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Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 19, 1928, Albert Coates conducting
The change that took place in Schubert's musical demeanor between the six symphonies that have been lumped together as "early," and his final two symphonic utterances, the "Unfinished" in B minor and the "Great" C-major (to differentiate it from the "Little," the last of the aforementioned six), constitutes a striking progression from a lightweight style rooted in the previous century to an original, profoundly creative modus operandi. In the field of song, he was his own man from the start; in his solo piano music, originality blossomed early as well. But the "mature" string quartets and symphonies were relatively late in coming - late in a life so brief.
The first six symphonies, each of Classical length - a half-hour, give or take a few repeats - were created from 1813 through 1818, under the influence of Haydn and Mozart (oversimplification may get us closer to the truth than more profound analysis), with suggestions in both the Third and Sixth of the dashing wit of Rossini, then the rage of Vienna.
Within this group, however, and antecedents notwithstanding, the Fourth Symphony stands apart, being more serious in aim and mood, less overtly entertaining. The Symphony dates from 1816, the composer's 19th year, when he was becoming impatient with his life as an all-purpose teacher at his father's school in Vienna, and beginning to feel himself overqualified for writing for the undersized, largely amateur orchestra that was an outgrowth of the Schubert family string quartet.
So, he sought academic advancement, a friend suggesting he apply for a music-teaching position at a reputable German-language school in Laibach (today's Ljubljana, in Slovenia). He didn't get the job. And while it might be fanciful to hear in this C-minor Symphony anger at the rejection of his application, some other demons may have been exorcised here. It was surely written for personal reasons, being too emotionally exposed and technically demanding to be put into the trembling hands of the "family" orchestra. He would write nothing at all like it again.
The symphonies that surround the C-minor, three preceding, two following, are largely in the idiom of their day, which is to say, as previously noted, within the accepted formal strictures, with unmistakably Haydnesque and Mozartian breezes wafting by. But they are also infused with original harmonic elements that could be called "Schubertian"; and Schubert was, from the start, a master of thematic development. It might be noted that when Dvor?ák was living in New York during the 1890s he wrote an illuminating article for The Century Magazine - often reprinted since - in which he not only acknowledged his debt to Schubert as a contributor to his own fashioning as a composer but deplored the neglect of these early gems (the pre-"Unfinished" symphonies), noting how often he had personally conducted them and recommending them to other conductors.
Schubert himself dubbed the C-minor Symphony his "Tragic." And while it is the most serious among the six, the sobriquet seems youthfully self-dramatizing rather than justified by what we hear. It recalls to these ears the agitated Sturm und Drang symphonies of the 1777s by Haydn and his lesser contemporaries, in the mood of high tension, at most petulance, found in the two outer movements.
The slow movement, rather long by the young composer's standards, is a marvel: glowing with a sadly-sweet lyric grace that is Schubertian to the core, a foretaste of the sublime A-flat Impromptu of Op. 142 dating from near the end of his life. Note in particular the manner in which the ostinato accompanying figure appearing at the start evolves into a gorgeously expansive theme. The intimate string-woodwind exchanges, too, are memorable - as in Mozart, but in the longer-lined Schubert fashion - while the incisive rhythms of the Minuet, with appropriately lilting trio section, at least hint at the air of unrest prevalent in the corner movements.
The C-minor Symphony, in common with most of Schubert's other instrumental works, was not performed during his lifetime. The first public presentation took place in Leipzig in 1849, 21 years after its composer's death.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.