition passage then leads to a very strong dominant cadence (that's G major for y'all). Then Schubert takes a deep breath before introducing his second theme, which is characterized by accented, repeated notes. The triplets sneak back in as an accompaniment figure as Schubert develops this theme, then chucks in some runs in dotted rhythms, harking back to the first group and thereby provoking loud protests from the second group's repeated-note theme. Out of this grows a climactic melody, related to the second theme, which seems to be the very thing the whole first group was aiming for. A charming codetta then leads to another obligatory repeat (don't groan; it's worth it) and, the second time around, to a development section that leads off with that big, noble tune.

About 180 measures later, the second-group theme with the repeated notes gets its turn at the trough, figuring in some of the most masculine music Schubert ever wrote. Then Schubert outdoes all his previous atrocities against sonata form by bringing in the recap in the wrong key. Starting in E-flat major, instead of C, it works its way to a resounding E major cadence (still not C). But after another deep breath, the second group cleverly pivots on a unison E into C major. Afterward it threatens not to stay in C, but all its harmonic adventures lead back to C again, where the big, loud, noble codetta theme looks poised to wrap things up...but again, as in the first movement, this proves to be a feint. Schubert lets the tonic cadence die away in a long diminuendo, then starts fiddling around with all his themes, and going through any number of keys, in a coda some 250 bars in length. Of course the last couple of pages are nothing but huge V-I cadences, befitting the massive proportions of this symhony's architecture.

Okay, maybe you did have time to get a look at its plates. It was a 12-minute finale, after all. But unlike some other hour-long symphonies I could name, the length isn't all - or even mostly - the result of insecure hestitations and discursive ramblings. Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony is a consistently inspired piece that owes its large dimensions to its wealth of big, versatile themes that seem to generate pages of variation and extension from within themselves. For all that you could probably get in a good, refreshing nap during the time it takes to listen to this symphony, you will probably be on the edge of your seat through all of it, and will go home humming tunes - like the horn solo from the very beginning of the piece - that you last heard the better part of an hour ago. Which is a good sign that you have encountered an unforgettable piece of music.

IMAGES: Schubert at age 18; the autograph score of the Great C Major Symphony; Schubert later in life; Schubert's desk with the score of his last song; the room where Schubert died.

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