Essay: Schubert's Forgotten Symphony No. 9

Franz Schubert, left, and Robert Schumann, right.

The Discovery of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 “The Great”
by Geoffrey Larson

The Seattle Symphony performs Franz Schubert’s Ninth Symphony on October 3 and 5, 2013 with Thomas Dausgaard conducting.  Tickets are available here.

Franz Schubert lived just 31 years, from 1797 to 1828.  During his short life, he composed 998 works, but few were actually performed and fewer still were published.  While a variety of piano music, string quartets, sacred works, and song cycles earned the composer a modest reputation, Schubert was hard at work on symphonic music, much of which would unfortunately never see the light of day.  The composer struggled to complete many of his large-scale works, leaving masses and operas unfinished and completing just seven of the 13 symphonies he started (the Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished,” consisting of two successfully orchestrated movements, remains arguably the most famous incomplete work in the symphonic repertoire).  Of the late works that were finished, many of them were deemed too long and difficult, unfeasible for performance.  It is possibly for this reason that so many of Schubert’s final works showcasing some of the composer’s highest compositional achievement lay unpublished and unperformed, shrouded by dust and obscurity, waiting for an admiring young Robert Schumann to make a startling discovery.
Schubert’s manuscripts were entrusted to his friend Franz von Schober upon his death, but were quickly transferred again to his brother Ferdinand.  Ferdinand sold a number of piano works, songs, and chamber music to the publisher Diabelli in 1829 but left the remaining symphonic, mass, and opera works to sit on the shelf.  He was, however, familiar with Robert Schumann’s admiration of Schubert’s work.  He contacted the composer, who at the time was working for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and Schumann published a notice regarding Schubert’s posthumous works that was largely ignored.  It wasn’t until New Years Day in 1837 that Schumann found himself in Vienna and thought to pay Ferdinand a visit.  Ferdinand was somewhat unaware of the significance of the manuscripts still in his possession.  Upon being led to the shelves piled high with scores and sketches, Schumann was dumbstruck.
Before him lay one of the greatest finds in music history, a treasure trove of forgotten and unknown Schubert works.  Among them was the crown jewel of the composer’s symphonic output, a 130-page handwritten fair copy of the Symphony No. 9, dated March 1828.  The work, composed largely while Schubert was on holiday in the scenic lakeside town of Gmunden in 1825, was of far greater scope, seriousness, and complexity than all of the composer’s previous symphonic attempts, an achievement made all the more stunning considering the composer’s preceding four efforts were never completed. Despite Schubert’s endeavors to secure a performance with Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, of which he was a member, the work had never seen the light of day during the composer’s life.  Schumann, however, realized its worth and sent it immediately to Felix Mendelssohn, who gave its premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on March 21, 1839.  Due to its length and perceived turgidity, however, the work was slow to catch on in popularity, and was presented in a series of odd ways in its first performances.  The score in Mendelssohn’s Leipzig premiere was in fact extensively cut; in Vienna, only the first two movements were performed, with an aria from Lucia di Lammermoor unceremoniously jammed in between to lighten the mood; and in London, the first three movements of the four-movement work were premiered one night and the second, third, and fourth on a later occasion.  However, the music of Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony No. 9 now enjoys universal popularity in the entirety of what Schumann called its “heavenly length.”

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