Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944

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            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.

            The “Great C Major” symphony was Schubert’s last completed symphony (variously and confusingly designated number seven, eight, or nine), written in the waning years of his life.  Upon its composition Schubert sent it to the Vienna Philharmonic Society, but it did not receive a public performance until Robert Schumann found it and sent it back to Leipzig.  There, it was given in a concert conducted by Mendelssohn in 1838.  It is a rather long work for the time of its composition, and makes innovative use of the brass, as one can hear throughout the first movement, with its prominent use of the horns and trombones.   Schubert was the first composer—Beethoven’s use notwithstanding—to employ the trombones in a symphony in a varied and imaginative orchestration.   Listening points in this magnificent work include Schubert’s characteristic colorful harmonies (not unlike that of America’s great popular songs of the 1930s), and his inimitable gift for melody.  There are those that carp about Schubert’s supposed weakness in developing ideas, simply restating his great tunes in different contexts as a substitute.  That is misplaced criticism, for one will enjoy and appreciate the various guises in which his melodies constantly reappear in this symphony—it’s simply what differentiates Schubert, from, say, Beethoven.   What to take away from a performance is the magic of his tunes, the romantic colors of his orchestration and his harmonies.   Not for nothing is Schubert often called the “romantic” classic.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan