Monday, December 05, 2005


Schubert: the Unfinished (Eighth) Symphony

Six years intervened between the composition of the Fifth Symphony and that of the Eighth---the Unfinished, as it is called---and during these years Schubert's spirit made such incredible progress toward maturity that with this Eighth Symphony he may be said to have reached the pinnacle of his musical genius. The two Symphonies that preceded this one (the Sixth, in C, and the Seventh, in E), though of positive historic interest, do not warrant detailed demonstration for our group; they were chiefly important as stepping-stones. It was the Unfinished that Schubert's symphonic genius seemed to burst all at once into flame.

Beethoven was more profound, more scholarly, undeniably a spirit of far larger caliber and wider outlook; but in none of his works has Beethoven surpassed the tremendous primitive vitality, the mighty dramatic surge, the inescapable appeal of the Unfinished Symphony of Schubert. And surely no other than Schubert has ever produced so unique a masterwork at the age of twenty-five!

This Eighth Symphony (in B minor) was written the latter part of 1822. It consists of two Movements only, whence the title: Unfinished. Just why Schubert should have left it in this so-called "unfinished" condition, it is not easy to determine. There are two facts which appear to indicate that he intended, originally, to write a complete four-Movement Symphony:
(1) The second (slow) Movement is in E major, and closes in that key, which does not provide an orthodox ending for a B minor composition; and, notwithstanding his noted modulatory freedom, Schubert was very particular about asserting a central tonality, and closing every work in the key in which it began; (2) Schubert actually started a third Movement (a Scherzo)
and sketched no less than 130 measures of it. This, however, is so inferior in quality, so obviously alien and inadequate, that no one will question why Schubert abandoned it. Then there are other conjectures: Schubert may have mistrusted his ability to sustain consistently so lofty an emotional flight; or he may have wearied of the task---a not uncommon habit with him; or---and this brings us to the probable crux of the matter---his unfailing instinct may have informed him that the message was complete, so perfect and so final that any addition would be worse than useless. In reality, then, this marvelous Symphony is no more "unfinished," in the highest esthetic sense, than are the four Sonatas of Beethoven which contain only two Movements each (Op.54, 78, 90, 111).

The orchestral score of both Movements includes, besides the ordinary contingent, three trombones.

The first Movement is in strict sonata-allegro form. It should be noted that the principal Theme consists of two separate and widely different members. Such division of the chief Theme, which is tantamount to two distinct Themes, was a favorite practice with Schubert; his fertility of invention was so active that he was never at a loss for a new idea. Herein he was unlike the more reflective Beethoven, who preferred to evolve his structure out of one brief, fruitful Theme. In point of fact, this two-fold physiognomy of the theme is not new. In ordinary cases, the theme is almost invariably a Two-Part form (at least), and each of these two Parts constitutes a somewhat independent thematic member; but they are only related "Parts" of one and the same thematic factor. The novelty in the former case, attributable to Schubert, consists in the widely different character of the two members, which actually increases the sum of thematic factors.

Of the two members in the Unfinished, the first one is the real thematic basis for the Movement, albeit it occurs, strangely enough, only once during the entire Exposition; but, on the other hand, it dominates the Development and the Coda almost exclusively. The other member is of very little consequence; the subordinate Theme is the factor which greatly predominates and distinguishes the Exposition, and, naturally, the Recapitulation. Schubert here again indulges in his apparently whimsical choice of keys: in the Exposition the subordinate Theme is placed in G major (instead of the conventional D), and in the Recapitulation it appears at first in D, but swings over into the expected B major.

The second Movement is cast in the sonatine-form (without a Development). Here again the principal Theme separates into two essential members. The first one has the quality of an Introduction, but it recurs constantly, before and between the other phrases after the manner of a ritornelle or Refrain, and is of vital thematic importance.

It would be futile to undertake to point out all the many masterly and beautiful episodes in these two wondrous Movements. The listener will discover, in both of them, passages of intense dramatic stress, tempered by the contrast of cheerful moments of supreme loveliness.


This is a fantastic symphony. One dramatic point which is very forward-looking is the return of the opening bars with the full power of the orchestra late in the first movement. This points to the compositional style of Liszt in particular, who greatly admired Schubert.
T1DNdn The best blog you have!
Nm8AE2 write more, thanks.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?