World Premiere: December 17, 1865
Last HSO Performance: HSO Premiere
Instrumentation: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone, timpani, strings
The mystery surrounding the composition of the “Unfinished” Symphony is one of the most intriguing puzzles in the entire realm of music. The work was left incomplete not because Schubert’s death intervened, as happened with Mozart’s Requiem, Bartók’s Viola Concerto or Puccini’s Turandot. Indeed, the Eighth Symphony occupied Schubert fully six years before his death at the pathetically early age of only 31. It is known that Schubert composed the first two movements of this “Grand Symphony,” as he referred to it, in the autumn of 1822, and then abruptly stopped work. He sent the manuscript to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who was supposed to pass it on to the Styrian Music Society of Graz in appreciation of an honorary membership that that organization had conferred upon Schubert the previous spring. Anselm, described by Schubert’s biographer Hans Gal as a “peevish recluse,” never sent the score. Instead, he squirreled it away in his desk, where it gathered dust for forty years. It was not until 1865 that he presented it for performance to Johann Herbeck, director of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, in return asking that one of his own tedious overtures also be included on the concert. Schubert’s magnificent torso was an immediate success at its premiere, and has since maintained its position as one of the most popular symphonic pieces ever written.
Lacking conclusive evidence, writers on Schubert have advanced a fascinating variety of explanations as to why the young composer never completed the last two planned movements of this Symphony. Among others: he was too ill with syphilis; he could not be bothered with the labor of writing down the last two movements; his friends believed he was basically a song composer rather than an instrumental composer, and their arguments caused him to lose faith in this large work; the last two movements were lost; he despaired of ever having a work of this scale performed; a new commission intervened; Hüttenbrenner’s servant used the manuscript to start a fire. All of these have been proven false. The truth is that, despite exhaustive research, there is no conclusive evidence to support any single theory. The explanation currently given the greatest credence is that Schubert thought he could not match the wonderful inspiration of the first two movements in what was to follow, so he abandoned this Symphony for work on another project and simply never returned to complete it.
Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony is notable for the beauty of its themes, the richness of its orchestration, the sincerity of its emotional expression, and the clarity of its structure. The first movement is a sonata-allegro form that begins without introduction. The first theme, in the dark tonality of B minor, is made up of three components: a brooding, eight-measure phrase heard immediately in unison cellos and basses; a restless figure for violins; and a broad melody played by oboe and clarinet. As the music grows in intensity and dynamic level, it modulates to the key of the second theme, the bright, contrasting tonality of G major. This theme, one of the most famous melodies ever written for orchestra, is played by cellos over a syncopated accompaniment in violas and clarinets. A series of decisive chords and a tossing-about of fragments of the second theme bring the exposition to a close. The development, based entirely on the movement’s opening phrase, begins softly in unison cellos and basses. This lengthy central section rises to great peaks of emotional tension before the recapitulation begins with the restless violin figure of the first theme. The oboe-clarinet theme is heard again, as is the renowned second theme, before the movement ends with restatements of the cello and bass phrase that began both the exposition and the development. The second movement is in the form of a large sonatina (sonata form without a development section) and flows like a calm river, filled with rich sonorities and lovely melodies. Of it, Alfred Einstein wrote, “The whole movement in its mystery and unfathomable beauty is like one of those plants whose flowers open only on a night of the full moon.”
©2023 Dr. Richard E. Rodda