skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759 ("Unfinished")

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Franz Schubert
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Jakub Hrusa, conductor/Daniel Müller-Schott, cello, plays Dvorák Mar. 25 - 28, 2010
© Paul Horsley
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, ("Unfinished," 1822)
Franz Schubert
Born January 31, 1797, in Himmelpfortgrund (now part of Vienna)
Died November 19, 1828, in Vienna

Behind the first puzzle posed by the "Unfinished" Symphony (why didn't Schubert finish it?), there is a second and even greater enigma. Schubert's first six symphonies, written between 1813 and 1818, showed him completely at ease with all aspects of the form. But a few years later, he was leaving fragment after fragment, as if he had no longer felt up to the challenge. The B-minor symphony is not Schubert's only "Unfinished." Other projected symphonies were abandoned even earlier in the compositional process: the "Unfinished" was preceded by two symphonic fragments (D. 615 from 1818 and D. 780A from 1820-21) and a fairly complete sketch of a symphony in E major.

All of these abortive projects point to Schubert's growing dissatisfaction with symphonic form as he had been practicing it. Clearly, he was striving for something on a far larger scale than his previous efforts. Both stimulated and discouraged by Beethoven's formidable example, he once exclaimed: "Who can do anything after him?" He was searching for his own artistic response to Beethoven's symphonies—a response that would match Beethoven in scope and dramatic energy, yet be free from any direct stylistic influence. Schubert eventually rose to the challenge in his C-major symphony of 1825; but it was a daunting task that could only be accomplished after several attempts and false starts.

With the B-minor symphony, Schubert came very close to a solution. As Brian Newbould, a specialist on the Schubert symphonies, has put it, this work is not so much an unfinished symphony as a "finished half-symphony," the only one of the fragments to need no editing whatsoever in order to be performed—as far as it goes. (It must be said that there are some sketches for the third movement, but these are too fragmentary to ever be completed.)

While Beethoven tended to construct his symphonic movements of extremely short melodic or rhythmic gestures, Schubert often started with full-fledged melodic statements that unfolded like songs. The first movement of the B-minor symphony is a case in point. Yet song soon turns into drama when the second theme is suddenly interrupted by a measure of silence, followed by a few moments of orchestral turbulence after which the previous idyll is restored only with some difficulty (and then temporarily). One particular harmonic turn in the development even uncannily anticipates Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde.

The second movement, in E major, combines a peaceful and ethereal melody with a second, more majestic theme with trumpets, trombones, and timpani. A second melody is introduced in a new key (C-sharp minor), again with a dramatic extension. These sharp contrasts in mood persist until the end of the movement, where the "peaceful and ethereal" E major is finally re-established after an exacting tonal journey through a number of distant keys.

The manuscript score of the "Unfinished" Symphony was long in the possession of the minor composer Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who had been a friend of Schubert but who gave no one access to the work for decades, for reasons that are not well understood. Finally, the story goes, conductor Johann Herbeck, who directed the concerts of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music), bribed Hüttenbrenner by offering to perform one of his (Hüttenbrenner's) works, obtained the score of the "Unfinished" and premiered it in 1865. Thirty-seven years had to pass after the composer's death before one of his greatest masterpieces could be revealed to the world.