Schubert (1797-1828) - Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished"
completed two movements of his Eighth Symphony in October 1822,
Schubert sketched about 130 bars more, then the work just fizzled out.
Among the suggestions regarding why he didn't finish it, by far the most
common is that either after a severe illness he didn't feel well enough,
or he simply forgot about it, being too busy with other music, or (rather
more fancifully) he felt the two movements were “perfect” as they stood.
None really rings true. The further sketch contradicts the last idea, and
if he wasn't fit, how come he managed so much else? Then, in 1823 he promised
a symphonic score in return for an award from the Styrian Music Association.
Fulfilling this obligation after a strong paternal prod, what did he send?
the score of the Unfinished, clearly far from forgotten!
it like that makes it seem that he had simply lost interest, so what more
interesting work kept him otherwise occupied? Not much really. Only a couple
of operas, the Rosamunde music, the Ninth Symphony, a Deutsche
Messe, sundry other Church pieces, the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet,
many other chamber works, a clutch of Piano Sonatas (etc.), Winterreise,
umpteen other songs, and - well, need I continue? Anyway, his oeuvre
is littered with “unfinished” this and that, so simple loss of interest
seems fair enough. Yet, to us mere mortals these movements represent such
a staggering evolution of his symphonic style, we do have to wonder.
Allegro moderato. A brief phrase emerges from black depths, superceded
by chattering strings over which a solo clarinet floats the first subject.
Silver-lined, with attendant clouds, it builds through surging crescendi
to a rhyhmic climax, yielding to the glowing second subject on 'cellos.
Passing to violins for elaboration, this halts in mid-flight: shattering
chords send shivers through the strings. The tune resumes, acquiring a
potent, trombone-led undertow brewing a bruising climax. Further lyrical
extensions are severed by another jolt: a loud, unnerving chord, fading
to troubled stalking. A full repeat leads into a development dominated
by that sombre introductory phrase. Anger, if anything, fills the air:
through a powerfully intense climax, a tense, nervous phase, to a huge
crescendo of rushing strings, growling trombones, thumping tympani, and
surging trumpets. Tumult subsides to admit the chattering strings and a
recapitulation with a sting in its tail: have we been spared that sudden
halt and shattering chords? No! Just when you think you're safe, bang!
The coda, also driven by that all-pervading introduction, lifts, swells,
sighs, climaxing briefly into brooding gloom.
Andante con moto is a deceptively simple-sounding structure: exposition
and recapitulation of two subjects plus a coda based on the first subject.
This is a strange animal: not variations (as you might expect), yet neither
is it sonata. The nearest might be “truncated rondo, A-B-A-B-A”. The subjects,
mildly different “song themes”, lack contrast. However, each has a central
“variation” which is contrasted: the first subject acquires a stout,
marching character (or as near to that as 6/8 can get!), while the second
erupts into fierce passion reminiscent of the funeral march of Beethoven's
Symphony. Nor is Schubert quite finished: the “exposition repeat” isn't,
not quite! Almost everthing is subtly nudged. It's like deja-vu,
but somehow the scenery isn't quite the same, the light and shade shifted,
and it all points to the coda, introduced by the same questing violin phrase
that links the two “expositions”. From a soft woodwind “chant”, the music
at first gently opens out, then fades and fragments, settling onto a curiously
regretful closing chord.
I often hear folk say, “Oh, his music is nice.” Then there's that
“lovely melody in the Unfinished”. But, the Unfinished
isn't “nice” music, is it? The opening, emerging from pitch-blackness into
mere night, belies “niceness”. At every turn, “nice” tunes charm us, only
to be beset by turbulence. Doesn't this unprecedentedly explosive combination
(no, I”m not forgetting Beethoven!) point towards Mahler? Now, I
wonder: did Schubert drop it because he bared too much of his own anguished
soul, and found the confrontation too painful?
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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