Schubert: Symphony No.9 in C major ('The Great')

Franz Schubert 1797-1828

Symphony in C major D.944 "The Great"

I. Andante - Allegro ma non troppo
II. Andante con moto
III. Scherzo. Allegro vivace
IV. Allegro vivace

If Schubert had lived to anything approaching a reasonable age, this would undoubtedly be seen as his first mature symphonic work; after the years of chamber and small scale orchestral works, it represents his stated determination to "pave my way towards a symphony in the grand manner." As it is, having acted as pallbearer to Beethoven in 1827, within a year he was himself dead, leaving behind a huge body of work that nevertheless offers only a glimpse of what he might have achieved, as well as all the ingredients of the quintessential "doomed artist" story. The romanticism that surrounds the man and his work casts such a shadow that it is difficult to escape the aura of fanciful myth and appreciate the "Great" C major symphony (so called to distinguish it from his earlier, and much less ambitious sixth symphony, also in C major) for what it is: a vigorous and daring work by an extremely ambitious young man.

By 1825, at the age of 28, Schubert was already making a name for himself as an exceptionally talented songwriter, and was a regular fixture in the salon concert scene in Vienna. However, he had his sights set higher: he wished to be counted among the finest, most renowned composers of the day. To be spoken of in such regard, one had to be recognised as a composer of grand works, and in 1820s Vienna that meant symphonies, and the symphony was synonymous with one man above all others: Beethoven. Beethoven's grip on the Viennese imagination was all the greater because, not only had he inherited his teacher Haydn's reputation as a dazzling practitioner of symphonic argument, he had also effectively invented the concept of the composer as Artist. It was no longer enough to produce well-crafted music; a composer was increasingly expected to Make A Statement.

The fertility of Schubert's life for myth making is evident even in the numbering of this symphony, which, depending how you wish to count it, has been called his seventh, eighth and ninth. The confusion arises because it was traditionally numbered as the predecessor to the "Unfinished" Symphony, despite being composed later. Some publishing houses correct this, so that the "Unfinished" becomes no.7 and the C major no.8; but the waters are muddied further by the fact that some have seen fit to allow the "Unfinished" to retain its numbering of 8, the vacant position of 7 being awarded to one of several unfinished sketches for symphonies Schubert had made in the early 1820s. This seems to be done largely to create the impression that Schubert wrote nine symphonies, which as we all know in the wake of Beethoven, is how many symphonies a Great Composer should write.

The existence of all these false starts and symphonic torsos demonstrates that the problem of producing a convincing Grand Symphony was one that had vexed Schubert quite considerably for several years. His main problem was this: the symphony, as defined by Haydn and Beethoven, is an intellectually rigorous forum for closely argued thought and development of short themes. Schubert's natural gift, however, was melodic, and a tune, being complete in itself, is not something that lends itself very readily to this sort of process. The six symphonies he had written before 1820, while in many ways attractive works, tend towards simple emulation of the styles of Haydn and Mozart, and do not display the same individuality as his songs and chamber music were developing. He needed to square the circle, and the B minor symphony he famously abandoned in 1822 was very nearly the breakthrough he needed. The "Unfinished" is a radical work, replacing the Beethovenian model of closely argued motivic development with a dramatic lyricism that points the way to the Romantic composers who would emerge towards the mid-19th century. So radical, in fact, that having written two movements, Schubert could not think of a convincing way to continue. No fewer than three other symphonies were begun during this period, all abandoned in various stages of completion. Things were not helped by his deteriorating health; by now he had been diagnosed with the syphilis that would eventually kill him By 1824, Schubert had over the course of six years started some thirteen symphonic movements, but had finished only two and had no complete work to show for it.

The breakthrough came, ironically, by taking a step back from the radicalism of the B minor symphony, and partially returning to the motivic model of Beethoven. The Great C Major Symphony, composed largely in 1825-26 (the manuscript is dated 1828, but this seems most likely a later subterfuge to sell the symphony as a freshly composed work), sets itself the challenge of meeting the elder composer on his own ground, and shows an increasing confidence on Schubert's part. It was probably also significant that at this point his health seemed to be improving, and he felt a renewed optimism about his future.

The symphony's most obvious distinguishing feature is its size (or, as Schumann would later describe it when he rediscovered the work and brought it to public attention, its "heavenly lengths"). Beethoven had of course set a precedent for symphonic works of up to an hour or more's duration with his ninth symphony, but Schubert's gargantuan effort achieves its proportions without the use of an extended choral peroration (ironic, for a composer so associated with vocal music). Although he makes use of short motifs, he is equally happy to apply the same processes to larger melodies, which is partly what accounts for the size of the piece. The result is a symphony that takes on Beethoven, but also offers an alternative way to proceed - the fierce logical argument of the German is usurped by the young Austrian's gentler, discursive storytelling. It stands at a crossroads - its attention to form and structure marks it as the last Classical symphony, while its lyrical content and epic nature points firmly towards the Romantics.

The early 19th century was the era of the Grand Tour, and of poetry propagating the Romantic figure of the Wanderer - the young man whose yearning for spiritual truth leads him out into the world. Schubert himself had set many poems and written many works on this subject. Many of the themes and rhythmic ideas in the Great C major Symphony can be related to songs dealing with the subject, and it does not seem to fanciful to suppose that this aesthetic greatly informs the mood of the work; the conductor and scholar Roger Norrington has characterised it as Schubert's "Sommerreise", a sun-drenched counterpart to the gloaming of the song-cycle Der Winterreise that he completed the year before his death.

Whether Schubert ever heard his symphony is open to conjecture - certainly in 1827 a set of parts was copied, and he may have heard it in rehearsal. But it would be another decade before Schumann found the manuscript and persuaded Mendelssohn to conduct its first public performance, and it would be many years before it established its place in the orchestral repertoire - even in the 1890s, a figure su ch as George Bernard Shaw could feel quite confident in asserting that "a more exasperatingly brainless composition was never put on paper." Posterity has taken a different view and it has taken its place as not simply an important link between the classical and Romantic styles, but a great work in its own right.

The first movement sets out its stall immediately with the long, heroic strides of the opening horn call, albeit presented as if from afar. What is nominally an introduction is much more than that; its expansive theme provides a motif that becomes a crucial part of the energetic allegro that follows, and returns to form a grand climax to a movement whose inventiveness and vigour testifies to the extent of its composer's abilities and ambition.

The second movement is not a "slow" movement as such, but rather a march-like affair, possibly influenced by the equivalent movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Some of its thematic ideas bear a striking resemblance to songs from Der Winterreise, particularly the concluding song "Der Wegweiser", which finishes:"I must travel a path from which none return"; it is imbued with a darkness that greatly contrasts with the first movement's buoyancy.

Having faced the serious issues of the second movement, the third finds release and relaxation in dancing, in a vigorous scherzo that frames a central trio that is a glorious outpouring of melody, which, at a point where a symphony would traditionally offer a lowering of tension and a chance to reflect, rather intensifies the emotional atmosphere. This sets the precedent for the finale, the like of which has not been heard before or since. It is a relentless and hedonistic rush, intoxicating and overwhelming, a tsunami of intense exhilaration, in which the listener may hear an echo of Beethoven's own Ode to Joy.

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