Saturday, February 28, 2009

Schubert: Symphony #9 "The Great"

I am composing like a god, as if it simply had to be done as it has been done.
--Franz Schubert

Today we will cover the last of my Schubert CDs, his Ninth Symphony in C major.
Leonard Bernstein and the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 "The Great" in C Major

Deutsche Grammophon, 1989
As we mentioned before, Schubert contracted syphilis at age 26, and five years later his life was cut short at age 31. His early death was a horrible loss for classical music.

But something amazing happened to Schubert in his last years: in 1827, Beethoven, nearing his own death, had read some sixty of Schubert's songs. Impressed, he asked to see many of Schubert's other compositions. And, in the words of music historian David Dubal:

One week before Beethoven's death, Schubert was brought to his bedside. For a brief moment, two of the greatest musical geniuses met. At Beethoven's funeral procession, Schubert was one of the thirty-six torchbearers.

But Schubert himself had only twenty months to live. They were months of awesome productivity. Only his death stopped the heavenly flow of music. One masterwork after another poured from him as from a magic fountain.
--from The Essential Canon of Classical Music

During those final months of his life, Schubert composed some 30 piano works, several choral works, his famous song cycle Die Winterreise, an entire mass, and three chamber music works. Much of this work was done from his sickbed, while the man was in great physical pain. It was truly a period of godlike productivity. We were lucky to have this man among us for as long as we did.

And so, knowing what you now know about Schubert, go back and re-read the quote at the very beginning of this post. It suddenly seems less like a boast and more like an understatement, doesn't it? And it certainly puts my plans for the next two years in a whole new perspective.

One brief comment on the Schubert's Ninth Symphony before we get into the listener notes: It was originally thought that Schubert also composed this work during his final months. It turns out, however, that even though the score bears the date of March 1828 (Schubert died in November 1828), the bulk of the symphony was actually written in 1825. Schubert biographer John Reed, in his book Schubert: The Final Years, was the first to make the case that Schubert merely revised the work, rather than composing it, in his final year.

Listener notes for Schubert's Ninth Symphony:
1) Recall the leap in compositional style Schubert made from his Third Symphony to his Eighth, and how he leapfrogged from the Classical Era to the Romantic era? Well, the Ninth Symphony sounds like yet another leapfrog, to the era of Bruckner or even Mahler. The opening french horn theme is a particularly Brucknerian touch.

2) For another example of a compositional leap Schubert makes, listen to the descending chords played by the string section at 7:30 in the first movement. There are some dissonances in there that sound almost shocking. You would never hear anything like that in Schubert's early works.

3) This symphony provides further proof that unless you want your orchestra to sound naked, you must pay up for a good oboe player. A mediocre oboist would hinder the first movement and would utterly destroy the second movement of this symphony. Fortunately, the oboist from the Concertgeboworkest Amsterdam is exceptional and an absolute pleasure to listen to.

4) At 5:16 in the second movement the trombone section plays three descending chords. One of them is way off key. Ouch. And it happens again later in the movement at about the 11:54 mark.

5) The third movement is structured in sort of a weird way. We hear a light and lively, but relatively typical, scherzo in the first four minutes. But then there's a second scherzo theme that follows, also in 3/4 time, but slower and more sedate. Then, we return to a restatement of the first, faster scherzo. And then, that theme modulates up one tone (on this CD, it occurs at 8:04). After that, it's one more restatement of the original theme, and then the movement ends. I don't mean to bore you by reciting the various parts of the movement, it's just that this is an unusual structure, and the "second theme" seems out of place with the rest of the movement. It's as if Schubert just stuck it in there.

6) Have you ever thought to try to hum a few bars of the fourth movement? Uh-huh, exactly. One of the problems 19th century audiences had with the finale was its lack of any real tune or melody. In fact, there is a story from a rehearsal of this symphony (likely it's apocryphal, but it always seems that apocryphal stories make the best stories, so I'll tell it anyway) in which several orchestra members laughed aloud during the fourth movement, one of them asking another if he'd managed to hear a tune at all. Of course, we're still listening to this work more than a century after those laughing musicians came and went. I guess it just goes to show how badly contemporary audiences can misjudge great works of art.

Please take a look at my other blogs!
Casual Kitchen: Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.
Quick Writing Tips: Short posts on writing, twice a week.

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