Monday, October 17, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Here , here and here are other posts concerning Schubert.

Franz Peter Schubert probably was among the most prolific composers that ever lived, writing nearly 1,000 works in his short 31 year lifespan, becoming among the poorest and most short lived of the great composers. We can propose any number of reasons for this, such as that the rather tubby looking little fellow might have been seeking love in all the wrong places and it eventually caught up with him.

During his short life he was barely acknowledged for his many songs, only a few were ever published during his lifetime. Here he was, a schoolmaster's son, obviously quite musically gifted, but he was perhaps not very attractive, perhaps he knew this too. He tried to find musical work, tried to further his musical education, right up until the very end, but nothing worked out. Instead his father set him to work teaching younger students, which didn't work out either. What did he do? Schubert must have just gone into his music, specifically the world he managed to create out of his mind and imagination.

In order to have written what he did, Schubert would have been writing music a good deal of every day many years, we'd guess from shortly after the age of 15. It was with him something like a manic obsession. Like Mozart. he wrote a lot, made few mistakes. He was fond of using some forms, like the sonata allegro he inherited from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, because he could get away with writing the first and second sections (Exposition and Development) and leaving instructions where the third section (Recapitulation) would begin, just as a reprise of the first section in the right keys and modulations to bring the piece back to its correct finishing cadence. Schubert was in a big hurry, as if he knew he didn't have long to live and needed to get out everything he could before his end came.

The result is a music based on the “classical” idioms and techniques of the Viennese composers; Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, that flows with melody or melodic transitions, combined with some occasionally unexpected suave changes in harmony, texture or tempo, interspersing the almost acrobatic with the languid, but always as if seen from a distance, from outside experience, as if what Schubert is really doing is taking photographs with his music. That may account for why his last years seem like he was in haste to write sketches, many of which he would spin into elaborate compositions, no doubt to the fascination and awe of his friends. We would not have most of Schubert's music, if it hadn't been for his friends, who kept it and treasured it, as few were published during his lifetime. One wonders just how much more from as yet undiscovered composers have likewise lain neglected.

We have reason to wonder what of an incident that occurred when Schubert was a young man. He and a few friends got into some trouble with the authorities, we know not over what, but it seems like it may have been political. One of his friends was banished from Vienna for life and Schubert never saw him again. One could ask whether this fellow from a struggling middle class background, could have found himself among the political and social underworld of Vienna, and hence was tainted by this, so that no respectable publisher would touch him. He may have also been a very shy and self-effacing man who really never expended much energy promoting himself. After all, in order to have turned out what he did, he was always busy writing with very little time to do anything else. We know so little about him.

What we have been left with since, has been his music, including 600 songs, 10 symphonies and assorted other orchestral works, 2 operas, lots of piano and chamber music. Most have suggested that his Unfinished Symphony in two movements (these days called his 8
th symphony, D 759) is so extraordinary that all who cross Schubert's path should encounter it. The work was written and left unfinished by Schubert in 1822, the same year he and Rossini got to meet Beethoven and where also nothing really came of it. Rossini was in his late 30's and already successful, Schubert was 25 and living with friends who probably wished he'd write less music and get a job. They never met, but Schubert is known to have admired the Italian opera composer. Again, with the Unfinished Symphony, we have a work that was written without any commission and without performance during the composer's lifetime. The last symphony Schubert completed, his likewise famous 9th Symphony, called since “The Great” (C Major, D 944) was submitted and rejected as too long and complicated to be played by a conservatory orchestra. He never heard these works played during his lifetime.

Either of those two symphonies would give you the idea of the mature Schubert style. But instead, why not introduce everyone to another work that Schubert never heard live and didn't live to finish, his Tenth Symphony (D Major, D.936a) in which he strives to strike out on some new territory while drastically cutting back on the length of the work and the size of the ensemble required. There are only three movements and there is reason to suppose Schubert intended it this way. Here we see where he was heading, and it may be for us perhaps today rather mundane territory. We shouldn't be too disappointed, though. Schubert was always an observer of current scenes rather than a projector into future realms. It's one thing that gives his music both place and time and passes down to us it's unique charm. This last symphony was sketched as a piano piece which got many notes indicating the instrumentation to be used. The second movement was the most completely orchestrated at his death (how much a foretaste of Mahler is this?). The work was completed by the English composer, Brian Newbould and is performed here by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St, Martin in the Fields, an extraordinary English ensemble that has recorded wonderful performances of much of this great music.

Symphony #10 in D Major, D 936a (1828)

Part 1: Allegro maestoso (no tempo given in the original)
Part 2: Andante 
Part 3: Scherzo (Allegro moderato)


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