The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944 "The Great"

About the Work

Franz Schubert Composer: Franz Schubert
© Thomas May

The lifespan of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was even shorter than that of Mozart—and, unlike his great predecessor in Vienna, Schubert began to enjoy more widespread recognition only in his later years. Meanwhile, a deplorable amount of his music was allowed simply to slip through the cracks. The Vienna Society of Music Friends, for example (to which Schubert belonged), apparently intended to perform his final Symphony in C major but abandoned it as too “difficult” after some rehearsals.


One early advocate who helped expand awareness of Schubert’s extraordinary scope—beyond the image of the naïvely tuneful songwriter—was Robert Schumann. In 1838 Schumann traveled to Vienna to investigate for himself reports of unpublished manuscripts in the possession of Schubert’s brother Ferdinand. He immediately recognized the quality of this symphonic score and brought it to the attention of Felix Mendelssohn, who proceeded to lead the world premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on March 21, 1839—more than a decade after the composer’s death. (The label “Great” was not Schubert’s own but proved handy to distinguish the work from his other C major symphony, the Sixth—and, moreover, seems altogether fitting for the work’s epic tone [see sidebar].)


For a long time, Schubert was largely identified with his gift for melody. The sheer lyrical richness not just of his songs but of ideas within his larger works tended to reinforce the cliché of a spontaneous but “naïve” composer. This view—which, curiously enough, replicated similar misunderstandings about Mozart—obscured the true nature of his adventurous musical imagination. For Schumann, the essence of the real Schubert was to be found in the newly rediscovered work. “He who does not know this symphony knows as yet little of Schubert,” declared Schumann, who would emulate certain of its characteristics in his own Second Symphony in C. He even lauded it as “the greatest achievement in instrumental music since Beethoven.”


The Beethoven connection comes into play with the “Great” C major Symphony in several ways. Following his earlier skepticism about the eccentric Viennese contemporary, against whom he favorably compared the music of Mozart, Schubert made an about-face and developed a strong case of hero worship. His esteem for Beethoven had grown ardent by the 1820s and had helped expand Schunert’s own sense of musical possibilities— above all (though not exclusively) in the genre of the symphony. But he was determined to pursue his own voice and not to echo Beethoven slavishly. This deepening of purpose already pervades the “Unfinished” Symphony of 1822. Some commentators speculate that Schubert abandoned that work since he couldn’t yet find the terms to complete it on the scale with which he had begun; others suggest that the discovery of his infection with syphilis around this time disrupted his creative focus. In any case, a letter from the spring of 1824 mentions Schubert’s intention to write significant works in chamber music genres so as “to pave my way towards a grand symphony.” This was, as it happened, shortly before the epochal premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to which the composer also looks forward in this letter.


Schubert got a reprieve from his ongoing health problems in the summer of 1825, when he took an invigorating vacation from the stress of Vienna amid the natural beauty of Upper Austria. Here Schubert found that “the country surpasses the wildest imagination”—offering access to both the beautiful and the sublime. The experience seems to have given him the courage to embark at last on his “grand symphony.” Biographer Brian Newbould aptly describes what resulted as “life-enhancing” and “a symbol of renewal,” while conductor Roger Norrington calls it a “Sommerreise, his joyful alternative to the Winterreise” with its bleak, suicidal despair.


The arresting horn theme that opens the Symphony seems to echo this nature-inspired openness and optimism. Its second phrase, in dotted rhythm, will prove especially significant in what is to come. The lengthy introduction unveils one fascinating variation after another and anticipates the expansive dimensions which the whole work will cover. In perhaps his most famous description of Schubertian style, Schumann rhapsodized over the Symphony’s “heavenly length, like a novel in four volumes.” 


The music swells with dam-bursting energy to lead into the first movement proper. This sense of brimming returns at the end of the exposition. Rhythmic vigor is another characteristic of the work (and one that suggests some parallels with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony). In the main theme, the dotted-rhythm pattern becomes buoyantly scalar (descending and then ascending). Oboes and bassoons chirp out a new idea in E minor, tinged with a folk sensibility, but then, in a brilliant stroke of synthesis, Schubert reintroduces that fragment from the symphony’s opening, now in the trombones, whose timbre plays a prominent role in the sound picture. That brief idea acquires an ominous power in the transformations of the development, seeding the way for the return of the entire opening horn theme in the coda—one of the symphony’s great breakthrough moments which imparts the sense of a journey traveled.


The measured march underpinning the Andante also calls the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh to mind (both movements share the key of A minor as well). The tangy oboe melody incorporates another dotted-rhythm pattern into its profile. Its almost guarded, whistling-in-the-dark demeanor hardly prepares us for the emotional extremity later reached in the violent, harmonically unsettling climax of the movement, which Schubert crowns with a stunning silence. The ensuing dialogue of cellos and oboe, passing from major to minor, is an exquisite touch, while the movement as a whole suggests a graphic musical translation of the composer’s bipolar tendencies.


Schubert patterns the design of his Scherzo after the equivalent movement in Beethoven’s Ninth by making it a full-fledged sonata form. Unison strings spring to life, accentuating the dynamic rhythmic energy that is a signature of the Symphony. Notice too how Schubert delights in the variety of his instrumental combinations as he shifts from one timbral context to another. The A major Trio suddenly opens up an entirely new vista and adds to the sense of expansiveness.


If finding a way to end had hampered Schubert in his B minor Symphony, here he proceeds with glorious confidence, launching a grand structure with a simple fanfare figure. The music’s momentum and excitement are irresistible. When the flow finally reaches a pause, the horns intone a series of four repeated notes leading into the chorale-like second theme (which is later transformed to recall the “Joy” theme from Beethoven’s Ninth, as if to remind us of the high stakes for which Schubert is playing). In a characteristic Schubertian strategy, this epigrammatic four-note signal grows to monumental proportions as the movement progresses. It introduces the dark energy that had emerged in the first two movements, culminating in a hammering climax in the coda. Yet Schubert surmounts this apocalyptic moment, with its threat of chaos, to steer a course to resounding C major triumph.