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Franz Schubert - Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944 ('Great')

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Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major (originally numbered the 7th, causing a great deal of confusion in the Music Library) was written in 1828, the year of Schubert’s death.

Sometimes considered his greatest work, the 9th Symphony was never heard by the composer, because the Viennese musicians considered it unplayable; rather, it was premiered in a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert in 1839 under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn.

Schubert's Symphony No. 9 begins with a noble, reflective theme that reappears throughout the first movement. Well after Schubert's death, the theme's grandeur and sense of space, together with the sheer length of the Symphony, helped to earn it the nickname the "Great C Major"

In fact, the nickname was first applied by a music publisher to distinguish the work from Schubert's shorter and less ambitious 6th Symphony, the "Little C Major." But the name aptly describes both Schubert's evident intent in writing the work, and the stature of the final composition.

Schubert profoundly revered Beethoven. He may have paid the older composer a single visit, but generally he kept a humble distance, content with attending Beethoven's concerts including most probably the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth "Choral" Symphony in 1824. He served as one of Beethoven's pallbearers at the great man's funeral. Perhaps his greatest tribute to Beethoven was his resolve to write a grand symphony with the breadth and profundity of his predecessor's; and his Symphony No. 9 was the result.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Through the years, the numbering on Schubert's symphonies has repeatedly shifted because of discrepancies between Schubert's notations on his scores and the evidence from research into printing practices and paper production during his lifetime. Many early scholars believed that this Symphony was the last work Schubert worked on before his death at 31 from syphilis. One copy of the work, indeed, is dated "March 1828" in the composer's handwriting, which would place it only a few months before Schubert was laid to rest. The new technologies used to date paper and ink, however, have helped to prove that work on this symphony began as far back as 1825, and that it was completed sometime in 1826. Despite this earlier date, it is almost certain that Schubert never heard his masterpiece. He sent it off to the Vienna Philharmonic, which played it through; but the musicians declared it unsuitable to perform in public. After Schubert's death, his older brother Ferdinand assumed possession of all his brother's belongings. Eventually Ferdinand showed the manuscript of Symphony No. 9 to Schumann, who became a champion for the unknown work. Again, orchestras in Vienna and Paris claimed the work was too long and unwieldy even to tackle in rehearsal. Schumann therefore took it to his friend Mendelssohn, who was the conductor of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and Mendelssohn agreed to perform the work with his own orchestra. When, however, he attempted to perform it in London in 1844, despite extensive cuts the musicians refused.

Today its length and the physical as well as musical hurdles it poses for musicians are no longer novel; but it remains immensely challenging in performance. Schubert was particularly gifted at writing beautiful lines for the French horn, and it is the French horn's majestic motive from the slow introduction that becomes the recurring theme of the first movement. The movement's Allegro portion pulses and throbs with sheet rhythmic vitality, driving the music toward a riveting conclusion.

In the powerful Coda, the full orchestra returns to the opening motive once again. The second movement is intimate and deeply lyrical, and includes an intensely longing, plaintive melody for solo oboe. Once again this exquisite movement features magical writing for the French horn section. Eventually, the quiet mood is broken by an abrupt eruption of violently dissonant emotion.

The hearty Scherzo movement glances unmistakably back to the corresponding movement in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Beethoven first introduced the 'Scherzo and Trio,' and this movement, with its several themes and variations on form, closely mimics the earlier composer's work. In the movement's middle trio, the woodwinds play a waltz-like folk dance rhythm; and the Scherzo is filled with lyrical dance melodies.

Following an energetic introduction by the brass, churning, tumbling, triumphant triplet figures give the Finale an urgent, relentless momentum. In the movement's second theme we hear an unmistakable reminder of the main theme of the last, choral movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony ? perhaps another hint of tribute paid by one great composer to another. Just as Schumann observed, this high-spirited movement enthralls its listeners, drawing them along to the last joyous note.

Listen to Schubert's 9th Symphony

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