Symphony No. 5 in Bb, D.485

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            The epitaph on Schubert’s tombstone reads:  “The art of music has entombed here a rich treasure but even fairer hopes.”   We all lament the “loss” of treasure that we never possessed, none perhaps more than great art that we presume may have come to pass but not for lives cut short in youth.   But not all composers can live long productive lives like those enjoyed by Verdi and Strauss, for example.   Often those who die young are nevertheless privileged to accomplish much, and Schubert, like Mozart, is exemplary.  He left behind him a legacy of over six hundred art songs; no other composer’s contribution to the genre is as significant in scope and number.   And, of course, while he did compose marvelous chamber works, symphonies, and music for piano, it is his inimitable gift for melody--the essence of his Lieder--that equally informs and carries his instrumental works.

           His short life was generally uneventful, and his personality still is somewhat lacking in vivid details for us today, but we do know that he lived and worked within a small circle of artists in various fields in Vienna.   His was contemporaneous with Beethoven, but that master’s music exerted little influence upon Schubert; Haydn and Mozart were his models.  His teenage years yielded much more profound results than did those of Beethoven, Schubert having composed over one hundred and fifty songs in his eighteenth year (almost one every three days)!  The next year (1816) was almost as productive, with over one hundred songs and two symphonies—including the Symphony in B flat Major.

           Schubert’s fifth symphony is almost as well known as the two late, mature ones, so popular with today’s audiences, the so-called “Unfinished” and the “Great” C Major.  But this early work is a different take on the genre.  It certainly calls to mind the early symphonies of Mozart—and even alludes to portions of that composer’s early G minor symphony.   It is modest in length, light in orchestration (no clarinets, trumpets, or drums), and terse in development.   What is noteworthy are its melodious themes and interesting harmonies—all lifelong characteristics of Schubert’s works.   The first movement gets right to the point with two attractive melodies heard almost immediately, but what is of equal interest are the arresting and unusual key areas heard later:  D-flat major and E-flat minor.   While the typical concertgoer may not recognize these keys by name, he will sense the richness of harmony, just as almost anyone can hear the same in a Gershwin song.  So listen for it!  The slow, second movement exhibits the same melodic inventiveness and harmonic adventures—even modulating to the rare key of C-flat major.   The third movement really does sound like a rough, vigorous minuet by Haydn (rather old fashioned by then), but Schubert’s elegant melodic gift surfaces in the contrasting middle section.   The last movement is a cheerful romp that sounds like it could have been composed some forty years earlier.   So, we have a youthful work here, one that takes Haydn and Mozart as points of departure, and blends in delightful touches of Romantic melody and harmony, all so different from that of Schubert’s stormy contemporary, Beethoven.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan