Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony (Symphony no. 8 in B Minor)

What can you say about a 31 year old composer who died? That he was beautiful and sensitive and a genius the like of whom we shall never see again? That he worshipped Mozart and Beethoven and spent his entire life living in their shadow and probably never realised that his music was as wonderful as theirs? That centuries after his death his best music still has the power to reduce me to tears?

Of the four composers who I consider ‘great’ (Bach, Mozart and Beethoven being the others) Schubert is perhaps the one who’s most often overlooked. Relatively unappreciated in his own time (it was 35 years after his death that the ‘Unfinished’ symphony received its first public performance!), Schubert has somehow resisted becoming a true legend – sure, most serious classical music fans worship him – but he’s rarely the first composer that comes to mind.

And yet Schubert in his own right is more than the equal of the other great composers. What sets Schubert apart, I think, is his vulnerability – his ability to channel his anguish and loneliness and doubt into his music. Bach is too precise, too mathematical to do this and Mozart is too near perfection. Beethoven has an ability to give in to passion, but his flights of emotion are more conquest than surrender. It is Schubert who is the true poet among the composers – he may, in fact, be the most authentic poetic voice that humankind has ever known. You can see this most clearly in his lieder: in Winterreise, in Schwanengesang, music becomes not so much a performance as a search for expression, a struggle to become. Schubert is also the composer who best spans (IMHO) the divide between the classical and the romantic. His early work could easily be mistaken for Mozart, his later work carries the shadow of Beethoven, but extends and enhances Beethoven’s passionate sensibility, anticipating Brahms and, eventually, Mahler.

The other impressive thing about Schubert, is, of course, the sheer scale and scope of his work. Like the other great composers, Schubert spans a variety of forms, writing quartets, quintets, sonatas, lied, choral music, concertos; producing literally thousands of sublime masterpieces in the course of his short life. Only Mozart can truly be said to rival such richness.

And then, of course, there are the symphonies. These are masterworks – taken as a body together they are surpassed only by Beethoven’s nine symphonies, and even there it’s a close contest. The Fifth is a marvel of melodic drive, the Fourth is moving and dramatic, the Seventh is exquisite in itself and the Ninth, of course, is one of the grandest pieces of orchestral music ever written.

For my money though, the greatest of all his symphonies is the 8th. The ‘Unfinished’ (as the name suggests) is not really a complete symphony – Schubert wrote only two movements before abandoning it – but I would gladly trade that breathtaking first movement alone for all of, say, Haydn’s symphonies (or Brahms’). One reason for this is that the 8th is, I think, the truest expression of Schubert’s unique genius – it’s a symphony no one else could have written.

The first movement is unforgettable – that dark, menacing opening; the restless rhythm of the strings rising above it; and then the entrance of the woodwinds, calling out to the world, trying to reach out, reach beyond. There’s a constant sense of struggle here, the music rises and falls, swells and is dashed back, the notes gathering courage slowly then breaking out suddenly, proud, triumphant, only to return broken and start again. There’s an incredible amount of power here, a force, an almost unmatched drive. But there’s also longing (listen to that one solitary oboe rising plainitively above the music) and an impending sense of defeat, of tragedy (the key is B minor, remember). But perhaps the most incredible part of the movement is the development that follows the repetition of the opening sequence – here Schubert lets the darkness from the bass line overwhelm the entire orchestra, rising in an absolute crescendo that goes on and on beyond all breathing, all endurance, crushing you under its weight. There is enough anguish in that one moment of music to tear apart the world. Here is the eternal battle between strength and compassion, between God and man – Schubert sets up a dialogue here between all that is dramatic and powerful and all that is fragile and simple and plainitive. These are the passions of a young man (Schubert was 25 when he wrote the movement) turned into a music for the spheres. Even more touching, perhaps is the way Schubert resolves the conflict – those last few minutes of the movement with all their ecstatic poetry, the notes so tremblingly perfect that you’re almost afraid to listen for fear that you may do them harm.

If the first movement is all emotion and upheaval, the second movement is an ethereal miracle – a movement so sublime, so rich, filled with light and air and longing. There is a great sense of peace, of contentment. This is not a happy piece – there is no triumph here – there is only a sense of slightly melancholy satisfaction of having come to terms with the world.

All in all, Schubert’s 8th Symphony is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written – a masterpiece of immense perfection; a sound you can never quite get out of your soul.

(N.B. I attended a performance of Schubert’s 8th by the Philadelphia Orchestra yesterday – hence the post. It was part of their ongoing Mozart festival; go figure! Conducted by Peter Oundjian, the performance took a relatively gradual approach to the 8th, drawing the music out a little. This made it easier to appreciate the richness of the symphony, and made the solo pieces seem more sweeping and majestic, but it robbed the symphony of some of its drive: that vital, immediate pulse that runs through the first movement. It was interesting, therefore, but on the whole I’d have preferred a marginally faster tempo)