Franz Schubert – ‘Unfinished’ Symphony and related works
Why didn’t Schubert finish his Eighth Symphony, universally recognized as one his greatest works? This imaginative presentation explores the question that haunts scholars and listeners as much as the piece’s beguiling opening notes. We will perform both movements of the ‘Unfinished’ alongside other works connected to its composition, intermixing visuals and spoken text to illuminate the mystery of Schubert’s truncated effort on this amazing piece.
This year we’re taking a more personal approach to program notes: insights from Jason into how and why pieces were selected, followed by notes and quotes from composers and artists about their work.
Jason Weinberger: Schubert's Unfinished Symphony seems to present one of the great musical enigmas: Why would a composer at the height of his compositional powers abandon what posterity has since deemed one of his (and perhaps history's) most important pieces after penning just two of the typical four movements? This question has been the subject of much debate and conjecture, to which we will add our own unique consideration this March.
One of the reasons we chose to present this work in our trademark exploratory fashion is to help reset perceptions of the classical period in music. From our early 21st-century perspective, the major artists of this period take on a mythic quality: fêted by adoring listeners and patrons or tragically maligned and neglected, music flowing effortlessly from quills or emerging laboriously from sketchbooks and discarded drafts. And in the case of Schubert there seems to be limited solid ground on which to base our assumptions, since less has been written and discovered about him than near-contemporaries like Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.
With respect to the Unfinished Symphony, there is little to suggest that Schubert's conception of the piece - or, for that matter, any other he wrote - aligns with our own assumptions about his music. Modern audiences may be surprised to learn that the composer heard almost none of his major symphonic works performed and probably had no expectation that they would reach a broad public. In fact, Schubert never once mentions the Unfinished in his correspondence. However, it is clear that at some point he intended to finish the piece: a sketch exists for a third movement (which forms the basis of one of tonight's conjectural experiences), and musical connections indicate a possible abandoned finale (which is the second possibility we'll explore).
Our presentation aims to illuminate theses potential paths to completion without suggesting that the Unfinished is unable to stand on its own in its two movement form. In fact, this month's primary source program note comes from the 1865 premiere of those two movements in Vienna, which - remarkably for a work of this sophistication and importance - took place almost 40 years after its composer's untimely death!
Edward Hanslick, Viennese music critic: When, after a few introductory bars, clarinet and oboe sound una voce a sweet melody on top of the quiet murmuring of the strings, any child knows the composer and a half-suppressed exclamation "Schubert" runs hummingly through the hall. He has hardly entered, but it is as if you knew his steps, his very way of opening the door ... The whole movement is a sweet stream of melodies, in spite of its vigor and geniality so crystal-clear that you can see every pebble on the bottom. And everywhere the same warmth, the same golden sunshine that makes buds grow! The Andante unfolds itself broadly and [even] more majestically [than the opening Allegro]. Sounds of lament or anger rarely enter this song full of intimate, quiet happiness, clouds of a musical thunderstorm reflecting musical effect rather than dangerous passion ... The sonorous beauty of both movements is enchanting. With a few horn passages, an occasional brief clarinet or oboe solo on the simplest, most natural basis of orchestration, Schubert achieves sound effects which no refinement of Wagner's instrumentation ever attains.
Read more about Schubert at http://csosoundsandstories.org/franz-schubert-reaching-for-the-stars/ and about the Unfinished at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._8_(Schubert)