“Here we find, besides the most masterly compositional technique, life in every fibre; colouring down to the finest gradation; meaning everywhere; sharp expression in detail; and in the whole a suffusing Romanticism such as other works of Franz Schubert have already made known to us.”Robert Schumann, 1840
Ten years after Franz Schubert’s death at the age of 31 Robert Schumann was shown by the composer’s brother Ferdinand the score of a symphony of “heavenly length”. He said: “How this refreshes, this feeling of rich and ubiquitous abundance, so contrary to one’s experience with others, when one always dreads being let down at the end and is often sadly disappointed.”
For a long time this majestic work was thought to have been composed in Schubert’s last year and considered the final symphony he composed. However, recent research has suggested that instead the work was mainly written in 1825. Schubert was in the Alps at Gastein that summer and was known to have been working on a symphony at the time.
The composer’s biographer John Reed analysed Schubert’s output during his final year and concluded that it would have been almost impossible for him to write the symphony alongside the other pieces he was definitively known to have composed in 1828. Reed also suggested that the symphony seemed to reflect “the glory of the natural world” fitting with an Alpine break.
In October 1826 the completed score was sent to the Vienna Philharmonic Society, who eventually played the symphony through a year later. But according to musicologist Brian Newbould it was thought too long and difficult for an amateur orchestra like that of the music society.
This suggests that Schubert himself never heard a performance of the symphony. The probable premiere took place after Schumann had taken a copy of the manuscript he had been shown in Vienna to the orchestra at the Leipzig Gewandhaus to play on 21 March 1839, under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn no less.
Thus two of the most celebrated composers of the nineteenth century were influenced by this work. Whilst adhering broadly to the sonata form of four movements – with a quick introduction, followed by a slower movement, a scherzo and faster paced finale – the piece’s length means Schubert explores more melodic themes than shorter contemporaneous symphonic works.
Notable in the scoring is Schubert’s use of three trombones. Beethoven had introduced these instruments in the final movement of his fifth symphony, premiered in Vienna in 1808, but in this piece they are used throughout the work. In that year Schubert had just joined the choir of the Chapel Royal.
Despite both living in the city, the two only met in 1822 when Schubert dedicated a set of songs to Beethoven and wanted to present a copy to the great man. Young Franz was apparently a bundle of nerves. On his deathbed Beethoven read manuscripts of Schubert’s songs and the latter served as a torch-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral in 1827, when the ‘Great’ symphony had been written.
The first movement (Andante – Allegro ma non troppo) opens with the horns playing the symphony’s theme. After a short andante the Allegro proceeds with two alternating rhythms. The music then switches into E minor. After a period of solo passages from the trombones the development section proceeds leading to a ‘Piu Moto’ coda ending with the horn theme.
The second movement (Andante con moto) starts in A minor and has a distinct marching rhythm. It is commonly thought to be influenced by the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, which starts in the same key. However, after a while this becomes a more lyrical F major with strings and wind posing questions to each other before a conclusion in A minor again.
The third movement (Scherzo: Allegro vivace) returns to C major with a second theme in A major which has a distinct Viennese waltzing lilt. After a series of variations the music moves into an A major trio with a rustic nature before returning to the Scherzo theme.
The fourth movement (Allegro vivace) is one of the most extraordinary written in the first half of the nineteenth century. When rehearsed by Mendelssohn ahead of its London premiere in 1844 the orchestra laughed at the finale and the conductor was forced to scrap that part of the performance.
The music starts boldly announced by the brass before being driven along by the strings in waves of triplets. A second theme, reminiscent of the ‘Ode to Joy’ in Beethoven’s ninth symphony, is then developed. This eventually leads on to a recapitulation of the opening themes before the lengthy coda begins finishing back in triumphant C major.