The complete guide to Franz Schubert, part one: the symphonies

Thursday, January 30, 2020

In the first of a three-part series, Michael Quinn talks about Schubert's symphonies to conductors, Sir Colin Davis, Roger Norrington and Frans Briiggen and Schubert scholar Brian Newbould

In a great many respects the debate about Schubert's symphonies is only just getting under way. While the definition of 'authenticity' has incrementally revealed itself to be much more elastic than originally imagined - perhaps even intended - and as the practice of period-instrument performance in recent years has begun to make ever deeper and more incisive incursions into the 19th century, the received wisdom about Schubert's contribution to the development of the symphony has stubbornly continued to maintain that he didn't in fact contribute much to it, if indeed, anything at all. Some who hold to this view with staunch obstinacy will occasionally allow that aspects of the Great C major Symphony perhaps offer indications of an innovative and forward-looking symphonic imagination at work.

Pressed further, they might shamefacedly allow another begrudging inch to the flawed because ambiguous experiment that has acquired the nickname of the Unfinished. But thus far and adamantly no further. The rest of Schubert's symphonies, popular prejudice has concluded, are at best imperfect and inconsequential, at worst juvenile and derivative. Thus Schubert, a veritable demigod when it comes to Lieder, remains a mere earthbound mortal in relation to the symphony.

There is, of course, an alternative reading of the oeuvre; an analysis that sees Schubert's symphonies as uniquely a product of the wholly unsystematic and largely serendipitous shift between the musical periods we've come to know as the Classical and the Romantic eras. As such, they occupy an unenviable position in which the confusion of history has tended to cloud their merits and obfuscate their true value. But closer scrutiny of them, however contentious a proposition, brings to mind Ernst Hilmar's telling observation that "Schubert is remarkable in the way in which he manages to elude his biographers". He might also have added, with equal frustration, that his symphonies are similarly remarkable for the way in which they have managed to elude germane critical consideration for much of the 150 years and more since they were written.

Schubert's symphonies, though, have been quietly enjoying greater attention in recent years from pundits, practitioners and public alike. Even so, they remain for most observers diminished by the long totemic shadow cast by Beethoven across the 19th century or obscured in the murky period between the great master's death and the 'rebirth' of the symphony under Brahms and Bruckner. If the Unfinished and the Great are accorded a paragraph (or even two) in symphonic histories, the rest are usually allowed little more than a footnote.

Perhaps posterity's problem with Schubert is his sheer prodigality. In a career that lasted, even at a most generous estimate, only 18 years, he produced more than 1000 works. If, as Goethe famously remarked, "Genius is industry", then Schubert (notwithstanding his other attributes) was a genius. The contribution of the symphonies to that verdict is much contested.

Brian Newbould, the Schubert scholar, offers the following thumbnail assessment. "Some claim that Schubert is overshadowed by Beethoven, but I would have to object. They may have lived and worked alongside each other but they were rather different composers. It's important to remember that Schubert completed his Ninth Symphony – the last he completed - when he was 29. At the same age Beethoven had only just begun to work on his First Symphony. The point is, that the Ninth must be considered one of the pinnacles of the symphonic repertoire and if he had lived for a few more years, there's no knowing what he might have done. As for what he did do, in the first six symphonies he looked back to the 18th century and produced a late flowering of the classical symphony, including at least two works - the Third and the Fifth (an incomparable, perfect work) - that have become popular favourites. After that he had his problems, but there's no denying that the Eighth and Ninth are both towering masterpieces, worthy to stand alongside the greatest of Beethoven's symphonies."

Conductor Sir Colin Davis, offers a more succinct appraisal. "The two famous ones we all know, No 6 doesn't get much of an airing, No 5 is very famous, No 4 occasionally gets played, No 3 is beautiful and short; No 2 is infernally difficult and very long and No 1, a lovely, enchanting piece, hardly ever gets played at all."

The number (and numbering) of Schubert's symphonies is still a thorny question, but we know that between the ages of 14 and 31, he attempted to write a symphony on at least 13 separate occasions. He completed eight. (Nine if you side with the argument that says the Unfinished has a singularly inappropriate nickname.) He began by copying the vocabulary and grammar first articulated in Bach's Sinfonias and later in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. By the end he was creating new ways of thinking about the form that had vital and far-reaching consequences. Whatever other forms he chose to compose in, the symphony was clearly a form with which Schubert was intensely engaged, intimately involved.

"My own private theory," Sir Colin offers against complaints of imitation in the early symphonies, "is that Mozart and Bach left behind them a pretty impossible situation because they did everything it was possible to do with that language and so whoever came after them had got to try to do something different. Which is what Schubert did."

Newbould, meanwhile, posits the notion that in using Mozart and Haydn as role models, Schubert may have been deliberately avoiding the risk of writing a Beethovenian-sounding symphony - a surely understandable impulse given the elder man's stature - and goes on to suggest that "the key to his musical personality is that he's the same kind of composer as Mozart" and that, significantly, "the debts to Mozart in the early symphonies have been rather overlooked".

The First Symphony was written when Schubert was still only 16 years of age. Two years previously he had made an unsuccessful attempt to do what he finally managed to complete in October 1813. The influence of Haydn's "London" Symphonies can be easily discerned but, argues Sir Colin, "if you study the introduction and the way it comes back in the recapitulation", so too can Mozart's Posthorn Serenade. "But I don't see any harm in that. There's nothing wrong in having role-models. Elgar did the same: wrote a symphony in G minor bar for bar."

Composed directly into score (a feat repeated for the first six symphonies), the First is a remarkable achievement that demonstrates an already mature command of orchestral forces and an intuitive feeling for symphonic timescale and engineering. By the time he came to write the Second Symphony (which he began in December 1814 and took a little over three months to finish) the urge to experiment was already beginning to make itself felt. More ambitious and less orthodox, it's a work in which the tensions between ambition and ability are never far from the surface. Within it, though, was a major technical advance and a striking addition to the language of the symphony - the employment of a three-key exposition in the first movement. For Sir Colin Davis this is the most noticeable and commendable structural feature in a work that "jolts you into another way of thinking about the symphony. The first movement is something that one has to go away and think about. You've done it once and then he starts an exposition in the dominant and, Heaven help us, he asks you to do it all over again! It's incredibly hard to keep it up, if you can get people to play it at all."

The Third Symphony followed the Second with much the same impact as the sun coming out from behind a storm cloud. Set against the exhaustive squalls of the B flat work, it seems positively euphoric, blissfully paradisical. Composed in an eight-week blur in the late spring of 1815, it swapped Beethovenian muscle for Mozartian poetics to produce what Davis salutes as "the most masterly of the early symphonies. He's not experimenting, he just knows how a classical symphony goes and he's having fun writing one with that D major brilliance and all the dance music." Newbould happily concurs, lauding it as "a matchless jewel among the treasures of Schubert's youth".

Frans Brüggen takes a contrary view. "The first three symphonies are a misery," he laments. "They're very young and some of the writing is impossible to play. You cannot expect a flute and an oboe to play pianissimo on the last note while having to play the very highest note in the instrument!" When pressed, Brüggen concedes some ground on the merits of Schubert's matchless capacity for melody and harmony.

They may contain "some lovely music," he says, "but they couldn't be said to be matchless. After all, melody and harmony are easy devices to write in symphonic form and Schubert's handling of them is not nearly as varied as Beethoven's."

Roger Norrington, another period-instrument advocate, shares many of Briiggen's views but leaps to the aid of Schubert here, defending the young composer's right to exploit what he calls "the element of fiddling about. I've never written a piece of music of any consequence myself, so I don't really know what the process is like, but I'm sure it's a much more human activity than we give it credit for."

Both men concur, however, on the revelations that can derive from what Norrington, shying away from the the assertion of 'authenticity' in performance, calls "historically informed practice. You can't be authentic. Authentic is claiming something you can't substantiate. The fact of the matter is that from Gesualdo to almost 1890 we haven't got the faintest idea how musicians really played, we've just got a few hints."

Questions of taste and propriety inevitably come to the fore in the debate about period performances, a potential quagmire that Brüggen neatly sidesteps with the observation that "old instruments help, but they're not a guarantee. The instruments of Schubert's time sound different from those used by symphony orchestras of today, but you can actually come a long way with modern instruments. In any case, it's not the age of the instrument which guarantees any success, it's the attitude of the musician playing it and how that attitude is expressed."

Brian Newbould, himself a composer and, more appositely, responsible for preparing a 'completed' version of the Unfinished and a 'realization' of the fragmentary Tenth Symphony, "greatly values" the general thrust of period investigation for the affirmation of Schubert's orchestrational skills it offers. "One hears things with a different kind of balance and the conductors engaged in these kinds of explorations also concern themselves with other musicological aspects. They go back to source material and rethink matters of tempo and dynamics and articulation and much else."

The early Schubert symphonies, given their own position at a time of constant flux and their tendency to look back to classical idioms while also discreetly 'borrowing' from contemporaneous Beethovenian innovations, severally confound historically informed practice. As Newbould observes, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies are perfect examples of this Janus-like tendency.

"The Fourth, in C minor (his first minor-key symphony), is really a throwback to the Sturm und Drang symphonies of Haydn and Mozart with some hints of Beethoven in it as well. The Fifth, however, could have been written without Beethoven ever having existed; it has a reduced orchestra and clear affinities with Mozart."

For Davis - who eschews period instruments in favour of "more versatile, less troublesome" modern machines - the interpretative conundrum these pivotal works pose is that "while they clearly represent a fulcrum between the Classical and Romantic eras, we don't really know that - or shouldn't - until we get to the Unfinished".

Such pluralist tendencies (which become even more exaggerated when comparing early symphonies with late) are for other conductors as much indicators of the composer's own personality as of his musical tendencies. Consequently, Frans Brüggen insists, "there is a far greater distance between Beethoven and Schubert than we allow. With Beethoven in almost every bar you hear the piano improviser, with Schubert in almost every bar I hear the song improviser." Roger Norrington agrees and argues that, in any case, Schubert had a different agenda from that of his Bonn-born contemporary. "As Beethoven dramatized classical form," he says, "so Schubert lyricized it." And to him the jumble of contrary and now hidden, now explicit elements necessitates something of a subtle juggling act in performance.

"If you root Schubert in the Classical, you notice how intensely Romantic the music is. Schubert is perhaps more Romantic than some later composers - Mendelssohn, say – but making him super-Romantic doesn't help. If you treat him like a late-Romantic composer, he begins to sound like a rather mild imitation of that idiom. Schubert's music is very Romantic, but it's wrong to fall back into that slough of inappropriate Romanticism and make it sound like late-19th century."

By the time of the Sixth Symphony, begun in October 1817 and completed four months later in February 1818, Schubert seems to have resolved many questions about the direction he was taking for himself. After the chamber-size nostalgia of the Fifth his gaze turned across the Alps towards Rossini. With new influences came new innovations. "Schubert," volunteers Brüggen, "was a great admirer - and at the same time, despiser - of Rossini, but he learned a lot of tricks from him." Davis, too, recognizes Rossinian touches in the Sixth and speculates about Schubert's possible attraction to the wit and humour with which Rossini manipulated the forces to hand, "especially with the second Bohemian tune with its accent on the wrong part of the bar; it's like some drunken chap walking in the gutter with one leg longer than the other; it lurches in a wonderful way".

Fresh new ways of exploiting particular orchestral groupings - the woodwind choir in the Sixth, for example, which Brüggen makes a deliberate point of separating from the body of the orchestra - were taken from Rossini, but Schubert was also developing new and original ideas of his own in these late early symphonies.

And yet endeavours to apply these new concepts in a Seventh Symphony unexpectedly faltered. Brian Newbould believes that Schubert was wholly cognizant of the need to annex new territory and that that intimidating pressure in itself may have contributed to the two unconsummated attempts, although "a more practical answer" may well have been the composer's then current preoccupation with an opera commission, AIfonso und Estrella. "Success in opera for composers at the time was a coveted prize and he was quite determined to make it. But marvellous though some of the operatic music is - and I wish we had more high-quality recordings to allow us to explore them in greater detail - I have to say that he was obviously happier with the inner drama of the Lied than with the external drama of opera."

A gap of three years and two uncompleted symphonic fragments separates the Sixth from the Seventh Symphony. When it appeared it was a work as different from its predecessor as to make it almost seem the work of another composer altogether.

"There was a general freeing up of symphonic form in the early part of the 19th century," according to Newbould, "and Schubert took the opportunity that provided to experiment quite a bit. The Seventh Symphony, a transitional and prophetic work, was the most experimental and forward-looking thus far and a tentative attempt at a grosse Symphonie. The first movement is an almost seamless piece which avoids repetition of the exposition and goes right through into the development. You can hardly tell where one section leads into another. The same is true of the recapitulation where he omits the first theme. He also reintroduced trombones into the orchestra, having abandoned them in the abortive attempt at a First Symphony in 1811. Thereafter they became very important to him because they didn't have the limitations other brass instruments of the time had, and in his use of them, Schubert was pointing the way forward as Beethoven had not."

And then came the B minor Symphony, the so-called Unfinished, and the Great C major Ninth. It's around these works that the bulk of the debate about what a Schubert symphony should actually sound like accrues. To Davis, the Eighth may be unfinished, but it's by no means incomplete. "It's a terrifying piece – that noise from the abyss which opens it up and that terrible dry rustling of heat and the melancholy of the second movement! - but infinitely touching. There wasn't any need for any more of that symphony; it has two numbers in compound time that complement one another completely." For Norrington, the issues the symphony raises have little to do with what isn't there and everything to do with what is - the notations and markings. Most pertinently it demands a very clear-headed approach to the question of tempos and dynamics.

"I can't believe that the Allegro moderato in the first movement can be played adagio as is common practice. It does sound glorious played like that but it doesn't make sense to me. My understanding is that the meaning of tempo markings underwent a significant change during the course of the century. What Schubert understood by andante would have meant something different to Mozart. For Mozart it was relatively moving along and andantino meant slower. For Schubert, andante was slightly slower and andantino meant faster. So there was clearly some sort of watershed that occurred but where and to what extent we have still to discover."

There were clues, indicators of progress, along the way, continues Norrington, warming to his theme, like the Scherzo in the Sixth Symphony, the very existence of which implies a conceptual alteration of tempos when compared to the slower "minuettish" world of the late-18th century. "It's a pity", he concludes wistfully, "that Schubert didn't leave us any metronome markings!"

Part of the problem, of course, lies in the sheer speed at which Schubert himself composed, the 'Chinese whispers' syndrome of casual or shoddy reproduction of printed scores, and in the deliberate 'improvements' made by successive champions of the symphonies after Schubert's death. Frans Brüggen takes Brahms, in particular, to task for "taking too many liberties" when editing the scores although he acknowledges that Schubert's own notation could on occasion be rather "sloppy. His sign for an accent - that little wig - is sometimes too long so that you can mistake it for a decrescendo and vice versa. Sometimes it's so short that you can mistake it for a dot."

Newbould sympathizes with Brüggen. "Sometimes it is difficult to know what things mean. Study the scores and you find that Schubert was inclined to be inconsistent, often, even, between what he puts into an exposition and a recapitulation even though the music is the same. The inconsistency may be dynamics or articulation or tempos or something else and you really have to puzzle over whether he wanted something different or had simply forgotten in the heat of composing."

Not insignificantly, Frans Bruggen and Roger Norrington both confess (and both somewhat coyly) to taking a more considered view now of tempos in the B minor Symphony. "Perhaps," Norrington adds in self-mitigation, "my earlier speeds were too much concerned with proving a point; I had to somehow break away from received wisdom like a rocket breaking free of the Earth's gravity." And to illustrate his point he treats me to an a cappella rendition of the opening phrase of the Eighth with its offbeats and the reversals that feature in the finale. "Clearly, it was a way of trying to make the music more angular, but also more like a songwriter would; trying to make the music speak through the orchestra."

Tempos are consistently a problem throughout Schubert, not least in third movements – "What is the difference between a minuet and a scherzo," asks Newbould, "and does a trio necessarily have to have the same or a different tempo?" - and, crucially, in the first movement of the C major. "That's a really thorny one! Traditionally there has been this accelerando to the Allegro ma non troppo from the opening Andante which appears not to have been intended, not simply because Schubert didn't write the accelerando marking, but because Andante was actually marked alla breve although it has nearly always been published as though it is in 4/4 time, 'common' time. So, it does appear that one must go right through the movement with the same pulse and that the difference between the "Allegro and the Andante is one of rhythmic detail."

Norrington remembers with a wicked chuckle the "little chink of expensive jewellery" that registered a Salzburg audience's surprise when he began the symphony not in 4/4 but, shockingly, in two as recently as five years ago. ''I'm already hearing the sighs that will be uttered when I do the Unfinished in the summer at Salzburg," he adds mischievously. Interestingly, Norrington also moots the possibility of Beethoven's death in March, 1827 as a possible stimulus for Schubert to write the Ninth. "He must have thought, 'Aha! Beethoven's dead. Now I can write a real symphony!' Certainly it's one of the most astoundingly original works in the entire repertoire even when set alongside the Fantastique, the Beethoven Ninth and Mahler First. It's like Idomeneo compared to Mitridate in that it just suddenly seems to spring fully formed from his head, from another world."

So sophisticated, complex and forward-looking is the C major (its nickname of Great seems doubly applicable) that it begs the question of whether or not it shouldn't be described as 'modern' rather than Classical or Romantic, a sentiment Sir Colin Davis finds no difficulty in agreeing with.

"It is the most astonishing work. A huge obstacle. All the things he had been practising he now knows how to do. But not quite, because there's a dominant cadence in the middle of the exposition and he could very well have stopped there and gone back to make the repeat but he didn't, which is a pity because if he had avoided that cadence he would have eliminated the last vestige of a classical reference."

Newbould rationalizes the boldness of the work as deriving from the "sense of triumph and youthful regeneration" Schubert must have felt in completing his first symphony (pace the Unfinished) in eight years. "It showed an absolute mastery of his material and one can only see that as a climax. Climaxes are usually big, long and loud and in that sense the Great C major is a climax."

In his last symphony - the uncompleted Tenth - Schubert returned to the key of D, a key he had used five times previously. It's interesting to speculate that the symphony he most admired of Beethoven's, his great idol, was the Second, written in the key of D. Less romantic explanations about the key's expediency in bringing down to a usable pitch those parts of the range in which disadvantaged valveless brass instruments could get scale notes without gaps may be true but rob one of a perhaps telling link between the young would-be symphonist and the great Titan of the form.

Anecdotal evidence has it that Beethoven, on becoming acquainted with Schubert's music late in his life, was said to have regretted that he had not made his young admirer's acquaintance earlier and predicted that he "would yet attract much attention in the world". It's a prophecy that has been borne out to be true in respect of Schubert's contribution to Lieder. One can only hope that it is an observation every bit as timely today as it was back in 1826 as ever closer scrutiny and even greater attention are brought to bear on his symphonies.

The complete guide to Franz Schubert, part two: piano and chamber music

In the second of a three-part series, Harriet Smith talks about Schubert's piano and chamber music with pianists Imogen Cooper, András Schiff and Mitsuko Uchida and string-players Christophe Coin and Thomas Kakuska... Read the article

This article originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing the Gramophone, please visit:

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