Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, ``The Great''

Franz Schubert, 1797-1828. Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944, ``The Great.'' Completed 1826, first performance March 21, 1839, in Leipzig. Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tympani, and strings.

Perhaps more than any other successful composer, Franz Schubert struggled mightily with one form, the symphony. Most catalogs list only nine symphonies by this prolific artist, but parts of four more survive in various guises--and one of his most famous, the Eighth, is best-known by its well-deserved title of ``The Unfinished.''

In 1813, the 16-year-old Schubert completed the symphony that is now counted as his First (a more youthful effort survives only as a fragment, one of the four mentioned above). He continued with five more symphonies over the next four years, all of which were composed relatively rapidly and without apparent signs of difficulty or second thoughts.

But after the Sixth, trouble set in, starting with two failed attempts at a Seventh. The first seems to have been abandoned almost immediately: after sketching the opening of a first movement, he left no room on his paper to complete it before notating a few ideas for what might have been a finale and setting it aside. Two years later he tried again, this time producing ideas for all four required movements, but again stopping well short of even a completed outline.

The third attempt at a Seventh, in 1821, was carried to a finish of sorts, and Schubert was sufficiently satisfied to write the Italian word fine (done) at the end. Yet even so, most of each page is blank, for the composer wrote down only the melody, apparently intending to fill in the other instruments later. Without prospect of a performance (we only know of two symphonies that were mounted during his lifetime), Schubert then set the work aside, and again it survives as only a sketch, albeit a structurally complete one.

This brings us to the Eighth, the ``Unfinished.'' In Schubert's time, symphonies were traditionally composed in four movements: a relatively weighty introduction, a solemn slow movement, a lighthearted scherzo, and an appropriately majestic finale. In the case of the Eighth, only the first two movements exist in complete form, as well as a sketch of the scherzo. The two completed movements are some of the most sublime music ever penned, leading to great anticipation on the part of the listener, and some writers have speculated that the reason Schubert never finished the work was that he found himself unable to concoct a finale worthy of what he had already created.

By the time Schubert attempted his Ninth, seven years had passed without the completion of a full symphony. Most of his recent attempts had led to dead ends, and he must have begun to wonder whether he still had the ability to write large orchestral works. Nevertheless, he tried again, and produced the so-called ``Great'' C Major Symphony (the nickname is not a value judgment, but rather a reference to the size of the work compared to the Sixth, which was in the same key). This time he overcame his block, and produced an outstanding work that firmly established him as a master of the form. But the demon of completion would haunt him to the end, for his premature death terminated the Tenth even though he was once again in full control of his creativity, and it is thus that the Ninth stands as the pinnacle of his orchestral accomplishments.

© 1997, Geoff Kuenning

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