Franz Peter Schubert - Life and Music

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Franz Schubert Orchestral Works - Introduction

Music > Orchestral Music > Symphonies


For a long time the musical world was unaware of its good fortune that simultaneously with the late Beethoven there appeared a so much younger genius, whose forms and content were something completely new and final. If Beethoven had died at the age of thirty-one, we would have only his First Symphony.

At his death in 1828, Franz Peter Schubert left behind him seven complete symphonies and one 'Unfinished' (as well as about 100 measures of an E major Symphony and the so-called 'Gmunden-Gastein' Symphony which has to this day not been found).

Beethoven had reached his zenith and Schubert was yet at the threshhold in the years 1813 to 1818, during which Schubert composed six symphonies. The works of Mozart and Haydn were already part of the standard repertoire of an increasingly broad public musical interest. A difficult heritage for the 16-year-old Schubert to live up to.

Franz Schubert received important impulses for his musical development from the cultivated musical atmosphere in his parents's home. Later he gained deeper insights into the technical foundations of music while a member of the Court boys choir and pupil at the school where the boys were educated.

By the time he left this school at the age of sixteen, he had already composed (among other things) his first symphony, which he had performed with the school orchestra. Most of his later symphonies were performed in his circle of friends. The amateur musical circle which his father had founded had gradually grown into quite a sizeable orchestra. In addition to several strings, there were now also a number of woodwind and brass players. As the small flat which had been allotted to Schubert's father as a teacher could no longer accommodate such a large group, they moved to the larger quarters of a merchant friend; here they met twice a week under the expert direction of the violinist Josef Prohaska to work on small symphonies. As these gatherings began to attract a regular audience, the ensemble was once again forced to move to still larger quarters. Otto Hatwig, a former member of the Burgtheater orchestra, assumed leadership of the group in 1815 and allowed them to meet in his home.

It then became possible to play much more ambitious works: the orchestra performed overtures and the larger symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Krommer, Romberg, Mehul and others. Indeed, the young Schubert even became acquainted with Beethoven's first three symphonies here. And his own fourth and fifth symphonies were composed for this orchestra. Franz Schubert's symphonies nos. 1 to 5 give a clear view of the young composer's development. Despite the sixteen-year-old schoolboy's independence of mind, his first symphony shows the influence of his great contemporary Beethoven, whom he probably never met, although both of them lived in Vienna.

Schubert's third symphony (early summer of 1815) incorporates his impressions of Rossini, who was attracting so much attention in Vienna at that time. In the spring of 1816, Schubert was occupied with Beethoven's fifth symphony and the Coriolan overture; the fruits of this work are to be found in his fourth symphony, the 'Tragic'. But within only a few month's time, he turned to Mozart. In his diary we find such remarks as this:

'Oh Mozart, immortal Mozart, how many, oh how infinitely many soothing impressions of a brighter, better life have you imprinted upon our souls!'.

This new interest of the ninteen-year-old Schubert clearly marks three of his instrumental compositions: an allegro for string trio, a small overture and, especially, the fifth symphony. In the two orchestral works, an external mark of this change in style is the fact that they are written for a smaller range of instruments than before.

In the overture Schubert employs no flutes or clarinets; and in the fifth symphony he omits not only the clarinets, but even the trumpets and timpani. In keeping with the diary entry quoted above, Schubert's 'Fifth' is a glowing declaration of sympathy with Mozart, whose symphony in G minor (K 550) had an unmistakable influence on the formal conception of the younger man's composition.

Unlike more 'successful' composers of the day, Schubert probably never heard an adequate performance of a single one of his orchestral works. It is sad indeed that after the performance of the Sixth in 1818 his symphonies were never again played in public during his lifetime. In the years following Schubert's death, the musical world gradually warmed to his magnificent, if largely unknown, orchestral works. The late 19th and early 20th centuries added the extra weight of their own orchestral styles to the performance of these symphonies, and by the middle of the 20th century such heavily-laden interpretations were abundant, if not overly concerned with the spirit of Schubert's own times.

The numbering of Schubert's Symphonies

Between 1813 and 1818 Schubert wrote six symphonies, now known as Nos. 1-6. In 1818 he drafted a four-movement Symphony in E (now No. 7) in outline but only orchestrated the start of the first movement. In 1822 he composed and orchestrated two movements of a Symphony in B minor (now No.8, the ‘Unfinished’) and drafted part of a third movement; whether or not he had drafted a finale remains moot.

In 1825-26 he completed a large Symphony in C major (now No. 9, the ‘Great’). There are in addition numerous sketches and fragments for other symphonies, and in the 1970s it was realized that these included the nearly-complete draft of a three-movement Symphony in D from the summer and autumn of 1828. A performing version of this work was orchestrated by Brian Newbould as Symphony No. 10.

The first Schubert Symphony to be performed was the ‘Great’: this was designated by Schubert’s brother Ferdinand as ‘No. 7’ as early as the 1830s. In the 1840s the thematic catalogue of Schubert’s works prepared by Alois Fuchs accepted this numbering and also called the drafted E major symphony ‘No. 8’. The two completed movements of the B minor symphony were not performed until 1865, and it was George Grove who decided that this symphony – the ‘Unfinished’ - should be No. 8, with the E major dropping to No. 7 and the Great C major becoming No. 9. Though this has been the preferred numbering ever since, not least because it respects the chronological order of these works, the old numbering of the Great C major as No.7 has been remarkably persistent and is still sometimes encountered. In addition to this the revised Deutsch catalogue edited by Walter Dürr and Arnold Fell has proposed that the E major Symphony should have no number, that the ‘Unfinished’ should be called ‘No. 7’ and the Great C major ‘No. 8’: but this view, as well as being illogical – the E major Symphony is essentially an entire work, as various completions have shown – is unlikely to prevail over current practice.


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