Franz Peter Schubert was born in Liechtenthal, a suburb of Vienna, on January 31, 1797, and died in Vienna on November 19, 1828. He began this symphony in the summer of 1825 and completed it by, at latest, October 1826. At some point between the summer of 1827 and November 1828 the work received at least one reading at a rehearsal of the Vienna Society of the Friends of Music (Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde). The first fully authenticated performance, heavily cut, took place on March 21, 1839, with Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy conducting the Orchestra of the Leipzig Gewandhaus.
The score of Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony calls for 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The symphony is about 50 minutes long.
Franz Schubert arrived at his most ambitious symphonies by a circuitous and unusual route. He was one of the most prodigiously gifted talents Western music has ever seen. By his later teens he was composing a great deal of music in a variety of genres, and he finished six symphonies before he reached 22. Some of his early songs were already revolutionary and on their way to becoming the foundation of the Romantic Lieder tradition. His youthful symphonies are light, tuneful, distinctly Mozartian in weight and style. They show Schubert in his easygoing Viennese mood, his path guided not by a studied understanding of form but by his fertile gift for melody. So he wrote symphonies early, but did not show any significant ambition in them.
The reason for that is mainly a matter of context. His immediate predecessor Beethoven was from the beginning of his career part of the big-time Viennese music scene of public concerts and patronage from leading aristocrats. Schubert mostly composed in a setting of private music-making among friends, the so-called Schubertiades: gatherings of artists and bohemians that came to be named for him. What was called for in that setting was mostly small-scale works—songs, piano pieces, the occasional chamber work. Now and then a little orchestra might be scraped together to read through a symphony, if it wasn’t too hard.
So as his twenties went on, Schubert wrote his hundreds of songs, his piano works from miniatures to larger pieces, and created a stream of chamber works of rising weight and ambition. He sketched symphonies but finished none. Then in 1822 something remarkable happened: he wrote two movements of a symphony that, when it was finally discovered and performed many years later, came to be called the Unfinished. Especially in its first movement it had a dark, powerful, unique symphonic voice that in effect sidestepped Beethoven, escaped his intimidating presence by taking a new direction.
In 1825, Schubert and a singer set out on a recital tour devoted to his songs. At age 28 he was in a confident and expansive mood; he was finally beginning to find a larger audience, more of his work was being published, and the tour not only elicited great enthusiasm but, for a change, some good income. He was also feeling healthy, the illness that would finally kill him in remission for the moment. It was on this tour that he conceived what would ultimately be numbered (though known for years as either No. 7 or No. 9) his Eighth Symphony, in C major, D.944. Probably finished in early 1826, it was finally dubbed “The Great” to distinguish it from his earlier and smaller C major symphony, No. 6. This time he stepped confidently into Beethoven territory with a work that in its scope and heroic grandeur recalls his predecessor in many ways, yet is still utterly Schubertian.
It begins with a horncall on a simple, folklike melody, a kind of gesture evoking the outdoors that would become familiar in the Romantic century. (Brahms would echo that horncall in the finale of the First Symphony and the beginning of his Second Piano Concerto.) That melody is the seed-idea of what becomes a gigantic, ebullient, enormously energetic symphony.
Behind its movements are the familiar Classical models; the outer movements are in sonata form, the third a massive scherzo-and-Trio. But Schubert handles the old outlines with great freedom, taking them in his own directions to what Robert Schumann, who discovered the piece years later, called “heavenly length.” For a composer who never heard a well-rehearsed performance of any of his symphonies, it is also masterful in the variety and transparency of its orchestration. Most notable in its distinctive sound is the steady presence of trombones. Beethoven had used them starting in his Fifth, usually discreetly, with the occasional solo. Schubert wields his trombones constantly, even in the scherzo.
The first sign of the symphony’s formal originality is the gigantic Andante introduction, if it can even be called an introduction. It forms almost a little sonata form in itself: a multi-part and multi-key expanse gravitating around the horncall, a bit of development, then a return. Just when the listener is settling into this music, with its lyricism alternating with orchestral explosions, an Allegro non troppo erupts with a furious burst of energy that never flags through the course of a huge movement. Meanwhile, in the introduction Schubert had already laid out the leading ideas: sudden orchestral explosions, dotted rhythms, a tendency to divert in a flash to unexpected keys, especially ones a third up or down from C: E minor and major (later he will get to E-flat major), A-flat major (later also A minor and major). Schubert was a genius of melody and had enormous facility with modulations; he was able to jump from one key to another effortlessly. Both those gifts are on lavish display in the symphony.
The opening Allegro theme is more rhythmic than melodic, with its dynamic dotted rhythms and chattering triplets. The woodwinds’ second theme, which turns up in E minor, is more tuneful but still driving. It leads to what appears to be a concluding section to end the exposition, the traditional first part of sonata form. But that nominal closing section drives on for eleven pages in the score, all of it developing ideas from the second theme. Here is where Schumann’s “heavenly length” really takes hold. Finally, when the exposition is finished Schubert appends the usual sign for a repeat—not for the fainthearted, often not taken in performance. Since he has already been developing his material at length, he goes on to a relatively modest development section, tracing a long crescendo, before the recapitulation. After a recap as long as the exposition comes an enormous multi-part coda that ends with the opening horn theme—not heard fully since the introduction—proclaimed in glory.
In the lyrical second movement Schubert shows off his melodic side. The key is A minor; that key and the dancing Andante quality recall the mournful second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh. But the mood here is not tragic, more a kind of lilting, piping exoticism. This movement is, again, expansive, a large ABABA, the lovely second theme songful and hymn-like. In the usual third place comes a C major scherzo, marked Allegro vivace, returning to the driving energy of the first movement, and exceeding even Beethoven’s expansions of the form. For contrast there is a singing and folksy Trio, lushly scored, with lots of trombone and lots of harmonic excursions.
Call the mood of the finale, another giant movement marked Allegro vivace, a kind of frantic gaiety punctuated by brass fanfares. Previously there tended to be a divide between the rhythmical and lyrical ideas; here they alternate in quick succession, but the rhythmic élan never flags. One of its secondary themes will sound familiar: it is a phrase from the famous tune of the Beethoven Ninth finale. There are the usual first and second theme sections, but it is as if Schubert does not want to let either of them go; he strings out and develops the ideas through page after page and key after key. After, as in the first movement, a comparatively short development, the recapitulation comes back and dashes on for just as long as the exposition. The joyous, multi-part coda ends—after the symphony’s more than fifty-five minutes of extravagant harmonic excursions—with some six pages of pure C major.
Thus Schubert’s last and by far grandest symphony. It is sad to contemplate where he might have gone from there, if he had lived and continued to explore. He died in 1828, a year after Beethoven, at age 31. Meanwhile, it took years for the C major to gain a foothold—it did not really find a place in the repertoire until the early 20th century— and still longer for the Unfinished, premiered at last in 1865. These works never had the influence on the mid-century Romantic symphonies they could have had. It was only with the arrival of Brahms that a composer of genius absorbed them and knew what to do with the directions they pointed: Beethoven plus Schubert is the essence of Brahms’s creative foundation.
Jan Swafford is a prizewinning composer and writer whose most recent book, published in December 2020, is Mozart: The Reign of Love. His other acclaimed books include Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Johannes Brahms: A Biography, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, and Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music. He is an alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center, where he studied composition.
The first American performance of Schubert’s Great C major symphony took place on January 11, 1851, with Theodor Eisfeld conducting the Philharmonic Society of New York at New York’s Apollo Rooms.
The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Schubert’s Great C major symphony was given by Georg Henschel on January 14, 1882, during the orchestra’s first season.