Monday, February 23, 2009

Schubert: Symphony #8, The Unfinished Symphony

After listening to this symphony, it's hard not to recognize the great leap in style Schubert makes from his very Classical-sounding Third in just seven years. He was barely 18 when he wrote his Third Symphony. By the time he had turned 25, he had composed (okay, partly composed) one of the quintessential Romantic-era symphonies.
Carlos Kleiber and the Wiener Philharmoniker
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Schubert: Symphony #3, Symphony #8
Deutsche Grammophon, 1979
If Schubert's Third sounds like Haydn, then his Eighth sounds like Brahms. Only Brahms wrote his symphonies some 30 to 50 years later.

It took Schubert seven years to go from writing a derivative and backward looking symphony to writing a work that was 50 years ahead of its time. Imagine what he could have done had he lived as long as Beethoven.

It makes me think that the greatest tragedy in the history of 19th century classical music was the early and untimely death of Franz Schubert.

Finally, I have to quote one of the all-too-few episodes of The Simpsons that involves classical music:

Principal Skinner: Tonight, Sherbert's, oops... heh heh... Schubert's Unfinished symphony.
Oh good, unfinished. This shouldn't take long.

Of course, the joke's on him. Even though the Eighth is only two movements "long," this work is actually longer than his four-movement Third Symphony. Later in the episode:

Homer: D'oh! How much longer was Sherbert planning on making this piece of junk?

Listener notes for Sherbert's Unfinished Symphony:
1) I didn't understand at first why Deutsche Grammophon would put Schubert's Third and Eighth Symphonies on the same CD. But it's the contrast that makes these two symphonies so enjoyable. After finishing the Third, a beautiful and pleasant symphony, it only takes the first five seconds of the Eighth to make you feel like you've been plucked from the Classical era and dropped into the late decades of the Romantic era. From Kansas to Oz in 16 bars.

2) Notice the simple and memorable six-note motif, the modulation and the inversion of that theme throughout the work, the use of an extensive dynamic range, and the overall gravitas of the music. Classic markers of Romantic era symphonies. Oh, and the brass parts are more fun to play.

3) The stress and tension at the halfway mark in the first movement is nearly unbearable. See passages at 7:30, 7:43, 7:55 and especially the entire passage from 8:07 until the music resolves back to the major key at around the 9:00 mark. What compelling music!

4) Listen for the clarinet solo, beginning at 2:14 in the second movement. That is how a clarinet should be played. In tune, mournful and not shrill. Maybe I should mail this CD to the principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Come back in five days for our final Schubert post!

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