Schubert symphony number 8 in B minor

The South Birmingham Sinfonia performed this symphony in their Winter 2013 series on 2nd and 9th February 2013. The notes here are by Sadie Kaye.

First movement: Allegro moderato in B minor
Second Movement: Andante con moto in E major

Schubert started work on this symphony (usually called the 8th, sometimes numbered at the 7th) in 1822 but the work was left incomplete, at least in any traditional meaning of the term at the time. There are a lot of unusual features in this work compared with contemporary works, not least its lyrical nature, particularly the famous second subject in the first movement, its thoroughly forward-looking romanticism, and the full-blooded orchestration. It is one of the most popular and oft-heard of Schubert's orchestral works, and yet it remained incomplete at the time of Schubert's death in 1828, and was only given its first performance in 1865. It is at the same time a listener's favourite and a musicologist's mystery.

Why did such wonderful music lay in the composer's desk, unheard, for so long? And what were Schubert's intentions for this music? Why the work was left incomplete? Or is it really incomplete?

We will probably never know, and the best answers to these questions that are available are technical and couched in serious musicological language. (For example, see However, these questions provide some interesting pointers for things to listen out for in the music.

Schubert was in the beginnings of a highly creative and original phase of his working life in 1822. He was, along with contemporaries (such as Beethoven, Hummel, von Weber, Rossini, Donizetti) at the time developing the beginnings of what would be known as the romantic movement in music, and it is quite likely that the two movements we know today as the "unfinished symphony" were experimental attempts to take his music further in these directions. There are certainly a number of unusual features for this work. These include the apparently unsure start of the first movement, its wandering about, and its themes that start but just fade away rather than resolving or providing the expected musical narrative. It is as if Schubert is trying to trick his listeners down a side-alley rather than showing us the way. Then there is the lyrical style of these themes, veritable "songs without words", that seem out of place in a classical symphony, at least of this vintage. (But "song" would increasingly become a major source of inspiration for many later romantic symphonists, culminating of course with Mahler for whom song was the starting point of all his large-scale works.)

This symphony is so familiar to us today, and we are so used to its perfectly balanced two-movement structure that some people have suggested that it was intended as a complete work as it is usually performed today. But this really seems unlikely. There are two main reasons for thinking this. Firstly, and most obviously, sketches of a Scherzo - a third movement - exist in orchestral score for a few bars, and are almost complete in piano reduction. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the second movement of the two movement work as we know it finishes in E major, rather than the expected home key of B minor.

Even in the late romantic period symphonies that do not return to the home key of the first movement (or its relative major) are extremely unusual, and in the early part of the 19th century this never happens. It's interesting to listen for the effect that this has on the listener. Is the Bminor/Emajor combination like a great perfect cadence acting on the scale of the whole symphony? And to what extent is our understanding of this conditioned by our knowledge of music that was to be composed much later?

Also unusually for a symphony of the period, both these first two movements are in triple time (albeit with different time signatures - 3/4 and 3/8) rather than in quadruple or duple time. Unusual as it is for one of these two movements to be in three, it is highly unusual for them both to be in three. The third movement would also traditionally be in triple time, as indeed it is the extant sketch Schubert has left us. This would certainly have caused Schubert problems in balancing the third movement, let alone in conceiving a finale: would that finale also be in triple time? or could a movement in a more usual 2 or 4 in a bar provide a satisfactory balanced conclusion?

The balance and similarities between the two movements that we do have, movements that today we find so satisfactory, would also cause major difficulties for a more traditional conclusion. Despite the tempo markings, the first movement is highly lyrical and is a very moderate allegro indeed, whereas the second movement's andante needs to be rather faster and free-flowing to allow its melodies to flower. This has the effect that the two movements are normally played at very similar tempi indeed (about 100 to the pulse on the metronome in both cases) with at most a small change of gear for the more stately second movement, almost like just setting the car into overdrive - not that Schubert would have understood the simile. This is hardly the expected contrast that the slow second movements is supposed to have.

No doubt, the third movement was planned to be a lively scherzo to contrast the first two. But would the finale be a rondo in duple time - a "romp to home" - or something more than this? It is almost inconceivable that this symphony could have a light fluffy rondo finale, like that of the sixth. (Schubert's 7th symphony was also left incomplete.) Yet the modern alternative of a slow movement as a finale (again, forward looking to the likes of the majestic finales of for example Bruckner 9, and Mahler's 3rd and 9th symphonies) would most likely have been considered as far too shocking in 1822.

Hans Gál has suggested that Schubert, whom he describes as a composer that relies more strongly on improvisatory skills than (say) Beethoven, simply ran out of steam: he already realised his sketches for the third movement were simply not up to the immense quality of first two, and dropped the project at this point. Perhaps Schubert also realised that - irrespective of the third movement - a finale would create an even greater challenge, a challenge that music of the time was not up to. But what glorious music he has left us with the first two!

©RWK for SBS, 27th December 2012

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