March 12 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
March 13 – Friday at 11:00 a.m.*
March 14 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
Evening Concerts Only
Symphony in C major (“The Great”), D.944
(Symphony No. 9)*
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
At a Glance
Schubert wrote this C-major symphony* in 1825-26. There may have been a partial read-through at a rehearsal of the Austrian Philharmonic Society during Schubert’s lifetime, but no public performances were given. The score was rediscovered a decade after Schubert’s death, and the first performance (with cuts) was presented on March 21, 1839, in Leipzig, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra.
This symphony runs about 50 minutes in performance. Schubert scored it for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Schubert’s “Great C-major” Symphony in January 1921, with Nikolai Sokoloff conducting. It has been presented on a regular basis since that time, led by all of the Orchestra’s music directors. The most recent performances were led by Christoph von Dohnányi in November 2015.
About the Music
Franz Schubert composed, or at least started, a dozen symphonies, a number of which he left unfinished. What we know as his “Unfinished” Symphony, ironically, was almost certainly completed, even though the partial autograph score reveals only two movements, a pulsing first and a heartrending, slow-tempo’d second movement.
The origins of Schubert’s “Great” C-major Symphony, often given the designation as his Symphony No. 9, were for many years equally problematic, despite the fact the score for this big work was in the hands of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde during the composer’s lifetime.
At the top of the manuscript is written a date that looks like “March 1828,” which led the English lexicographer George Grove (famous in musical circles as editor for Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians) to argue what the date was when composition began. From this first assumption, he surmised that this was not the symphony that Schubert’s friends said he composed on holiday in the summer of 1825. That must be a different work, now lost.
A more recent inspection of the date written on the score revealed that part of it was trimmed off when the autograph score was bound, and so the 8 could instead by a 5 or 6.
If Schubert began his “Great” Symphony in 1825, then the lost symphony is lost no more. The two symphonies are now believed to be one and the same!
Written and lost, then found
In that summer of 1825, Schubert traveled with his friend, the singer Michael Vogl, in the mountains of Upper Austria for five months. Schubert, always busy in his head with music, would have been inspired to write a great deal during this period, and a big symphony is exactly what a long holiday might produce.
In the city of Linz, they stayed with Anton Ottenwalt, who wrote to another of their friends: “By the way, he worked on a symphony in Gmunden, which is to be performed in Vienna this winter.” Such a work was not performed that winter, but in 1826 the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, having learned that Schubert was writing a symphony for them, voted a gift of 100 crowns to him in acknowledgement. A set of parts was made and the autograph score delivered. The work was tried out in rehearsal — but found to be too difficult, so it was returned to the shelf.
More than a decade later, long after Schubert’s death, Robert Schumann called on Schubert’s brother Ferdinand in Vienna on New Year’s Day 1839 and was amazed to find an enormous collection of unknown music, including the symphony in C major, which no one had ever heard. He immediately arranged a performance back home in Leipzig, where Felix Mendelssohn was in charge of the city’s famous Gewandhaus Orchestra. Other orchestras, however, in Vienna, Paris, and London, still refused to rehearse it because of the relentless stream of notes in the string parts, especially in the last movement — too difficult, too tiring.
Expressive and expansive
No doubt about it, this is a big symphony. And it is worth reminding English speakers that the nickname “Great” is a translation of the German word “Grosse,” the meaning of which leans much more toward the idea of large and expansive, rather than being “very good” (which the symphony also surely is). The nickname was first given to this work to help distinguish it from Schubert’s earlier, shorter symphony in C major, No. 6, known as Die Kleine or “The Little” C-major Symphony.
So where did Schubert find inspiration toward such length and breadth?
In May 1824, Beethoven, by that point very deaf, conducted the first performance of his Ninth Symphony. We know that Schubert never missed the opportunity to hear Beethoven’s music performed, and no doubt he was present on that occasion. He could hardly fail to have been impressed by that magnificent, large-scale work. Even if he had no desire to include voices in a symphony of his own, Schubert would nonetheless have responded to the vastly expanded time-scale of Beethoven’s Ninth. Schubert had, after all, long had a great fluency for composing movements rich in melodic invention, the material which can seem reluctant to come to a close.
One innovation in orchestral writing that was definitely Schubert’s own was the prominence of the three trombones. He wrote parts for only two horns, when two pairs of horns were already the norm, but replaced the second pair with three trombones, which had the advantage not only of their distinctive sonority but also of their ability to play any note of the normal chromatic scale. With Schubert’s propensity to modulate freely and rapidly from key to key, the trombones were entirely at home.
As Haydn did in almost all of his symphonies, but Beethoven only in some of his, Schubert begins his first movement with a slower introductory section, marked Andante, which builds a crescendo into the start of movement proper, marked Allegro. And it was Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony, No. 103, that gave Schubert the idea of bringing back the broad theme of the introduction (originally stated by the two horns unaccompanied) at the conclusion of the movement, first in the winds, then in the strings.
Schubert’s slow movement is a unique creation, with a nod towards the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and its jog-trot tempo. Schubert was sometimes inclined to allow the development of themes, especially in slow movements, to generate tension, defused at the last minute by a return to the sanity of his main themes. But in this movement, the process loses control. Angry dotted figures in the strings are goaded by repetitive trumpet-and-horn calls in a terrifying escalation, to the point where the music completely collapses, fortississimo. A bar and a half of silence is needed before the music can resume, wounded but alive.
There is no happier music than the Scherzo third movement, apparently descended from a cloudless sky. The movement’s Trio section, too, is a glimpse of paradise — with the whole of a long melody given to the winds as a group.
The closing Finale is another matter altogether, determined to break every record for stamina as if a sprinter were required to run a marathon. The unflagging pace, the sense of machinery switched to “full,” and the dotted rhythms in the strings all suggest that this music cannot and will not be stopped. The famous second subject, with its four repeated notes at the start, compound the pulse and provide the drive that reaches, with the four hammer-like blows on the note C, the end of a “Great” symphony that not even Beethoven could match.
—Hugh Macdonald © 2020
Hugh Macdonald is Avis H. Blewett Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has written books on Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, and Scriabin.
* The numbering of Schubert’s symphonies after No. 6 has caused much confusion in recent decades, with updated versions of the official Deutsch catalog changing earlier numbering, then wavering and backtracking. For this reason, many orchestras now refer to the “Unfinished” and the “Great C-major” symphonies by their nicknames and Deutsch numbers alone. However, a majority of currently available recordings designate the “Unfinished” as No. 8 and “The Great” as No. 9.