The Kennedy Center

Symphony in C major, D. 944

About the Work

Franz Schubert Composer: Franz Schubert
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document            Schubert's last and greatest symphony was apparently composed (or in any event completed) in 1826, and may have been subjected to revision of its first three movements as late as 1828; the first performance was given, with substantial cuts, by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Felix Mendelssohn on March 21, 1839, more than ten years after Schubert's death. The National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work was conducted by Hans Kindler on December 18, 1938; Leonard Slatkin conducted the most recent ones, on April 24-26, 2003.
            The score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets in pairs, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration, 50 minutes.

           Schubert's final symphony has been known by no fewer than four different numbers. When Hans Kindler conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of it, it was billed as Symphony No. 7. Otto Erich Deutsch assigned it the number 8 in his thematic catalogue of Schubert's works, and it has also been known, though not very widely, as No. 10. Understandably, some cataloguers have come to feel it is better to omit the number altogether and simply refer to it as the “Great C major," the term applied to it shortly after its premiere—not by way of value judgment, but simply to distinguish it (“Great" here simply in the sense of “Big") from Schubert's “Little C major," his earlier and slighter symphony in the same key, which is unequivocally identified as No. 6. The number 9, however, does seem to be in order here, and now is in general use.
            While there may have been confusion about the number that belongs on this work, there is no question at all about its position as the capstone of Schubert's activity as a symphonist. The “Great C major" has long been the object of exceptional popular affection, and among musicians themselves it may well be the most beloved of all symphonies, occupying a position in the orchestral literature comparable to that of Schubert's very last great work, his string quintet in the same key, in the realm of chamber music. Schubert never heard either of these masterworks performed, and when we think of the great reverence musicians have for the symphony today it seems more than a little ironic that it was the initial resistance on the part of orchestral players that delayed the work's entry into the repertory.
            Though Schubert heard some of his symphonies given informal readings in a friend's home, several of them had to wait till after his death for any kind of performance. It appears that in the last year of his life the prestigious Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music) in Vienna actually scheduled his big Symphony in C major for one of its concerts, but eventually rejected it as being too difficult to perform. On that occasion the Symphony No. 6, the “Little C major," was substituted, and thus became the first Schubert symphony to be given a public performance by a professional orchestra—about a month after the composer's death. It was not until early in 1839 that the score of the rejected final symphony was discovered by Robert Schumann and sent by him with great excitement and enthusiasm to Felix Mendelssohn, who lost no time in presenting it to the public in Leipzig (in a somewhat abridged version).
            But even the popular and widely beloved Mendelssohn had a hard time “selling" the work. Although he succeeded grandly in giving neglected masterworks of Bach and Beethoven their rightful status in the active repertory, his similar efforts on Schubert's behalf by no means assured this work's acceptance. A few years after the 1839 premiere, when he put the Symphony in C major into rehearsal for one of his concerts in London, a city in which he was held in special esteem by both the public and his fellow musicians, the orchestra members so derided portions of the finale that he was forced to withdraw the work. François-Antoine Habeneck, who in 1831 successfully conducted the first complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies in Paris (and conducted Berlioz premieres as well), fared no better when he tried to present this one Schubert symphony there. The newness of the work was to be intimidating for many years. Significantly in this respect, Schumann, when he sent the score to Mendelssohn, not only made his famous remark on its “heavenly length" but added that “it leads us into regions which—to our best recollection—we had never before explored."
            The opening phrase of the introductory Andante, given out by the two horns, is not a ceremonial gesture, but one that at once defines the vast scale to which the entire work is to be drawn. What follows in this expansive introduction and in the first movement proper (Allegro ma non troppo) reveals some of the more obvious aspects of Schubert's legacy to both Brahms and Bruckner. Brahmsian before the fact are the characteristic texture of the strings' first entrance and the distinctive wind coloring. Bruckner's style is foretold in the noble simplicity of the opening theme with its lofty intimations, in the development of most of the movement's materials from the second of the three-note phrases within the theme, and in the elaborate coda that culminates in a glorification of the opening material.
            The acute musical analyst Donald Francis Tovey characterized the slow movement (Andante con moto) as a “heart-breaking show of spirit in adversity." It is the sort of music only Schubert could have written, its combination of lyricism, stark drama and an intensity made all the more poignant by the obvious effort toward restraint is something uniquely his. This is music from the same grim and pathetic yet proud world as the song-cycle Winterreise, and its key, A minor, had a personal poignancy for Schubert similar to that of G minor for Mozart. The second theme, in F major, is broad and consolatory, one of the most expansive such gestures in any of Schubert's instrumental works. Schubert builds on these materials to achieve a climax as emotionally explicit as those to come decades later from Tchaikovsky, and in fact caps it the same way Tchaikovsky was to do at a corresponding point in his Fifth Symphony in 1888 (and the young Richard Strauss was to do at the emotional peak of his tone poem Don Juan in the same year): a sudden “shattering silence," an unexpected void suddenly following an