Sunday, December 04, 2005


Schubert: Fifth Symphony

In 1813, Schubert's voice broke, and like Haydn, sixty-four years earlier, he became useless to the choir. While Haydn had been turned brutally into the streets of Vienna, Schubert had two courses open to him: to accept a foundation scholarship or to take a teaching job in his father's school. As the former involved going on with studies that bored this bespectacled, studious-looking, but unintellectual youth, he chose to teach. He must have known the drudgery that awaited him, but schoolteachers were exempt from military service, he would not have to study any more, and he would have plenty of leisure for composition. For three years he served as his father's assistant, and be it said that this period, when he doubtless was getting three square meals a day as well as stipend, was the most miserable of his life. Against all his natural instincts, he went about his petty daily tasks with a stolid persistence, and only rarely gave vent to the rage that was consuming him. He hated the school and everything about it---the damp urchins, the ill-smelling classroom, the maddening rote of elementary teaching.

Deficient Schubert may have been in intellect, but certainly not in courage and persistence. In this unpromising milieu, from 1813 to 1816, he attempted almost every form of composition, setting down string quartets, five symphonies, sonatas for piano and violin, Masses and other church music, eight stage works of varying lengths and intentions (but all dismal), and more than two hundred and fifty songs. Much of this output is unimportant judged by the standards of anyone not writing an exhaustive treatise on the works of Schubert. But many of the songs are fresh and perfectly realized, and several are masterpieces: a boy of seventeen composed Gretchen am Spinnrade, a boy of eighteen Der Erlkonig. The miracle of Schubert's creation of the lied becomes all the more miraculous when it is considered that though he went on to many kinds of song; he never composed any finer than these, and for a very simple reason: these are perfect.

Among the other work is one of the most fragrant and guileless tributes ever paid by a young composer to his great predecessors---the Fifth Symphony, in B flat major. Only a very sophisticated pair of ears, hearing it for the first time, could distinguish it from Mozart when he is most like Haydn. There is nothing in it that would have surprised Mozart: it is thoroughly classical in structure, and for the most part in feeling. Its originality---just enough to give it piquancy---is the songlike quality of some of the themes and the romantic tints in the andante. As a passing phase, ancestor worship that produces symphonies like Schubert's B flat major is all right.

The Fifth Symphony, in B-flat, though written in the same year as the Tragic (September-October, 1816) is generally superior to the latter, and evinces such an advance in freedom and power of original expression that it may be accepted as the actual beginning of Schubert's significant symphonic career. While it frankly adopts and sustains the simple, comparatively primitive style of Haydn, or, more correctly, of Mozart, it possesses an attractive physiognomy of its own; and it is permeated with the buoyant, joyous spirit of this amazingly gifted spendthrift of spontaneous melody. The score is that of the small orchestra of former days, comprising one flute, two each of oboes, bassoons, horns, and the quintet of strings---but no clarinets, no drums, and no trumpets throughout. This reduction of the instrumental apparatus augments the brightness and lucidity of the charming music.

The first Movement is a concise sonata-allegro design and opens with an introductory phrase of four measures, preceding the principal Theme, but with no thematic reference to the latter. The structure is extremely regular; the fundamental four-measure pattern is employed almost without exception in its phrases, though an occasional Extension checks the menace of monotony. This well-nigh obstinate regularity of form (and of cadence) testifies to the rapid spontaneous flow of Schubert's melody; he was not given to critical reflection, at least not yet, and he felt no need of exciting the hearer's interest by rhythmic shifting, or any similar device. This simplicity of conception is further attested by his constant use of Repetition, in which respect, he almost outrivalled Beethoven himself. In this Movement Schubert again gratifies his characteristic inclination to alter the traditional modulatory scheme, by setting his Themes in unexpected keys---a trait pointed out in connection with the Tragic Symphony, and a prevalent impulse, peculiarly distinctive of Schubert: thus, he begins the Recapitulation in the "wrong" key---E-flat instead of B-flat.

The second Movement is a complaisant Lyric of semi-serious quality, vitalized with fine contrasts. It is in sonatine-form (without a Development) and is enlarged by an additional (partial) statement of the principal Theme, in lieu of a Coda.

Schubert calls the third Movement a Minuet; its tempo and character, however, proclaim it a Scherzo. The Trio is one of those ingratiating, tuneful sentences in which Schubert gives free vent to his irresistible melodic fancy---a type which he developed, in part, in writing his songs, and which for unadulterated loveliness has probably never been surpassed.

The Finale is a perfectly regular sonata-allegro design, masterly in conception and formulation, whose vivacity is held in effective restraint by episodes of considerable dramatic power and eloquence.

Schubert was not a typically studious musician. He was endowed with an intuition of unheard-of alertness, opulence and infallibility; and this (usually precarious, and very often evanescent) quality served him steadfastly all his life; he instinctively depended upon it, and therefore never felt the impulse to engage in serious theoretical study (at least not in his earlier years), or to apply his exceptional mental forces in a reflective and selective way. It would be unfair, however, to conclude that he was in the slightest degree superficial, or indifferent to the obviously essential laws of his art. Such sketches of his works as have been discovered, and notably his later creations themselves, reveal a measure of earnestness at times scarcely inferior to that of Beethoven. Schubert was simply averse to the dry, mathematical routine of textbooks and "methods," and found it more congenial and fruitful to study music itself, as he found it supplied in ample quantity by the great classic masters; and this he did, with absorbing conscientiousness. At the same time, it is undeniable that his lack of technical drill, coupled with the impetuousity of his musical conception, resulted at times in certain lapses in his formal structure, a lack of that strong, unfaltering, convincing logic, and the fine balance of achitectural detail in which Beethoven excelled so greatly.


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