Franz Peter Schubert was born in Vienna, the twelfth of fourteen children. His father hailed from Moravia where he was a small-town schoolmaster, moving to Vienna to better himself. In 1808 the young Franz, already showing extraordinary musical gifts, was accepted into the Choir of the Chapel Royal. His general education was at the Imperial Seminary – an education to fit him to follow his father’s profession. His musical education was broad and practical, although he did receive instruction in composition from Antonio Salieri.
Leaving the Choir in 1814 when his voice broke, he joined his father’s school, but the young man’s heart was elsewhere. Would it be teaching, or an uncertain life of music? Music won, and this led to a final break with his father, under somewhat acrimonious circumstances. He was never to return to the parental home again. Henceforward his short life was to be centred on an intimate circle of friends, who in the main provided him with shelter and sustenance. Only once during his lifetime was there an organised public benefit concert of his music.
By the age of 22, Schubert had completed his first six symphonies, 12 piano sonatas, 11 string quartets, the “Trout Quintet”, and some of the most important and memorable of his 640 or so songs. A 7th Symphony exists in sketches, and the 8th Symphony (the “Unfinished”) dates from 1822.
The score of the C major Symphony, dated March 1828, was found by Robert Schumann amongst numerous manuscripts held by Schubert’s brother Ferdinand. In a subsequent letter to his wife, Clara Schumann, he penned these immortal words: “I have found a symphony of heavenly length”.
Acceptance of the work by orchestral musicians was slow. They seemed to be overwhelmed by its “extent”, rather than any technical difficulties. Mendelssohn managed a “reduced” version in Leipzig in March 1839. Vienna heard two movements later the same year. Following publication in 1840 (Schubert published very little during his lifetime), a Parisian performance faltered, and London heard a complete performance in 1856, albeit spread over seven days.
1st movement. Andante – Allegro ma non troppo
The introductory unaccompanied unison horn theme extends into the eighth bar. It not only acts as a unifying theme but, more importantly, it represents the whole essence of the symphony. In the eighth bar the strings enter with their rhythmic triplet figure, which is to be such a feature of the first movement. This leads directly to a lyrical episode based on the opening eight bars, which is entrusted to the solo woodwind. It proceeds with variants firstly supported by staccato strings. The theme then passes to the lower strings. The Andante continues to explore the themes and assembled rhythmic material. Moving towards its close, one hears the hint of a theme that is to become the Allegro’s first subject, or theme.
The Andante is brought to an invigorating and full orchestral close, and the Allegro follows without a break. Strings, trumpets and timpani introduce the Allegro’s first theme in full. As the theme rises, it is linked by chorded triplets from the woodwind.
The Allegro is only seventeen bars old when Schubert introduces a second theme – dotted crotchet-quaver – rising and falling, with the woodwind and horns giving their support with a triplet configuration. This pattern continues, with the full orchestra “filling out” up to a C major climax. Then, within two bars Schubert modulates to E minor. The movement’s third theme is introduced by oboes and bassoons, deftly accompanied by violin arpeggios, and then extensively developed. Duple and triple rhythms continue to vie with one another. Staccato and legato phrasing is another feature. The mood is now more contemplative, with perhaps a touch of melancholy.
Further modulations are richly harmonised by the judicious use of the three trombones. They also add their own solo passages (derived from the introductory horn theme) to the movement’s fabric. So the “exposition” draws to a close. It is marked to be repeated – an instruction that is not always obeyed! It closes, using the rhythmic patterns of the first and second themes. The development follows, using the same patterning but with a somewhat casual air.
Within the development section Schubert makes extensive play between his first and second themes, enriching them harmonically. The whole is moulded into a slowly-forming crescendo, until a phrase in A major given to the lower strings leads into the recapitulation. This opens with strings playing the first theme. All the principal themes are presented in various guises. With drive and vigour, but without acceleration, it builds to an orchestral “tour de force” leading to the Coda.
The Coda is marked Piu Moto (“more movement”). It is initiated by the “second” theme in the strings, with accompanying triplet figures enhancing the pulse. The music falls to a “piano” but, within four bars raises itself. With great confidence the movement’s introductory horn theme is played out with the glory of the full orchestra.
2nd movement. Andante con moto
This is the symphony’s slow movement, but the Con Moto direction, coupled with the 2/4 time, allows a buoyant march-like character. The late Dr. Mosco Carner, in his book “Of Men and Music”, puts forward a convincing argument that Schubert was directly influenced by the Allegretto movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. It is recorded that Schubert admired the great man, paying one visit to him at his home. He subsequently acted as a pall-bearer at his funeral.
Generally this movement falls into four sections – A minor, F major, A minor and A major – with four main themes. Beethoven’s movement opens in A minor.
This movement must be the most beguiling that Schubert ever penned. Within the paced-out opening seven bars the lower strings hint at the first theme. This is entrusted to the oboes, a jaunty swing-along memorable theme. Clarinets join, followed by violins and violas, moving to an orchestral climax. The forces involved cause the theme to have a sterner aura about it. The orchestral forces thin down as the second theme approaches. Again this is entrusted to the oboes, with clarinets. This theme is a little more languid, but within six bars the strings break in with a third theme, a brisk one with a military air.
The second and third themes are developed and enriched until four “piano” minims and a descending third in the lower strings lead directly to the fourth theme. Lyrical, yet more sonorous, this theme is given to the bassoons, second violins and basses, with a syncopated counterpoint from the cellos.
Adding to the delight of this movement is Schubert’s unerring sense of modulation, and the “intermezzi” that link the various themes and episodes. The movement ends on a hushed chord, enhanced by the warm harmony of the three trombones.
3rd movement. Scherzo (Allegro vivace)
It was Beethoven who, in his 2nd Symphony of 1803, replaced the classic “minuet and trio” movement with a scherzo and trio. Schubert was to follow him with his 6th Symphony of 1817.
This energetic movement opens in C major with the first theme given to staccato strings. From the outset a dynamic rhythmic pulse is generated. A feature throughout the movement is Schubert’s partiality for using strings in unison, or nearly so. A second feature of the movement is the waltz themes that keep popping up – the first of these constitutes the second theme. The charm and felicity of this theme is enhanced by an imitative figure from the cellos at a two-bar distance. A rising and falling arpeggio figure in the strings moves persistently and confidently through various keys, leading to a cadence in G major.
The second section opens in Ab , and is initiated by dotted minim chords from the woodwind and brass, with staccato string accompaniment (reflecting the pattern of the first theme). The music continues for 32 bars before Schubert introduces a more plaintive, slow, third theme entrusted to the flutes. This theme, in the unusual key of Cb major (requiring a key signature of seven flats), is taken up, a semitone higher, by the first oboe. Any hint of plaintiveness there may be is soon shattered by eight sforzando chords, on the third beat of each bar. Calm is restored when the movement’s opening theme is reprised on clarinets and bassoons, accompanied by a rising and falling motif in the strings. Thirteen fatalistic timpani beats presage a 37-bar reflective period. This in turn leads to a reprise of the second theme (waltz) in the first violins, with a most beautiful, imitative, counter-melody from the lower strings. This waltz is short-lived, giving way to the more dynamic music of the movement’s opening theme, now more richly harmonised. The section ends with two sforzando chords, and the music back in C major.
The Trio steps directly into A major. Horns, clarinets, bassoons and trumpets playing in octaves over eight bars lead into the movement’s fourth theme, given to the woodwind choir. The theme is doubled in thirds and sixths, a harmony much favoured by Schubert throughout the symphony – simple yet effective. The second section opens with a version of the theme which is broader, and possibly has greater charm, with the character of a rustic ländler. Eventually we hear the Trio’s opening theme from the flutes and bassoons. With an increasing dynamic, and octaves from woodwind and brass, the Trio is led back to the traditional repeat of the Scherzo.
4th movement. Allegro vivace
This powerful movement transcends all of Schubert’s previous oeuvres. It is in 2/4 time, and opens in the symphony’s tonic of C major. The listener’s attention is immediately focused on the introductory theme from the second beat of the opening bar: fortissimo C’s over three octaves (a fanfare?) from each of the three instrumental groups. This is repeated and then the strings, with a triplet episode, invoke a dynamic which turns into a full orchestral tutti.
The impetus is maintained until suddenly, at bar 36, the first theme is introduced “piano” by oboes and bassoons in thirds. This theme is a sweeping legato, which sings its way along. It is accompanied by legato triplets from the violins. Horns and lower strings offer support in the form of an extension of the initial three notes of the introductory theme. The momentum is suddenly cut short by a chord of G major, followed by two bars of silence. The second theme is now introduced by the horns. Four minim D naturals are followed by chords in thirds. These are taken up by clarinets and bassoons, supported by horns and trombones. Meanwhile the strings are not idle: quaver – rest – triplet figures mark the pulse.
Schubert now pursues the second theme over a considerable distance, through modulation, harmonic enrichment and the interchange of rhythmic patterning. The music is proceeding towards the exposition’s end when a new theme is hinted at. The movement’s opening three notes are then heard, and the dynamic is wound down to the repeat bar. Nowadays, this repeat is not always observed. Observed or not, the second time bar must be taken, and it is here that the celli play four bars of minim tremolo. What is it leading to? The development section, certainly – but surprisingly it opens with a “new” theme.
This theme, hinted at earlier, is a quotation from Beethoven’s Choral Symphony (the Choral movement). Whether Schubert wrote these four bars into his work by accident or design we shall perhaps never know. This theme is first heard in the clarinets, with the strings interchanging rhythmic figures in support.
The sense of swift movement refuses to relax. Themes are tossed hither and thither between woodwind and brass, not overlooking the trombones. The strings subsequently take over the themes with tremolo bowings, but in the main they simply provide the rhythmic impulse.
The sense of swift movement does eventually relax over a long succession of minim octave chords, spread over thirty-nine bars from woodwind and brass. Meanwhile the strings contribute their perky rhythmic figures. However, the music is falling to a pianissimo. Suddenly the recapitulation is upon us, heralded by the movement’s introductory theme, fortissimo from the full orchestra.
The other two principal themes are then, in turn, heard in all their glory. Schubert then introduces his device of “winding down” to a point where a few bars of tremolos presage the Coda.
The Coda is immense, extending over some 180 bars. It is a most exhilarating musical experience: one hundred and eighty bars in which the thematic, key, harmonic and rhythmic essences of this masterpiece coalesce.
Rising from a “triple piano”, we are taken through the first theme, the Beethoven “quotation” and the second theme. These are subsequently worked upon: with a dynamic rise and fall the music forces onward, through modulations of keys that are typically Schubertian. He adds chromatic harmonies for good measure. Finally, in a blaze of glory C major is reached, and together with the movement’s introductory rhythmic figure the final triumphant chord sinks to a point of tranquillity.
The appellation “Great” was applied by a 19th century publisher in an adjectival sense, to distinguish between this symphony and Schubert’s earlier, more modest, work of 1818. Today, as we have become aware of the symphony’s extent and intensity, “Great” has become an accepted part of the work’s title.