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There is nothing in Schubert’s previous symphonic output, certainly not the Fourth (the 'Tragic'), despite its inappropriate and portentous nickname, that prepares us for the quality of the Symphony No. 8 in B minor (D. 759), universally known as the ‘Unfinished’ and sometimes renumbered as Symphony No. 7.
This is the most romantic of all Schubert's symphonies. A new world of sound is created here, harmony, finely graded according to the individual colour of each instrument, and melody shaded to a minute degree; the whole written in a polyphonic style of vast
range and tremendous power.
It was written in October 1822, around the same time when the composer was diagnosed with syphillis, the disease that would ultimately lead to his death. One can imagine that he was not feeling all too comfortable when he scored the symphony.
Although it was composed six years before the Ninth Symphony ('The Great in C, D. 944), 43 years elapsed before it received its first performance, which took place at a concert given by the Society of Music Friends in Vienna, under Johann Herbeck, on December 7, 186S. At the performance, the Finale of the Third Symphony in D major was added, but this experiment was not adhered to subsequently. As a matter of fact the two finished movements form a complete whole. The mystery surrounding the composition of the symphony is one of the most intriguing puzzles in the entire realm of music. The score is supposed to have come into Huttenbrenner's possession as a present for the latter having made Schubert an honorary member of the Music Society in Graz, but it is still uncertain whether Schubert did dedicate an unfinished work. However, it seems likely that the surviving movements were in fact the only ones he completed.
Never having heard a single one of his symphonies in a professional performance (and he never heard the last two at all), he had to count his symphonic work as a luxury and may well have had to turn to some more immediately remunerative work midway through the B minor, never finding time to complete it. The fact that we have only two movements of this miraculous work has led to ceaseless speculation as to the fate of the remaining two.
Schubert was notoriously absent-minded, albeit selectively, and it is well established that he lost quite a number of movements and shorter pieces. There seems little doubt that he intended to finish it: there is an almost complete draft of the scherzo, and some scholars have argued that the B minor Entr’acte in Schubert’s incidental music for Rosamunde is in fact the completed but discarded finale.
Neither of these contenders, however, is on the exalted level of the two completed movements, nor is it easy to understand how the B minor Entr’acte could ever have made a satisfactory finale. Other anomalies include the strange fact that while Schubert repeatedly refers to the succeeding C major Symphony (the ‘Great’) in letters to his friends, the ‘Unfinished’ never gets so much as a mention. More striking still, and wholly consistent with Schubert’s silence on the subject, is the fact that the ‘Unfinished’, while on a huge scale, gives us some of his most personal, anguished and intimate music – music of a nature never previously associated with the very ‘public’ medium of the symphony.
The plot thickens when we discover that the period of its composition coincides exactly with the onset and diagnosis of Schubert’s syphilis. While a composer’s inner life and external circumstances do not necessarily find expression in his music, this particular coincidence is entirely consistent with the darkness, poignancy and violent eruptions of anguished protest that characterise both movements of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. Whatever the explanation, the two completed movements complement each other perfectly, and together constitute one of the supreme masterpieces in musical history. To all the Schubertian virtues must be added a genius for orchestration, from an expressive, structural and purely sensual point of view, and a now-complete mastery of large-scale forms.
I. Allegro moderato in B minor
II. Andante con moto in E major
Listen to the 'Unfinished' Symphony
Manuscript of The Unfinished symphony