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Franz Schubert and the “Unfinished” Symphony

     Franz Peter Schubert (January 31, 1797 –November 19, 1828) was an Austrian composer was born in Himmelpfortgrund, now a part of Alsergrund, Vienna, on  January 31, 1797. His father, Franz Theodor Schubert, the son of a Moravian peasant, was a parish schoolmaster; his mother, Elisabeth (Vietz), was the daughter of a Silesian master locksmith, and had also been a housemaid for a Viennese family prior to her marriage. The father was not a musician of fame or with formal training, but he taught his son some elements of music, and his brother Ignaz gave him piano lessons. At the age of seven, Schubert began receiving lessons from Michael Holzer, the local church organist and choirmaster.  He also played the viola in the family string quartet, with brothers Ferdinand and Ignaz on violin and his father on the cello. Schubert wrote many of his early string quartets for this ensemble.

     Schubert first came to the attention of Antonio Salieri, then Vienna’s leading musical authority, in 1804, when his vocal talent was recognized.  In October 1808, he became a pupil at the Stadtkonvikt (Imperial seminary) through a choir scholarship. At the Stadtkonvikt, Schubert was introduced to the overtures and symphonies of Mozart.  His genius began to show in his compositions. Schubert was occasionally permitted to lead the Stadtkonvikt’s orchestra, and Salieri decided to begin training him privately in musical composition and theory in these years. During his time at the Stadtkonvikt he wrote a good deal of chamber music, several songs, some miscellaneous pieces for the pianoforte and, among his more ambitious efforts, a Kyrie (D. 31) and Salve Regina (D. 27), an octet for wind instruments (D. 72/72a, said to commemorate the 1812 death of his mother), a cantata for guitar and male voices (D. 110, in honor of his father’s birthday in 1813), and his first symphony (D. 82).

     At the end of 1813, Schubert left the Stadtkonvikt, and returned home for studies at the Normalhauptschule to train as a teacher. In 1814, he entered his father’s school as teacher of the youngest students.  He continued to receive private lessons in composition from Salieri, who did more for Schubert’s musical training than any of his other teachers.  Also in 1814, Schubert met a young soprano named Therese Grob, the daughter of a local silk manufacturer. Several of his songs (e.g., “Salve Regina” and “Tantum Ergo”) were composed for her voice.  One of Schubert’s most prolific years was 1815. He composed over 20,000 bars of music, more than half of which was for orchestra, including nine church works, a symphony, and about 140 Lieder. Significant changes happened in 1816. Schober, a student of good family and some means, invited Schubert to room with him at his mother’s house.  For a time, he attempted to increase the household resources by giving music lessons, but they were soon abandoned, and he devoted himself to composition. ”

     In late 1817, Schubert’s father gained a new position at a school in Rossau, not far from Lichtental, and. Schubert rejoined his father, reluctantly taking up teaching duties there.   However, he began to gain more notice in the press, and the first public performance of a secular work, an overture performed in February 1818, received praise from the press in Vienna and abroad.  Schubert spent the summer of 1818 as music teacher to the family of Count Johann Karl Esterházy at their château in Zseliz (then in Hungary, now in Slovakia). H e happily continued to compose during this time. It may have been at this time that he wrote one of his now world-famous compositions, the Marche militaire No. 1 in D major. On his return from Zseliz, he took up residence with his friend Mayrhofer.  The respite at Zseliz led to a succession of compositions for piano duet.[31]

     During the early 1820s, Schubert was part of a close-knit circle of artists and students who had social gatherings together that became known as “Schubertiaden”.   His compositions of 1819 and 1820 show a marked advance in development and maturity of style. The unfinished oratorio “Lazarus” (D. 689) was begun in February; later followed, amid a number of smaller works, by the 23rd Psalm (D. 706), the Gesang der Geister (D. 705/714), the Quartettsatz in C minor (D. 703), and the “Wanderer Fantasy” for piano (D. 760). Of most notable interest is the staging in 1820 of two of Schubert’s operas: Die Zwillingsbrüder (D. 647) appeared at the Theater am Kärntnertor on June 14, and Die Zauberharfe (D. 644) appeared at the Theater an der Wien on  August 21.  Hitherto, his larger compositions had been restricted to the amateur orchestra at the Gundelhof, a society which grew out of the quartet-parties at his home.  Publishers, however, remained distant, with Anton Diabelli hesitantly agreeing to print some of his works on commission.  The first seven opus numbers (all songs) appeared on these terms. The situation improved somewhat in March of 1821 when Vogl sang “Der Erlkönig” at a concert that was extremely well received.  That month, Schubert composed a variation on a waltz by Anton Diabelli (D. 718), being one of the fifty composers who contributed to Vaterländischer Künstlerverein.

     The production of the two operas turned Schubert’s attention more firmly than ever in the direction of the stage, where, for a variety of reasons, he was almost completely unsuccessful. All in all, he produced seventeen stage works, each of them failures which were quickly forgotten. In 1822, Alfonso und Estrella was refused, partly owing to its libretto.   Fierrabras (D. 796) was rejected in the fall of 1823, but this was largely due to the popularity of Rossini and the Italian operatic style.  Die Verschworenen (The Conspirators, D. 787) was prohibited by the censor (apparently on the grounds of its title), and Rosamunde (D. 797) was withdrawn after two nights, owing to the poor quality of the play for which Schubert had written incidental music.

     Despite his preoccupation with the stage, and later with his official duties, Schubert found time during his last years for a significant amount of composition. He completed the Mass in A flat (D. 678) and, in 1822, embarked suddenly on a work which more decisively than almost any other in those years showed his maturing personal vision, the “Unfinished Symphony” in B minor. The reason he left it unfinished after two movements and sketches some way into a third remains an enigma, and it is also remarkable that he did not mention it to any of his friends even though . The reasons have been debated endlessly without resolution.  He, also wrote his first song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin (D. 795), setting poems by Wilhelm Müller. This series, together with the later cycle “Winterreise” (D. 911, also setting texts of Müller in 1827) is widely considered one of the pinnacles of Lieder.   He also composed the song Du bist die Ruh (“You are stillness/peace”) D. 776 during this year.

     In 1824, he wrote the variations for flute and piano on “Trockne Blumen”, from the cycle Die schöne Müllerin, and several string quartets. He also wrote the Arpeggione Sonata (D. 821), at a time when there was a minor craze over that instrument.  In the spring of that year he wrote the Octet in F (D. 803); which some have thought was “A Sketch for a Grand Symphony;”  the Divertissement à la hongroise (D. 818) for piano duet; and the String Quartet in A minor (D. 804).   The setbacks of previous years were compensated for by the prosperity and happiness of 1825.  It was during this time that he produced his “Songs from Sir Walter Scott”. This cycle contains Ellens dritter Gesang (D. 839), a setting of Adam Storck’s German translation of Scott’s hymn from The Lady of the Lake, which is widely, though mistakenly, referred to as “Schubert’s Ave Maria”.  In 1825, Schubert also wrote the Piano Sonata in A minor (Op. 42, D. 845), and began the “Great” C major Symphony (Symphony No. 9, D. 944), which was completed the following year.

     From 1826 to 1828, Schubert resided continuously in Vienna, except for a brief visit to Graz in 1827. The history of his life during these three years was comparatively uninteresting, and is little more than a record of his compositions. In 1826, he dedicated a symphony (D. 944) that later came to be known as the “Great” to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and received an honorarium in return.  In 1827, Schubert wrote the song cycle Winterreise (D. 911), a colossal peak in art song, and the collection of songs published posthumously as Schwanengesang (“Swan-song”, D. 957).  The Symphony No. 9 (D. 944) is dated 1828, but Schubert scholars believe that this symphony was largely written in 1825–1826.  In the last weeks of his life, he began to sketch three movements for a new Symphony in D (D. 936A). In the midst of this creative activity, his health deteriorated. The cause of his death in Vienna, at age 31, on  November 19, 1828, at the apartment of his brother Ferdinand. was officially diagnosed as typhoid fever, though other theories have been proposed, including the tertiary stage of syphilis.

     In a short lifespan of less than 32 years, Schubert was a prolific composer, writing some 600 Lieder, nine to ten symphonies (including the famous “Unfinished Symphony”), liturgical music, operas, some incidental music and a large body of chamber and solo piano music. Appreciation of Schubert’s music during his lifetime was limited, but interest in his work increased significantly in the decades following his death, and today, Schubert is seen as one of the leading exponents of the early Romantic era in music and he remains one of the most frequently performed composers.

     The main body of Schubert’s orchestral work is his symphonies:

                Symphony No. 1 in DM, D. 82. 

                Symphony No. 2 in BbM, D. 125. 

                Symphony No. 3 in DM, D. 200. 

                Symphony No. 4 in cm, D. 417, Tragic. 

                Symphony No. 5 in BbM, D. 485. 

                Symphony No. 6 in CM, D. 589, Little C Major. 

                Symphony No. 8 in bm, D. 759, Unfinished (1824). 

                Symphony No. 9 (formerly No. 7) in CM, Great (1826/1828).

     However, he wrote a number of shorter pieces such as:

                German Dance in CM, op. 33. 

     His operas are seldom performed, but his incidental music for a play is still remembered:

                Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus, D. 797 (1823): Excerpts.

     One of the overtures that he borrowed to accompany Rosamunde actually came from one of his operas:

The Magic Harp (1820): Overture “to Rosamunde.”


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