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Schubert (1797-1828) - Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished"

Having 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? Exactly, the score of the Unfinished, clearly far from forgotten! 

Off-loading 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. 

1. 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 A brief phrase emerges from black depths, superceded by chattering strings over which a solo clarinet floats the first subject.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. 

2. 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 “Eroica” 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. 

“Schubert?” 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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