Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony

Incomplete works are an inevitable feature of most composers’ catalogues. After all, they are no more likely than anyone else to receive specific advance notice of when they will reach their coda. In the case of some long-lived composers, the events seem to have occurred according to plan: Rossini, Verdi, Strauss, Sibelius, and Vaughan Williams, for example, had already shepherded their musical careers to fulfilling finishes, and gave the impression of having left this world satisfied that they had said what they needed to say. Others were cut off in mid-sentence, sometimes at the height of their powers, while engaged in the production of masterpieces: think of Mozart’s Requiem or Puccini’s Turandot.

Because Franz Schubert died young, at the age of 31, popular conception has sometimes fixed on the idea that his Unfinished Symphony was a casualty of this sort. Of course, it is possible that if Schubert had lived longer he might have gotten around to filling out his piece to the standard four movements that made up the typical symphony of his era. However, the fact is that he had put the score aside long before his death.

In the last decade of his life Schubert accumulated a sizable stack of incomplete large scale works, including several symphonic “torsos” and aborted sonatas. The Unfinished Symphony, which he wrote in 1822 (six years before he died), is the most superb of them all. In October of that year he sketched out three movements of the piece in piano score, and the following month he completed the orchestration of the first two movements plus a fragment of the ensuing, incomplete scherzo. There it ended.

Various theories have been proposed to explain why Schubert left the work in mid-stream. Some hypothesize that he did finish it, but that sections have been lost. Perhaps the B-minor entr’acte from Rosamunde was intended as the symphony’s finale, some speculate; it mirrors the symphony’s key and instrumentation exactly (even employing a third trombone, unusual in the orchestral line up at that time), and it appeared shortly after Schubert was working on the symphony. Others believe he abandoned the symphony because he felt he could not provide two final movements on the same high plane as the opening two. (This is doubtful, given the stream of profound, large-scale masterpieces — including his Great Symphony in C major, final three piano sonatas, and sublime chamber masterpieces — that would still issue from his pen.) The most credible explanation is that in late 1822, precisely when he would have moved on to the “missing” movements of the piece, Schubert was diagnosed with syphilis. The disease was incurable at the time, and the attendant treatments were as dreadful as they were ineffective. It seems possible that the news threw Schubert out of kilter vis-à-vis this piece, disrupting his creative concentration entirely.

In any case, the following year Schubert sent the manuscript to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who put it in a desk drawer, and there it languished for 40 years. After four decades, Hüttenbrenner liberated the manuscript from its dark, silent recess and presented it to the conductor and choral composer Johann von Herbeck, who oversaw its first performance, in Vienna in 1865, 43 years after it was written.

Even before Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony was premiered the piece had been known in theory if not in practice, since Hüttenbrenner had made mention of it in a biographical dictionary in 1836 and a Schubert biographer, Heinrich Kreissle von Hellborn, had picked up on its existence (via that source) in 1864. It was he who started a campaign to get Hüttenbrenner to release the work to the public — no mean achievement, since by then Hüttenbrenner had become all but a hermit, interested principally in abstract theological inquiries and in magnetism. Hellborn owed his success to a clever ploy. Claiming that he wanted to put on a concert of three great Viennese composers — Schubert, Franz Lachner, and Hüttenbrenner himself — he begged the last to show him some suitable works, and then wondered aloud if perhaps a previously unperformed piece by Schubert might not be found. Out of the drawer came the Unfinished. At its premiere, it shared the bill with an overture by Hüttenbrenner.

The influential Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, writing about the work’s premiere, said:

“With a few horn figurations and here and there a clarinet or oboe solo, Schubert achieves, with the most simple, basic orchestra, tonal effects which no refinement of Wagnerian instrumentation can capture.”

Hanslick carried out his role as an anti-Wagnerian with missionary zeal, and his swipe at the later master does come off as demeaning his point just a bit. Nonetheless, he was right about the sonic beauty of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. It would be hard to think of an earlier symphony, including even those of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, in which the use of symphonic sound is so consistently evocative.

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Credit – New York Philharmonic

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