Schubert and the Symphony: A New Perspective

Schubert and the Symphony: A New Perspective

Peter Gulke

Some fifteen years ago, on the occasion of the Franz Schubert anniversary year 1978, Brian Newbould presented what is doubtless the best performing version of the E-major Symphony, D. 729 (now available from University of Hull Press, 1992), and since then has contributed a number of articles on aspects of the subject now examined in its entirety in Schubert and the Symphony (see, e.g., his “Schubert’s Other Unfinished Symphony,” The Musical Times 119 [July 1978]: 587-89; and “Schubert’s Last Symphony,” idem 126 [May 1985]: 272-75). The book has at best but two predecessors–a doctoral thesis published in 1933 (Ernst Laaff’s Franz Schuberts Sinfonien [Wiesbaden: H. Rauch] and a special issue of Revue musicale, “Franz Schubert et la symphonie,” edited by Paul-Gilbert Langevin (nos. 355-57 [1982])–and in its scope and achievement easily supersedes them. Newbould, moreover, extracts his conclusions from consequences emanating from the new dating of the extant symphony fragments in 1978 (see for instance Ernst Hilmar’s “Neue Funde, Daten und Dokumente zum symphonischen Werk Franz Schuberts,” Osterreichische Musikzeitschrift 33 [1978]: 266-76), namely: the relative certainty that we now have a complete accounting of Schubert’s symphonic oeuvre; the fact that the legend of a lost Gmunden-Gasteiner symphony can be laid to rest; and the improbability that sensational new discoveries in this sphere of Schubert’s activity should still be expected.

This would be enough to occasion merely a summary of the current state of affairs — and indeed the author provides one, as indicated by the sequence of chapters devoted to individual works — but in addition to that Newbould succeeds in offering “a new perspective,” and in so doing allows the puzzling question to reemerge as to why Schubert the orchestral composer has lain so long in the shadow of Schubert the composer of songs and piano music. Not the least characteristic of this new perspective is the fact that Newbould’s analysis relies so little on elucidating the allegedly “preparatory,” imitative nature of the first six symphonies, yet at the same time proposing much new material for consideration as Schubert’s likely models, thanks to an extensive knowledge of the repertory. This proves all the greater achievement, moreover, when we remember how much easier it is to describe models that may have exerted an influence than to chart the actual integration of specific stylistic elements into the fabric of a given work. Thus among the great merits of this book is its scrutiny of Schubert in creative dialogue with his predecessors, very much comparable to the image of the young genius Mozart who composed his early works while assimilating all manner of stimuli around him without incurring the suspicion of “eclecticism” or “epigonism.” That such suspicions have fallen on the early symphonies of Schubert has less to do with him than with later writers who have evinced but limited knowledge of the music. Indeed because the music world’s quick recognition of the “Unfinished” and “Great C-major” Symphonies as masterworks (allied with a simplistic need to distinguish between “classic” and “romantic” features of a composer’s style) has forced the earlier symphonies into the background. Newbould deserves enormous credit for supplying a foundation for the latter’s rehabilitation. Never before have the unique qualities of these works been so clearly and convincingly detailed; in fact, with remarkable precision the author justifies his almost catchwordlike characterizations: “Building on the Past: The First”; “New Perspectives: The Second”; “Serene Confidence: The Third”; “Sturm und Drang: The Fourth”; “A Nostalgic Aside: The Fifth”; “Crossroads: The Sixth.” It is, after all, astounding that such a series of individual symphonic statements should have issued from the pen of a thirteen- to eighteen-year-old, who as a composer born into a musically “oversubscribed” world nonetheless managed to discover his own path — who, moreover, as a youth living a few streets away from the phenomenally productive (and in each work “canonic”) Beethoven could scarcely hope to attract attention. The depth of perception with which Newbould limns this portrait of the young Schubert would by itself suffice to earn his book exceptional notice.

There may be something in the fact that these lines are written in Germany to explain the rather generalizing tone of my remarks thus far, in contradistinction to Newbould’s more austerely Anglo-Saxon approach. He spares his readers none of the technical specifics having to do with compositional process or orchestration, such as, for instance, the role of the horns in the selection of key areas; though he may exaggerate in making the difficulty in the use of horns responsible for a general avoidance of B-minor in orchestral composition without also giving due consideration to the relatively little examined matter of Schubert’s own sensibilities with regard to key characteristics. Especially apparent here is Newbould’s capacity to render complicated issues easy to understand, but his accountings do presuppose that readers have the score in hand or are otherwise wholly conversant with the music. Indeed passages such as that describing the finale of the Second Symphony; that defining what he terms the “afterstatement” of a subject; or that dedicated to considering the role of the minor mode belong to the crowning moments of the book. Also noteworthy are certain useful insights, such as: “in the 1780s, finales were, but for a handful of exceptions, more a means of sending an audience home in good spirits than a resolution of issues contained in the rest of the symphony”.

On the one hand, then, Newbould writes as a seasoned professional so consummately in command of his subject that he need not marshall every jot of evidence when referring to a “discovery” or an original conception (to succumb to overinterpretation is always a danger in such cases) — thus his allusion for example, to a connection between a development-section motive in the first movement of the Second Symphony and Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, and indeed the very supposition that the overall schema of Mozart’s developments in the Symphonies, K. 550 and 551 stand in a sort of paternal relationship to the Second. On the other hand, Newbould writes as an enthusiastic connoisseur, unafraid to venture subjective evaluations (and so expose his interpretations to criticism), such as whether the epithet “tragic” must be applied only reluctantly to the C-minor Symphony; whether there remain fundamental questions regarding the incomplete Scherzo of the “Unfinished” Symphony; whether the contrapuntal finale of the fragment D.936A has engendered too much praise; or whether the first theme-group in the initial movement of the fragment D.708A has not also been overvalued, rather than being seen more as a means of approach to the lyric second theme. It was no accident that Schubert, in his last symphonic sketch, repeated this strategy with the first theme material after the second theme had been fixed. Not infrequently, and not without risk, Schubert’s first theme-groups appear almost calculated to underscore the expansive lyricism of the secondary themes, just as the slow movements of the symphonies serve virtually as realizations of the lyric impulse in those second themes left unfulfilled by the constraints of sonata form.

That Newbould sometimes passes over such hotly debated questions as the alleged “secret program” of the “Unfinished” Symphony surely has something to do with his rather minimal engagement with the specialist literature in German — in this regard his bibliography reveals several lacunae. Admittedly he provides ample evidence to show that the compulsion to wade through the thicket of secondary writings is all too academically motivated. While in the end he often arrives at markedly similar conclusions, he nonetheless along the way declines the invitation to critical discussion. Could not the reference to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the context of the “Great C-major” Symphony be extended any further? The fact that Schubert composed a theme bearing resemblance to the “Ode to Joy” for the introduction to his first movement (unremarked by Newbould) could serve as a weighty argument, allowing support, furthermore, for the conception of this Symphony as a kind of counterdesign to Beethoven’s Ninth.

Given the circumstance that the symphonic fragments still remain so little known, Newbould offers a particularly detailed and devoted account of them, one that goes well beyond construing lines of continuity with the completed symphonies. Just as there are difficulties in our understanding of the well-known works, such as the paucity of discernable connections between the “Unfinished” and “Great C-major” symphonies, so are there questions here: there appears, for example, to be more in the C-minor String Quartet, D. 703 of conceptual relevance to the “Unfinished” than in all the fragments lying between it and the Sixth Symphony. What Newbould has to say about the sense or competence of existing performing editions should be brought to the attention of the majority who have dealt all too inexactly with the arguments over whether Schubert’s fragmentary works can be “completed” with any claim to “authenticity.” Newbould has in fact shown how much the drafting of a performing version of such a work is above all a veritable act of realization. Compared to the “authentic” record of a completed composition, the fragments remain in the end lost music, if extant in a state that allows us to perceive what has been lost.

In the context of this discussion occurs Newbould’s stimulating hypothesis that, with the exception of the fragments (to which group the “Unfinished” belongs in this instance), Schubert evidently made his first drafts in full score, since keyboard sketches or other sorts of preliminary notations are nowhere to be found. Newbould’s own draft of a performing version of the E-major Symphony, D. 729 especially supports this reasoning, in that the extant music, in unison for the most part, is written out in score all the way to the end (chapter 14, “Ink and Paper”). An abridgement of Newbould’s sensitive and plausible exposition would necessarily deprive it of its sophistication; yet in view of the far-reaching consequences a fuller critique than I can offer now would be desirable. It might include in part a comparison to Mozart’s working methods (to which the author refers only fleetingly), among other avenues that Newbould declines to explore, such as the fact that Schubert, seeing the implications of his rethinking a harmonization (“an augmented sixth of the German type” [p. 245]), assigned to it an important role in the finale of the “Great C-major” Symphony, which in turn provoked changes in the first movement of that work (including a revision of the coda) — not to forget the use of this sonority as a kind of Schubertian signature. All in all, owing to the circumspection with which the author lays out his argument, it must be said that Newbould for the most part successfully negotiates the pitfalls of his somewhat outrageous supposition, allowing the possibilities of genius, as it were, to speak directly for themselves. But unfortunately he does not satisfactorily illuminate the extent to which the keyboard sketches in the fragments permit us to infer with any degree of certainty that elsewhere Schubert composed in full score. Still, it is especially with this thesis — but not only here — that Schubert and the Symphony goes beyond every previous investigation and so supplies a new point of departure for future research.

I have often conducted the Schubert symphonies and, like Newbould, have attempted performing versions of the symphony fragments and written extensively on the composer’s music (see my Franz Schubert und seine Zeit [Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1991]). Reading this book has, page after page, afforded me both pleasure and profit.

PETER GULKE Wuppertal (translated by M. G.)

COPYRIGHT 1994 Music Library Association, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning