FRANZ SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944, “The Great”

Franz Peter Schubert was born in Liechtental, a suburb of Vienna, on January 31, 1797, and died in Vienna on November 19, 1828. He began this symphony in the summer of 1825 and completed it by October 1826. At some point between the summer of 1827 and Schubert’s death in November 1828, the Ninth Symphony received at least one reading at a rehearsal of the orchestra of the Vienna Society of the Friends of Music (Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde). The first fully authenticated (and first public) performance, heavily cut, took place on March 21, 1839, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy conducting the orchestra of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; also three trombones, timpani, and strings.

Schubert composed no fewer than six symphonies between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. Then he ran into trouble; though he was to live ten years longer, he only finished one more symphony. Yet it was not for want of trying. Extensive sketches survive for other symphonies, not to mention the two completed movements of the “Unfinished” Symphony in B minor, one of his most magical works. Only the “Great” C major Symphony was fully finished—and even it remained unknown and unperformed for more than a decade after Schubert’s early death. Going by the numbering in the chronological Deutsch catalogue of Schubert’s works, the “Great” C major Symphony (so called to distinguish it from the Symphony No. 6 in the same key) was one of the prolific composer’s final compositions. Indeed, the manuscript bears the date “March 1828,” only eight months before Schubert’s death.

After Schubert’s death in 1828, the work was “lost”—unknown and unperformed—until 1839, when it was seen by a musician, Robert Schumann, who truly valued its significance and arranged for a performance in Leipzig, the first public hearing of this enormous score. In 1840 the Ninth Symphony had great success there, but other orchestras long regarded it as “too long and difficult.” Gradually audiences and performers came to recognize the truth of Schumann’s ecstatic reaction to this music: “It transports us into a world where we cannot recall ever having been before.”

The first movement begins with a horn theme that might be the typical “slow introduction.” But Schubert welds it to the body of the movement, making it a cornerstone of the entire symphony. The first three notes (C–D–E) cover the interval of a major third, which is heard, either rising or falling, throughout the score. The lengthy lyrical opening eventually turns into the Allegro ma non troppo, with a little fanfare theme (C–G–C–D in a dotted rhythm, repeated) in the strings. Schubert originally composed the entire first movement using an even simpler motive (C–G–C–G). Well after completing the full score (possibly in March 1828), he decided to rework the motive, which meant rewriting all the hundreds of times it occurs in the first movement. He scratched out the changed note at each occurrence with a penknife and replaced it.

The second movement, in A minor, is laid out on the simplest of musical plans, A-B-A-B, with the B sections appearing in contrasting keys, first F, then A major. Yet the flow of ideas is so lavish and imaginative that one scarcely notices the straightforwardness of the design in the poetry of the elaboration. The Scherzo, too, is elaborated in extenso as a full-scale sonata form, a far cry from the binary dance movement of earlier symphonies. In several places Schubert introduces themes that truly waltz, lilting in the style that became the hallmark of Vienna (we tend to forget Schubert as a pioneer of the waltz).

The last movement is nothing short of colossal in time span, energy, or imaginative power. Two separate motives—one dotted, one in triplet rhythm—stand at the outset as a call to attention and a forecast of things to come. Both play a role in the opening theme, which grows with fierce energy to the dominant cadence. After a pause, a brilliantly simple new idea––four repeated notes in the unison horns––generates an independent marchlike theme that shows off its possibilities later on as it dominates the extended development. The opening dotted motive prepares the recapitulation with increasing intensity, though when it arrives, Schubert arranges matters so as to bring it back in the completely unexpected key of E-flat! The first section of the recapitulation is abridged, but it works around to C major for the more lyric march of the secondary theme. This closes quietly on a tremolo C in the cellos; they sink down two steps to A, starting the massive coda, which reworks the materials nearly as extensively as the development section in the middle of the movement. The mood passes from mystery and darkness to the glorious sunshine of C major as the Symphony ends in a blaze of glory. —© Steven Ledbetter