Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Franz Schubert's "Great" Symphony

I've been going through a stack of classical CD's and learning about all kinds of new music, as well as becoming reacquainted with some old favorites, and will be sharing my experiences.

The first I'd like to relate concerns Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 9 in C Major, often called his "Great" Symphony. But first, more about the composer.

Born in 1797 in Vienna, he was the son of a schoolmaster. Early on he showed musical talent. Having studied composition with Salieri, by the time he was seventeen he had composed several piano pieces, string quartets, his first symphony, and a three-act opera. He was to become a prolific composer of songs and music, and eventually would write nine symphonies.

The ninth symphony has had some numbering problems. This may be due to the confusion over when the symphony was composed. For example, The Victor Book Of the Symphony gives the completion date as 1828, the year Schubert died, and numbers it the seventh. This site dates the composition as 1825. In the liner notes of the CD I have gives the composition date as 1826 and states that the work has been given no less than four different numbers.

What is clear is that Schubert never heard the symphony played. While considered a popular piece among musicians today, in the early 19th century there was great resistance among players for the work. An orchestra in Vienna scheduled the work, but substituted Schubert's No. 6 "Little C major" symphony, considering the ninth too difficult to play. The work lay dormant until 1839, when it was discovered by Robert Schumann, who sent it with great excitement to Felix Mendelssohn, who finally presented the symphony in Leipzig, though in an abridged form. Mendelssohn had a difficult time presenting the work. After the 1839 premiere, he attempted to rehearse the work for one of his London shows, but the musicians complained so much of parts of the finale that Mendelssohn withdrew the work.

The symphony is a very rich work, and fans of Beethoven will find much to appreciate in this symphony, as this is very much a work of a similar period. It is a work that uses the entire orchestra, where the themes are often introduced by woodwinds, taken up by horns, and developed by strings. There is a wealth of emotion in all of the movements. Schubert's love of song can be heard in different passages throughout.

Another aspect that makes this an interesting piece is that you can (and in fact, probably should) give this work many listens to "get" it all. Even though there are only a few themes, they are developed so well and with so many voices, with each listen there's something new. This should come as no surprise, as it is a fairly long symphony.

This is a new piece for me. The version I have can be found here.
I think you'll find this is, as it's nickname implies, a great symphony.