Friday, September 26, 2014

Franz Schubert Dressed to the Nines

No. 166 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

pcast166- Playlist

We close our September look at ninth symphonies with Schubert’s “Great C Major” Symphony.

The Schubert symphony catalog suggests there are about a dozen or so works that were either published as symphonies, or were composed and never made it past sketch form. Through the years, the numbering on Schubert's symphonies has repeatedly shifted because of discrepancies between Schubert's notations on his scores and the evidence from research into printing practices and paper production during his lifetime; so it is not uncommon to encounter references to the Great C Major as the seventh rather than the ninth.

According to, the Great C Major Symphony (some will argue his greatest composition) was never heard by the composer, because the Viennese musicians considered it unplayable. After Schubert's death, his older brother Ferdinand showed the manuscript of the symphony to Schumann, who became a champion for the unknown work. Again, orchestras in Vienna and Paris claimed the work was too long and unwieldy even to tackle in rehearsal. Schumann therefore took it to his friend Mendelssohn, who was the conductor of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and Mendelssohn agreed to perform the work with his own orchestra. When, however, he attempted to perform it in London in 1844, despite extensive cuts the musicians refused.

Schubert profoundly revered Beethoven, and perhaps his greatest tribute to Beethoven was his resolve to write a grand symphony with the breadth and profundity of his predecessor's; and his Symphony No. 9 was the result. Today its length and the physical as well as musical hurdles it poses for musicians are no longer novel; but it remains immensely challenging in performance. Schubert was particularly gifted at writing beautiful lines for the French horn, and it is the French horn's majestic motive from the slow introduction that becomes the recurring theme of the first movement. Well after Schubert's death, the theme's grandeur and sense of space, together with the sheer length of the Symphony, helped to earn it the nickname the "Great C Major"

In fact, the nickname was first applied by a music publisher to distinguish the work from Schubert's shorter and less ambitious 6th Symphony, the "Little C Major." But the name aptly describes both Schubert's evident intent in writing the work, and the stature of the final composition.
Today’s performance is taken from a Schubert cycle featuring Riccardo Muti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic - the descendent of the orchestra that refused to perform the work in public in Schubert’s lifetime. This Schubert cycle includes excerpts from the incidental music to the play Rosamunde, which I have added as filler to today’s montage.

The premiere performance of Rosamunde took place on December 20, 1823 at the Theater an der Wien. After only one more performance, it disappeared forever from the repertoire of the theatre. The press was quite critical of the text of Rosamunde, subjecting it to such scathing comments as this: 'an inutterably insipid work'. As regards the composer, at least, we read: 'Herr Schubert's composition shows originality, but unfortunately bizarrerie as well. The young man is in the process of developing; we hope that it goes well ..'. The overture was a rehash of his music for the melodrama Die Zauberharfe, which explains why we see that name associated with the work on record jackets…

I think you will love this music too.

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