View RSS Feed


Schubert as a "Great" Symphonist

Rate this Entry
Quote Originally Posted by peeyaj View Post
Reading thru the thread of "Greatest Symphonists", I was struck by the outright dismissal of TC's members on Schubert's importance and contributions to the symphonic literature. Perhaps it is the prevailing thought that Schubert, as the greatest of songwriters, struggles in large instrumental forces, and cannot equal with Beethoven in that genre.

But, scholars and critics dismissed this ephemeral claim.Yes, Schubert created six symphonies on the style of Haydn and Mozart, but his last two symphonies, the "Unfinished" and "Great" were some of the greatest and most popular in classical music. These two symphonies heralds the new sound of the symphony in the Romantic era and according to Wikipedia..

"Schubert’s first few symphonies may be works in progress. But the “Unfinished” and especially the Ninth Symphony are astonishing. The Ninth paves the way for Bruckner and prefigures Mahler."

and according to this, on both Eroica and Unfinished:

On the other hand, the first movement of the Unfinished, despite being in sonata form with its themes (first and second subjects) and structure (well-articulated exposition, development, recapitulation and coda), does not observe the tonal plan of the sonata principle. The second subject is not recapitulated in the tonic but in the relative major. The tonal conflict is created by moving away from the tonic but not resolved by returning to it. The 'drama' of the movement is then provided by the contrasting themes. The more tuneful nature of the second subject is one of the first signs of what was going to come in the Romantic period. Both symphonies herald different aspects of the Romantic sonata form. Therefore, the differences cannot be attributed to a higher tendency of either composer to Romanticism.

The major difference between them, that is the unusual tonal plan of the Unfinished, reflects the decreasing importance of the conventional tonal plan of the sonata principle in Romantic music. In Romantic music, key relationships are less important than thematic relationships. The contrast between the themes and their lyrical nature are more relevant. This shift of emphasis is emerging in the Unfinished. It is no surprise that the keys Schubert chose for his second subject in the Unfinished are the submediant and the mediant. The third relationships as the device of moving from the tonic, often seen in Beethoven, were a potent means for Schubert to enrich his harmonic scheme [p. 434 in Ref.3]. He used the submediant key to set up the tonal conflict in the exposition also in his Tragic Symphony in a minor key [p.74 of Ref.5]. He does what he likes but not what the Classical conventions impose. In retrospect, these modifications can be called forward-looking as later in the nineteenth century, such tonal deviations became a norm in Romantic music.

And listen:




Classical Music , Composers


  1. Sid James's Avatar
    I certainly can't remember dismissing Schubert's symphonies, even though I'm a bigger fan of his chamber music by far. My opinion of his last two symphonies (well, three if you include the unfinished tenth completed by Brian Newbould) prefiguring Mahler and Bruckner - what Schumann called Schubert's "heavenly length" - corresponds with that quote you put above from Wikipedia. He was equally important to guys like Beethoven, in other words, in developing the symphonic genre to what it became later & some might say that he went farther than Beethoven in terms of the Great C-Major symphony being pronounced unplayable during Schubert's time by the Vienna Philharmonic. I don't remember them saying that about Beethoven's music, but yes his late string quartets were considered very very challenging, but not unplayable (maybe only just playable, but let's not split hairs)...