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Posted on May 9th, 2012, by

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony: The Beginning of the Romantic Period


Franz Peter Schubert is one of the most famous and popular Austrian composers known worldwide. He made a significant contribution in the development of music even though initially he lacked the professional education and his knowledge was considered to be quite meager. Nonetheless, regardless obvious gaps in professional knowledge, his talent and the help from the part of his friends and family permitted Franz Schubert create his outstanding creative works which remain popular till the present moment and music festivals known as Schubertiade are still widely spread and attract real connoisseurs of classic music.

During his professional career Franz Schubert wrote about 600 lieders, seven completed symphonies, and the famous “Unfinished Symphony”¯. Also he became popular as the author of liturgical music, operas, and a large amount of chamber and solo piano music. Ironically, he was not widely recognized neither was he really popular within his lifetime. In actuality, it was only a limited circle of specialists and outstanding composers and musicians who could really appreciate and understand his talent and the extent to which his works were original and innovative. Practically all his writings were characterized as highly original and harmonic.

He started to mature as a composer in Vienna and his first relatively successful attempts in music were made in early 1820s when the first signs of the original and unique style of Schubert became quite obvious. Among his first works may be named the unfinished oratorio “Lazarus”¯, which he began in February 1820, than it was followed by the 23rd Psalm, the Gesang der Geister, the Quartettzatz in C minor and the really great “Wanderer Fantasy”¯ for piano.

At the same time, Franz Schubert created two operas that appeared in Vienna’s Karntnethor theater “Die Zwillingsbruder”¯ and “Die Zauberharfe”¯. It is worthy of mention that at the beginning his works were restricted to amateur orchestra at the Gundelhof, a society which “grew out of the quartet-parties at his home”¯ (McKay 1996, p.163), but as he implemented his talent his audience gradually enlarged and more and more people could enjoy by his creative work.

Unfortunately, he still basically remained unpublished. In this respect, it should be said that in 1821 his “Alfonso und Estrella”¯ was refused and so was “Fierabras”¯. His further works were not very successful either, for instance, his “Die Verschworenen”¯ was prohibited by the censor, mainly on the ground of its title, and “Rosamunde”¯ was withdrawn after two nights, presumably because of the poor quality of its libretto. At the same time, it is necessary to underline that “Die Verschworenen”¯ was actually a bright and attractive comedy, while “Rosamunde”¯ contained some of the most charming music that Schubert ever composed.

In 1823, Schubert created his first song cycle, “Die Schone Mullerin”¯ that, together with the later cycle “Winterreise”¯, is considered to be one of the most significant and talented works of the composer and of the German Lied at large.

The next year he wrote the magnificent Octet in F, “A Sketch for a Grand Symphony”¯, and “Divertissement a l’Hongrois”¯, and the String quartet in A minor. The same year he completed the Mass in A flat.

However, one of the most significant and widely known works created by Franz Schubert was the exquisite “Unfinished Symphony”¯ which he began in 1822 but did not manage to finish even though he lived for six years more. Nonetheless, this unfinished work was apparently a turning point in his career and creative work since it symbolized the beginning of the new stage in his professional development and indicated at a certain shift of interests in the composer’s creative work. To put it more precisely, the Symphony No 8 in B minor known as “The Unfinished Symphony”¯ marked the beginning of the Romantic period in his career which was quite symbolic, especially after his first failures and the period which may be called the dark period in his creative work when he was unpublished. At the same time, this symphony also marked the development of the Romantic period not only in the professional work of Franz Schubert but it also reflected the general trends in the contemporary European and Austrian art and socio-cultural life at large. This is why “The Unfinished Symphony”¯ may be viewed as a turning point in Schubert work which incorporated his talent, innovative and original style and his unique views on music and art along with recent achievements in socio-cultural life as well as the recent achievements in music and orchestra.


Historical background

Obviously, the development of Franz Schubert’s career was to a significant extent predetermined by his surrounding and the current socio-cultural situation in the country at large and in Vienna, where he worked productively, in particular. It should be pointed out that the early life and career of Franz Schubert was accompanied by a series of turbulent events that dramatically changed the traditional lifestyle in Europe and naturally affected the development of art and music.

To put it more precisely, the beginning of the 19th century, when Schubert was actually formed as a composer and music professional, was marked by the Napoleonic wars and the radical ideological change in European culture. In fact, it was the epoch of a difficult shift from traditional absolutist ideology to the new, more democratic one.

Basically, this was the result of the French Revolution that changed the socio-economic and political situation in the continent and, in such a situation, the Napoleonic wars were just one of the consequences of this revolution.

Naturally, the main ideas of the French Revolution could not fail but affect the traditional lifestyle and ideology of Austrians since Napoleon actually defeated Austria in the war. What was more important for the development of art and music in such a situation was not the fact that Napoleon firstly defeated Austria and gained political and economic control over the country which he, though, eventually lost but rather the ideological impact of French on local culture and art as well as on the whole population of Austria and its lifestyle, views and opinion.

Unquestionably, the French, even though it was the French army, brought the progressive ideology to Austrian people the totally new ideology which basic principles were those of the French Revolution, i.e. liberty, fraternity, and equality. In fact, the new ideology was totally different from what the local culture was based on since traditional Austrian ideology was based on the principles of absolutism that implied the absolute power of the monarch and a strict class division of the society which had practically unchangeable social hierarchy.

In such a situation, the ideology of equality and liberty was absolutely revolutionary since it made all people equal and, what is more, conscious of their human rights which could not be usurped by a monarch or nobility.

Consequently, the progressive part of Austrian society, especially in Vienna, willingly absorbed this new ideology which practically ruined ideals of the past which absolutely out of date. On the other hand, this new ideology remained quite strong and progressing even after the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of monarchy and one of the main effects of this dramatic change in social conscience of Austrians was idealism that brought the ideals of the French Revolution.

Basically, this was the result of the substantial split between the reality and the desired ideals of the French Revolution. Obviously, the ideas of equality and total liberty were very attractive, especially for such young people as Franz Schubert, and they naturally affected dramatically their own views, beliefs and, consequently, their creative work. As a result, such idealism led to the development of the romanticism in art at large and music in particular.

On the other hand, the effect of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars was not only ideological but it also led to the development of the middle-class represented by the bourgeoisie which naturally had its own views on different aspects of life, including culture, art and music. This led to the development of Biedermeier which was spread in Central Europe, including Austria. In fact this term refers to work in the field of literature, music, the visual arts and interior design.

In this respect, it is worthy of mention that often the work of Biedermeier poets affected the work of many composers. Schubert was exception. For instance, his “Die Schone Mullerin”¯ was inspired by poems of Wilhelm Muller. Moreover, the composer became the symbol of Biedermeier in Austria. Its development was predetermined by the growing urbanization and industrialization leading to a new urban middle class, and with it a new kind of audience. Schubert perfectly realized it and his early Lieder, which could be performed at the piano without substantial musical training, illustrated the broadened reach of art in this period.

Also, there was another important trend that affected the creative work of Shcubert and the development of Biedermeier. This was the “growing political oppression following the end of the Napoleonic Wars prompting people to concentrate on the domestic and non-political”¯ (Plantinga 1984, p.204). However, this period was also marked by significant limitations of the freedom of speech. Notably, Franz Schubert extremely suffered from strict rules of publications and the existing system of censorship that prevented some of his works from being published, such as “Die Verschworenen”¯, which wasĀ  no published presumably because of its title. Naturally, such limitations of the freedom of speech limited dramatically the creative work of the composer who was apparently discouraged by the fact that his works, being positively assessed by specialists and his friends, remained unpublished.

By the way, it is necessary to underline that Franz Schubert’s friends and his family played an extremely important role in his creative work and, in all probability, he could hardly write the “Unfinished Symphony”¯ without their cordial support. It should be said that his friends and family helped him keep progressing and, what is more, they supported him financially as well as thy helped him realize his own talent and demonstrate it to the public.

At this point, it is possible to refer to the probably most difficult period in his creative work preceding the “Unfinished symphony”¯, when Franz Schubert worked hard but was not published. For instance, he stated that “I write all day and when I have finished one piece I begin another”¯ (McKay 1996, p.223). Naturally, it could be hardly possible to forecast the consequences of the limitations of publishing of his works if his friends did not support him.

Notably, all this time his circle of friends was gradually widening. For instance, Mayrhofer introduced him to Johan Michael Vogl, a famous baritone, who did him good service by performing his songs in the salons of Vienna. Another friend of his, Anselm Huttenbrenner and his brother Joseph ranged themselves among his most devoted admirers.

The Sonnleithners, a burgher family whose eldest son had been at the Convict, gave him free access to their home, and organized in his honor musical parties which soon assumed the name of Schubertiaden. Remarkably, the latter still persist and remain quite popular among the connoisseurs of classic music and admirers of Schubert talent.

Orchestra size at the time

Speaking about Franz Schubert creative work at large and his “Unfinished Symphony”¯ in particular, it is necessary to point out that they were not only original and harmonic but they were also, to a significant extent, innovative. For instance, it should be said that some of his works preceding “The Unfinished Symphony”¯, notably “Fierabras”¯, “Die Verschworenen”¯ and “Rosamunde”¯, being practically unknown to the wide public during the composer’s lifetime, were written on a scale which would make their performance exceedingly difficult. To put it more precisely, “Fierabras”¯ contained over 1000 pages of manuscript score that was quite unusual for that time.

In such a situation, it seems to be quite natural that Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”¯ was also quite original and innovative and could be viewed as the continuation of his experiments, though this was probably one of the most fundamental works created by the composer, regardless the fact that it was never finished. Speaking about this symphony, it is primarily necessary to point out that, although Schubert began to work on this symphony in 1822, he gave the two completed movements in 1823 to his friend, Anselm Huttenbrenner, as the representative of the Graz Music Society which had given him an honorary diploma as a recognition of his talent and importance of his work.

Unfortunately, they were not performed until 1865, when they were conducted in Vienna by Johan Herbeck, who had persuaded Huttenbrenner to show him the score and who added the last movement of Schubert’s Third Symphony as a finale. As for the original movements written by Franz Schubert, it should be said that they were really different from what was traditionally accepted in that epoch. To put it more precisely, the key of the symphony was virtually unprecedented since none of the leading composers of that time, including Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven wrote no symphonies in B minor. Nowadays, it is believed that they avoid it because the key is a very difficult one for valveless brass instruments which were extremely popular at that time. At the epoch there was no B natural crook for horns and trumpets. Remarkably, Schubert had managed to solve this problem partly by writing for trumpets in E. His first movement starts in B minor and modulates to a second subject in G major a surprisingly short four measures of transition.

In order to better understand the significance of the symphony and its effect on the development of the romantic trend in Schubert creativity, it is necessary to discuss the two complete and completely orchestrated movements. The symphony’s first movement is in sonata form, opening softly in the strings followed by a melody sounded by the oboes and clarinets. A transition, typical for the style of Franz Schubert, consists of just four measures, effectively modulating to the sub-mediant key of G major. The second subject group is one of Schubert’s most famous. This group is played by the celli and repeated by the violins. An emphatic closing theme features heavy sforzandi, and is based on a continual development of the second subject. Commentators on the symphony reaching back as far as Brahms have noted the highly dissonant chord that ends the exposition (Chusid 1968). Here Schuber superimposes a tonic B in the bassoons over the dominant F chord, creating the mixture of the two tonalities that evokes the end of the development in Beethoven’s “Erotica Symphony”¯ (Chusid 1968).

Furthermore, it should be said that the development section is extended and features a reworking of the primary theme group. Near the end the flutes and oboes recapture their melodic role from the movement’s beginning, preparing the transition to recapitulation. The recapitulation follows the standard sonata from principles, except for somewhat unusual modulation for the second subject. Instead of the conventional employment of the tonic (B minor), Schubert composes the second subject in D major. The closing theme reaches the threshold where the exposition had repeated, but leads instead to a coda in the tonic that recalls the opening theme.

On analyzing the second movement, it should be pointed out that basically it alternates between two contrasting themes. One the one hand, the first theme features counterpoint between the basses, horns, and violins. On the other hand, the second theme appears first in the solo clarinet before passing to the other woodwinds. Both themes are interrupted by episodes of counterpoint, and are repeated in variation. It is also worthy of mention that the fragment of the scherzo intended as the third movement returns to B minor.

At the same time, it is necessary to underline that Franz Schubert skillfully uses trombone in his “Unfinished Symphony”¯, which, remaining not very exposed, plays an extremely important role in the symphony upbringing a substantial degree of original and unique style typical for the composer and underlying the original combination of musical instruments in the symphony and their unusual use compared to the traditional symphonies created at that epoch.


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that since the beginning of his professional career Franz Schubert faced a number of difficulties. In fact, even his education was marked by the low quality and, probably, it is only due to his talent he had managed to realize himself as a composer whose works are still popular. At the same time, it is necessary remember about the support of his family and friends who supported him both morally and materially.

Obviously the position of the beginning composer would be much more difficult without the support of his family and friends. At the same time, it is necessary to underline that to a significant extent the difficulties Franz Schubert faced in his creative work were basically predetermined by the existing norms both legal and cultural. In this respect, the problem with the freedom of speech was probably one of the most significant since limitations in publishing and the existing censorship prevented many of his works from publishing and, consequently, he was deprived of the possibility to widely publish his works. What was important in such a situation was the fact that the pretexts for the refusal to publish his works were often irrelevant to the actual quality of his works. In other words, the pretexts were basically political while many specialists, including his close friends who were quite respectable music professionals, agreed that Franz Schubert was a really talented composer.

Naturally, his talent could not remain unnoticed and the postmortem popularity of Schubert’s works perfectly illustrated the extent of his talent. Ironically, he remained practically unnoticed by the wide audience in his lifetime.

Nonetheless, nowadays it seems to be even natural that his works became really popular only years after his death since, as “The Unfinished Symphony”¯ proves, his works were quite unusual and probably too complicated at the epoch of their creation. The composer used original style that different from traditional ones and it was practically difficult to fully realize Schubert’s ideas and the potential of his work during his lifetime, but it is really important that he managed to write all his works that became a great heritage of a great but unrecognized by the wide audience of his epoch composer.

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