Schubert: Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D.759 (Unfinished)

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante con moto

There are in fact five fragmentary symphonies by Schubert, but only one that proudly proclaims its incompleteness. What marks this Unfinished Symphony out from the others is that two of its movements exist in a performable state. The other unfinished symphonies (and the third movement of this one) exist only as fragments and sketches.
The torso was not performed until 1865, over 40 years after its semi-composition. Schubert gave the manuscript of the two completed movements and the beginnings of a third to a friend shortly before his death, and the symphony did not come to light again until the early 1860s. By then the myth of Schubert the neglected genius, fuelled by Robert Schumann's advocacy from the 1830s onwards, was fully established. The much delayed première added to this myth. The “Unfinished” Symphony seemed a reflection of Schubert's fate: Poor Schubert, the untutored genius who produced music as naturally and effortlessly as a bird, doomed to neglect and a young death before he was able to complete his destiny.
Schubert's position in Vienna was not so much that of a neglected composer as an undiscovered one. He was well known as a composer of songs and dance music and had a number of works published. The music for which he is best remembered now was largely unpublished and unperformed during his lifetime not because of a lack of interest, but because he was a young composer at the start of his career who was still hustling for a position in the Viennese artistic scene. Had he lived into the 1830s he would have benefited hugely from the support of both Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. It is worth remembering that had Beethoven died at the same age as Schubert he would be remembered as a far less significant composer, if at all.
Austria in the early nineteenth century was in many ways at the forefront of European civilisation. Steam boats and hot air balloons were two modern transports that could be experienced in Vienna as early as 1820. Yet there were as yet no sewers and disease was rife. The deathrate in Veinna had declined in the early 19th century but rose again sharply in the 1820s and 30s. Schubert's frequent concern with death in his work was not simply a personal obsession but a reflection of the conditions around him. To us 31 is a shockingly early age to die. To Schubert's contemporaries it was not.
On top of this, the society he lived in was a restricted one. Social occasions such as dances and the soirées where Schubert's songs and chamber music were heard were the closest it was possible to come to personal expression. As the art form least easily interpreted as political, music flourished as a form of covert communication of the hopes and desires of the Viennese. Fantasy, whether in the form of Schubert's “Fantasias” or less salubrious forms of entertainment, was the order of the day. This reflected not only the need for diversion but the desire to be freed from the shackles that bound society.
Schubert was such a prolific composer that it is hard to imagine that he could have suffered writer's block. However, the early 1820s appears to be such a period. This slackening of productivity came between his first great public success, the première of his setting of Goethe's poem Der Erlkönig, and his final illness. It seems that Schubert knew that he had to produce something extraordinary to achieve his ambition of recognition as an equal of Beethoven, but was unable to achieve this until the point at which he realised that time was running out. His earlier successes had been music for domestic, amateur performance. The next step was to produce large-scale instrumental music for public performance. This was no mean feat to achieve. Professional music making was an idea still in its infancy. There were no professional orchestras outside theatres, and no purpose built concert hall in Vienna until the 1830s. The fact that, unlike Beethoven, Schubert was not a virtuoso performer made gaining wider recognition still harder. When he finally organised a public concert of his own music less than a year before his death, it was overshadowed by Paganini's first appearance in Vienna three days later.
This symphony is therefore only one of many incomplete works from this period of Schubert's life. Why he failed to complete it is open to speculation. It seems likely that his poor health was a factor. He spent the latter months of the year in a sanatorium being treated for syphilis, the infection that would eventually kill him in 1828. It may also simply be that without an immediate prospect of performance there was no reason to continue work on it. He may have been stumped as to how to continue. This was after all a radical leap from his earlier symphonies. The fact that between May 1818 and August 1821 he had begun and abandoned 10 symphonic movements suggests a certain insecurity about this new direction. He would eventually bring his ambitions to fulfilment with the “Great” C major Symphony a few years later, but the “unfinished” represents a real breakthrough. Its two completed movements display an astonishingly original conception of what symphonic music can be, quite different to the Beethovenian model that was the norm at the time. In many ways its expansive paragraphs and obsessive repetitions and reiterations anticipate the symphonies of another composer who would find fame in Vienna: Anton Bruckner.

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