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Composed: 1817-1818

Length: c. 32 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 19, 1957, Eduard van Beinum conducting

About this Piece

The numbering of Schubert symphonies is good for the first six, but there has always been confusion and doubt about the ordering of the remainder, or even about how many he wrote. The “Unfinished” is not the only unfinished one, indeed many Schubert works appear to be unfinished simply because movements became displaced or lost in the limbo that followed his early death at the age of 31. None of his symphonies was published in his short lifetime and none was publicly performed. The first five symphonies, composed between the ages of 16 and 19, may have been played at the school where Schubert studied and taught, but it was the Sixth that was first played to the Viennese public, on December 14, 1828, just four weeks after his death. It was heard again in Leipzig, with the Fourth, in 1849, but the others had to wait until the 1870s when they were done as a complete series in the Crystal Palace in London under August Manns, with help from George Grove (the founder of the famous dictionary), who had traveled to Vienna to unearth unknown works by Schubert. When Brahms was invited to conduct a Schubert concert in 1873, he declined on the grounds that there were few works by Schubert suitable for performance in the grand style.

Schubert was not yet aiming at the grand style when he wrote these youthful symphonies. It is true that he originally headed the first movement of his Sixth Symphony “Grosse Sinfonie in C,” but he later dropped the “Grosse,” and once the “Great C-major” Symphony of 1825-26 became known, the Sixth was inevitably labeled the “Little C-major” Symphony. His model in the Fifth Symphony was Mozart, but the Sixth rather suggests Haydn and Beethoven, and he was also touched by the craze for Rossini’s music that had recently swept Vienna. He even broke off composition of the symphony to write two overtures “in the Italian style.”

While the solemn chords at the beginning recall Beethoven, the opening of the Allegro in the winds suggests Haydn. Everywhere we recognize Schubert’s inimitable melodic gift and his fondness for slipping harmonically into distant keys and then painlessly back to where he started from. He also inserts a charming tune in canon (clarinet and bassoon leading off, oboe and flute replying) just before the end of the exposition. The first movement concludes with a coda that truly suggests the grand style.

The slow movement might be seen as a contest between the mild-mannered main theme and the heavy, emphatic passage that follows, full of triplets. Haydn again seems to be the model. Triplets infuse the return of the mild theme, but the heavy theme is tamed, and the movement ends in perfect tranquility.

After a Beethovenian Scherzo that looks forward to the “Great C-major” Symphony in its grand design, the finale is light and jocular, displaying a delightful skill in orchestration. Scampering violins as accompaniment to wind dialog, dotted phrases passed back and forth, and an unstoppable momentum bear the marks of Schubert’s ebullient style. If not grand, then certainly great.

- Hugh Macdonald