Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (“Unfinished”)

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            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.   We must remember that 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.  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.

            Franz Schubert’s short life roughly coincided with that of Beethoven’s—both passing away within about a year of each other.  But what a difference there is between the life and music of these two giants of early romantic music!  Beethoven--world renowned with fiery temperament, and master of struggling to hammer out profundities from modest ideas—strode across the musical landscape of Europe as a conqueror.   Schubert, on the other hand, lived quietly within a circle of close friends, rarely capturing the public’s imagination, while turning out an immeasurable wealth of melodies, apparently with little effort.   In his brief career Schubert composed orchestral music, dabbled in opera, produced masterpieces of chamber music, and created a significant body of compositions for piano.   But his glory, and the world’s musical treasure, lies in his Lieder (German songs).   It is astounding that he composed over six hundred of them, and they constitute the defining repertory within that genre.  No one else—not Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, nor Mahler—come close to the defining mark of Schubert.   Almost single handedly he created the first masterpieces of German song, and so many, at that.   They are constituted of marvelously imaginative piano accompaniments (which are really equal in importance to the vocal part); innovative harmonies; poetic texts of high artist quality; and an unprecedented gift for an endless variety of exquisite melodies.   And it is an understanding and appreciation of the centrality of song in Schubert’s oeuvre that informs our encounter with his instrumental music, including his symphonies.

            He wrote nine symphonies, but two of them have garnered the most prominence:  The “Great C Major” symphony and the “Unfinished.”   Many have claimed that the latter really is “finished,” (owing to its genius), and many others have actually finished it (Fools rush in . . .) by composing the missing last two movements in Schubert’s style.  But, manifestly it is unfinished, but of such gripping quality and beauty that it really doesn’t matter.  Ironically, it did not meet the light of day (literally) until 1865, when it was retrieved, almost as an afterthought, from an obscure personality’s desk drawer.  Schubert never heard any of his symphonies played by a professional orchestra, and none of them were published in his lifetime.   Yet, here is an iconic work of early Romanticism that lay undisturbed almost from the time of its composition in 1822.   In many respects it manifests most of the technical characteristics (and I won’t bother you with those) of late Classical symphonies such as those of late Haydn and Mozart, and perhaps early Beethoven.  The essence of this great work is more elusive:  its dark and reflective tone, its stunning and novel combinations of subtle instrumental color, the characteristic and striking harmonic language—and, of course, the Schubertian melodies.   Technical points pale beside these qualities—the “Unfinished” opens a new atmospheric sound world of Romanticism that is palpable beyond analysis.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 Wm. E. Runyan