Schubert composed his Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”) in 1822 and kept it a deep secret for the rest of his life. Even after the composer’s death in 1828, the premiere of the symphony had to wait an additional 37 years until 1865 when it was performed in Vienna under the direction of Johann Herbeck.
The two-movement structure of the “Unfinished” Symphony has raised many questions and debates during the past 150 years. All resulting theories and assumptions have their strong and weak points. Some of today’s theorists have concluded that Schubert in fact completed the work by writing what is known today as the First entr’acte of the incidental music to “Rosamunde”. This theory is based on the fact that both symphony and entr’acte are in the key of B minor, a fairly rare key for a symphony even in the beginning of the nineteenth century. A second argument supporting the ‘Rosamunde’ theory is that at the time he composed the symphony, Schubert had to complete, in a very short time, some incidental music. According to the theory, Schubert sacrificed the finale of his symphony in order to secure his income.
A second theory as to why the composer did not write a third and fourth movement for his most famous instrumental work is based on a very simple and purely aesthetic observation: these two movements say everything the composer had to say. In his book Schubert: A Musical Portrait, Alfred Einstein argues that “He [Schubert] had already written too much that was “finished,” to be able to content himself with anything less or with anything more trivial.”
The first movement begins with an introduction, based on an 8-measure motive, which although not having the status of an independent theme, plays a significant role in the unfolding of the first movement. The themes of the sonata allegro are of a rich singing quality and each complements rather than contrasts with the other. This is a movement in which the romantic intensity is masterfully mixed with tender lyricism. The movement ends in darkness and pessimism: the opening motive is broken to short segments without gravity and without hope.
After the intensity and the dramatic force of the first movement, the second movement presents even more imaginative compositional and melodic structure. Here we have virtually everything the listener can desire to hear in a romantic work – almost “lied”-quality melodies, heroic frescoes, explosive climaxes, and sudden harmonic shifts.
Composed between 1800 and 1803, this work can be viewed as both the culmination of the first phase of Beethoven’s orchestral writing and as a major advance towards the work of his “heroic” period.
While outwardly classical in style, this symphony is full of drama, contrast and lyricism. It begins in a grand style, with an opening Adagio based on rising and falling scale motifs. The opening section segues into a sparkling Allegro con brio starting in the lower strings, with dramatic drive and dynamic contrasts.
The lovely theme of the second movement Larghetto is one of the most recognizable passages in classical music – a lyrical rising melody played first by the strings in a high register, and then echoed by the winds. A short development section uses the opening theme as a backdrop to evoke an unsettled and then stormy mood before returning to the opening’s calm lyricism.
The joyous Scherzo has sudden dynamic contrasts and a lovely Trio featuring the winds.
The symphony concludes with a brilliant Allegro molto, which is based on a fiery short opening string motif and punctuated with a dramatic stop. Rich harmonic improvisation and use of the opening motif characterize this movement, which ends with a triumphant flourish.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) composed his “Spring” symphony – his first major orchestral work – when he was 31. He wrote it at a happy time in his life, shortly after his marriage to the former Clara Wieck, who encouraged him to pursue orchestral composition.
Schumann was initially inspired to write the symphony by a poem describing “springtime” (he initially even put names to the movements, before removing them so as not to have the work appear to be programmatic). But the “Spring” appellation stuck, and the work displays an appropriate heady optimism and beauty. Schumann sketched it in a mere four days, and it was premiered in March 1841 in Leipzig by Felix Mendelssohn.
The symphony is in four movements. The opening Andante is heralded by a horn and trumpet call (“like a summons to awakening”), which becomes the basis for the sprightly theme which follows. The second movement is a dreamy larghetto (initially titled “evening”), with a lyrical theme repeated by violins, ‘cellos, and solo oboe and horn.
A passage in the trombones serves as a bridge to the unique third movement, a fast scherzo with 2 delightful contrasting trios.
The fourth movement is based on a graceful and witty theme begun by the violins, with subtle counterthemes in the winds. An intense accelerando leads to a triumphant climax.
Although a quintessentially French composer, Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) composed his third symphony on a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society in England, and conducted the première himself in London in 1886. Popularly called the “organ” symphony, it is actually a symphonic work which features an organ in two of its movements (with notable effect). Saint-Saëns wrote this as a two-movement work, although it has the feel of a four-movement piece. It has an unusual and large instrumental complement (besides the organ, the second movement has 2-hand and 4-hand piano parts).
The 3rd symphony is a masterpiece of composition, with most of the thematic material developed from the opening parts of the first movement. A slow introduction features rising lines from the oboe and flutes, which are then prominently featured throughout the first movement. The following allegro features a fast off-the-beat string theme in C minor, echoed by the winds. Saint-Saëns uses this theme throughout the symphony in various guises – such as pizzicato figures in the low strings, melodic solos in the woodwinds, and last (but not least!) in the second movement.
The adagio at the end of the first movement introduces the organ as both accompaniment and obbligato to an ethereally beautiful rising string melody, which is repeated by wind soloists (clarinet, horn and trombone), with subsequent variations by the violins and full orchestra.
The second movement begins with a repeated vigorous triple meter allegro, and an even faster presto section (reminiscent of classical minuet and trio movements); the presto features wind flourishes brilliant piano scales. After a soft choral interlude in the strings, the organ makes its grand entrance; the first movement C minor string theme majestically reappears in C Major (first in the strings and 4-hand piano, and then in the organ and brass).
A vigorous fugal section gives way to ever faster variations on the main themes. After a descending scale in the organ, the symphony ends in a rousing flourish of trumpets, brass and timpani.
While Mahler wrote most of his 4th Symphony in 1900, he had really started it 8 years earlier – and with the last movement, no less!
Mahler was enchanted by “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (the Youth’s Magic Horn), a well-known collection of German folk poems, many of which Mahler set to music. Mahler arranged one of these poems, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) in 1892 and wanted to use as a last movement for one of his symphonies. But his 3rd symphony was already lengthy, and it took him until 1900 to finally use it as the foundation for this lyrical 4th Symphony. The song tells of the wonders of heaven from a child’s point of view, with its angels, beauty, dancing, endless food of all types (listen for the bleating lamb and bellowing ox!) and “heavenly music that is not of this earth.”
The first three movements, which Mahler composed in 1899-1900, take much of their thematic material from the last movement. Most notable is the way in which the symphony starts, with sleighbells – the first time time they were ever used in an orchestra. Even though Mahler did not have an explicit “program” for his 4th Symphony, one can almost conceive of the first movement as a depiction of the earthly life – full of pleasant beauty, but interrupted with wails and shrieks, and discordant harmonies in the middle section.
For the second movement, though, we have a clue – Mahler described it as “Death strikes up” – almost like a a danse macabre – and uses a violin purposely tuned a whole tone up to disturbing effect. In typical Mahler fashion, these unsettling moments are interspersed with pastoral interludes, punctuated by raucous clarinets.
The lovely third movement is made up of eight variations – opening and closing with great beauty and calm, but interspersed with moments of utter, tragic despair. Towards the end of the movement there is a sudden orchestral thunderclap, through which we may perceive the very gates of heaven itself.
And then on into the last movement, the vocal solo to be sung with “childlike simplicity” – a vision of a child’s view of the sublimity of heaven. The symphony ends in utter calm and contentment.
Oct. 27, 1783, 9:30 a.m: Mozart (then twenty-seven years old) and his wife, Constanze, leave Salzburg, where they had been visiting Mozart’s father. Heading back to their home in Vienna, they spend the first night of their journey in Vögelbruck.
Oct. 28: They arrive in Lambach in time for Mozart to play organ during the morning Mass.
Oct. 29: Opera and party in Ebersberg.
Oct. 30, 9:00 a.m: After three busy days on the road, they arrive in Linz, where they stay with Count Johann Joseph Anton Thun-Hohenstein.
Oct. 31: Mozart dashes off a quick note to his father: “….On Tuesday, November 4th, I am giving a concert in the theater here. And, as I didn’t bring a single symphony with me, I’ll have to write a new one at breakneck speed, since it has to be finished by that time. I must close now, because I have to get to work.”
Nov. 4 (four days later): Mozart conducts the premiere of his new symphony with Count Thun’s orchestra.
By the time Brahms finally completed his first symphony, in 1976, he was 43 years old. The long gestation of this symphony is related to two factors – Brahms’ own self-criticism of his work and the public’s expectation that Brahms would continue “Beethoven’s inheritance” and produce a symphony of depth and scope equal or superior to Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony.
This would be a daunting task for any composer. For Brahms, it was almost paralyzing. After 15 years of struggle and rewriting, his Symphony No. 1 in c minor was finally completed.
The symphony opens with a turbulently powerful melody underscored by the relentless pounding of the timpani and basses. The movement is dark and brooding, angry and restless.
The second movement is also introverted and reflective in nature, although it warms at the end with a sense of hope with the beautiful violin solo, echoed by the French horn.
The third movement, different from a frantic Beethoven Scherzo, reminds us more of Schumann’s Landler movements, placing us in a calm wandering state.
The immense finale is Brahms’ clearest homage to Beethoven in this symphony. Even the key of c minor, with its twist to C major at the end, can be considered parallel to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in d minor. As with Beethoven’s masterpiece, Brahms’ finale begins with a dramatic introduction and choral theme. Then what follows is one of the most famous and moving melodies in all of Brahms’ writing; a melody with a clear resemblance to the famous “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. When one thinks of the First Symphony, it is this beautiful melody that often comes to mind.
No Haydn symphony is as well-known to the general public as the “Surprise” symphony, with its dramatic “wake-up call” chord in the second movement.
Even beyond that, though, this symphony is musically noteworthy. Haydn composed it during one of his visits to London in the early 1790s (as part of his “London Symphonies”), and it shows the full flowering of Haydn’s mature symphonic style.
A singing opening Adagio, with alternating wind and string choirs, gives way to a light-hearted Vivace, starting with an unassuming melody in the violins which rapidly changes into a full-throttle orchestral gallop. The winds are prominently featured, with numerous solo passages.
The famous second movement Andante is actually a series of variations on a simple theme, alternately set in the major key (C Major), minor key (C minor), and its relative major key (E-flat), before making its way back. Beyond the technical mastery shown, the movement evokes many moods – in turn “simple,” elegant, tragic, impassioned, humorous, heroic, and (last) mysterious. The following minuet and trio are elegant in style, with the trio prominently featuring the bassoon.
The final Allegro di molto is a romp featuring florid string passages, especially in the violins.
By the time Prokofiev wrote his first symphony, he was already well-known as a child prodigy and the enfant terrible of twentieth century Russian composition. His pugnacious rhythms, violent melodic gymnastics and experiments with multi-tonality had already become recognizable trademarks (Stravinsky once said his music had ‘personality’, whatever its supposed aesthetic failings), and audiences had come to expect these elements of conflict in his music.
However, staying in 1917 in the Russian countryside (he was exempt from military service as the only son of a widow), he became interested in writing a work completely away from the piano. As a renowned virtuoso, the piano was his usual compositional tool, but by working without its aid, he hoped that the orchestra would sound more natural. The result was his first symphony: his one foray into Neo-classicism, it harks back to the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart in its reduced instrumentation and formal plan, although maintaining the biting wit (or is it sarcasm?) that is so much a part of his natural expression.
The work opens with a light, airy, exhilarating first movement, with gravity-defying leaps in the second subject. Later he expands on this high string register when the theme of the second movements floats in on stratospheric violins. Prokofiev replaces the typical third movement minuet of Haydn and Mozart with an even older dance, the gavotte, classically partnered with a droning musette; he was later to incorporate this movement into his Romeo and Juliet suite. The joyous finale is full of inventive counterpoint and bursting with irrepressible energy.
The Carmen Suites are two suites of orchestral music drawn from the music of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen and compiled posthumously by his friend Ernest Guiraud. They adhere very closely to Bizet’s orchestration.