Symphony No 8

Franz Schubert

Between October 1817 and February 1818, Schubert completed his Sixth Symphony, known as “the Little C Major” D. 589.  In the following years, Schubert left a string of musical fragments (such as a twenty-five page manuscript of a symphony in D major and three others), in bits and pieces of abandoned ideas for future consideration.

Many scholars have suggested that Schubert had entered a period of deep self criticism  (hence the fragments) and vis-à-vis the symphony genre, the speculation has been that Schubert felt intimidated by Beethoven’s models. Amid the partly-finished works is his spellbinding Symphony No. 7 (sometimes called No. 8), known to posterity as “the Unfinished”, which he started on October 22, 1822. The manuscript is dated Vienna, October 30, 1822.

Schubert completed and orchestrated only two movements of D. 759, along with a partly orchestrated projected scherzo. Nine measures of the fully-orchestrated scherzo were found on the back of the Andante movement, and these were followed with four blank pages.  And then, he seemingly, “left the composition.”  He lived on for six more years, but never added to it. In fact, “he seemed not to give it another thought” (Steinberg). Perhaps, Steinberg suggests, “he simply did not know how to proceed.” Michael Griffel speculated, “It was just easier to shelve the problem and go on to something else.” Alfred Einstein declared, “Schubert could never have finished the work for nothing could approach the originality, power, and skill of the first two movements.”

D. 759 might easily have lain in the dust heap forever, except for the fact that in April 1823, Schubert sent the manuscript to the Styrian Musical Society in Graz (which had awarded him a Diploma of Honor) via Joseph Huttenbrenner. He also gave the score to his brother Anselm (who stored it in an old chest) before passing the score along to Johann von Herbeck in April 1865. Herbeck ultimately conducted the first performance on December 17, 1865, at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna.  Forty-three years had lapsed between the composing and the hearing.

It had been an amazing series of transfers and an astonishing series of chances to lose the two movements. A near disaster occurred when Anselm’s maid grabbed some of her employer’s Schubert collection to use as kindling for a fire. Fortunately, she grabbed Acts 2 and 3 of Schubert’s opera Claudine von villa Bella; so much for the history of the ultimate landing of the score with Johann von Herbeck.  There was to be an equally amazing future.  The Symphony became one of Schubert’s most enduring, cherished and affecting works.

The first movement, marked allegro moderato, opens with a mysterious, sad beginning for celli and double bases, marked pianissimo (very quiet). Violins emerge with a busy idea, while oboe and clarinet quickly offer a poignant duet. Orchestral chords interrupt, but the orchestra continues its course, rising to a surging crescendo. Shortly thereafter, the celli sing the famous waltz-like second theme, immediately taken up by violins. Schubert then throws in a shock; a brutal orchestral chord stops the flow. The famous melody returns only in pieces. Violins regain their footing to sing the opening of the idea and winds take part.  Again a big orchestral chord interrupts their fluency; deep rustling underscores growing turbulence. A massive struggle between gentleness and violence creates a setting of alternating wildness and calm, and thematic reticence. For a moment, the first theme manages to peep out again in the fray, growing in stature and drama, but is shut off by horns who prepare the way for violins to sing the second lush idea, seemingly unfettered. But not for long, as timpani and orchestral chords shut it off.  The recapitulation provides recall of the opening ideas, and these are followed by a small coda.

The Andante at first offers relief from the storms: lyricism, romantic yearning, and tenderness reign.  Yet, Schubert uses the same tentative beginning herein as in the first movement.  Bass strings play a descending passage in plucked articulation and winds and violins sing above.  Once again, Schubert whips the movement into emotional turmoil.  A quiet conclusion brings serenity, etched with resignation and ambiguity.

Deep sorrow reflects a significant component of Schubert’s musical personality.  “My music is the product of my genius and my misery and that which I have written in my greatest distress is that which the world seems to like best,” the composer commented.  The Eighth Symphony never ceases to enthrall us.  The two movements stand as a masterpiece, “sufficient unto the day.” (Schubert, Misery in Music)

The last performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B Minor was in November 2010, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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