Saturday, 11 August 2012

Schubert's Unfinished Symphony

Franz Schubert
1797 - 1828
Franz Schubert is today known as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. Despite the fact that Schubert's life was unfortunately very short, he managed to create a musical legacy of lieder, operas, symphonies and a large amount of chamber music, particularly for the piano. As well as this, Schubert had very little appreciation of his work during his lifetime, (as with many composers) and only had his work properly integrated into the ears of society when later composers such as Brahms, Schumann and Liszt discovered his talents, and admitted to being influenced by his music.

In 1822, Schubert began work on his famous 'Unfinished' Symphony (No. 8). The work is often referred to as Schubert's first romantic symphony because of its expressive melody and dramatic harmonies. For any who don't know, the reason it is called the 'Unfinished' Symphony is because the piece is literally not finished - and we are still unsure why, as Schubert stopped writing whilst he still had six years of his life left. This is possibly one of the most striking pieces I have heard because of the extreme contrast between moods created by Schubert with techniques particularly in the strings, but also with other aspects of composition such as dynamic range and pauses (for dramatic effect).

The opening of the first movement is extremely ominous, played only by the lowest of the strings - the cellos and double basses. After this opening, we hear the entrance and the flurry of the upper strings, playing in semi-quavers, accompanying the first melody played by wind. For the next few phrases, I get the feeling of taking one step forward and two steps back, as the melody in the wind is constantly and abruptly interrupted by the sforzandos of the rest of the orchestra. At 1:12, when the orchestra appears to have come to its climax, we are left only with the sound of the horns, that play a pivot note to take the rest of the orchestra into another key for the next subject. The melody is first heard in the cellos, then upper strings. This melody is interesting, because in theory, it could go on forever. However, because Schubert was typically unconventional, he stops it with a general pause for the entire orchestra, and returns with a sudden crash into the development section of the second subject. The introduction is then repeated, as we hear the low, ominous and chromatic sounds of the lower strings for a second time. The rest of the symphony is just as detailed and genius as the opening section. However, seeing as its length is just under half an hour, it might be something to save until you have some free time on your hands!

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