Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony in B Minor
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 16, 2018
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA
SMF Chamber Orchestra on period instruments
violin: Diane Pascal (concertmaster), Airi Yoshioka, Anna Gebert, Gesa Kordes, Martin Davids,
Plamena Nikitassova, Valerie Gordon, Jacob Ashworth, Fiona Hughes
viola: Jason Fisher, Kathleen Overfield-Zook, Kyle Miller
cello: James Wilson, Michael Unterman, Jan Mueller-Szeraws
double bass: Heather Miller Lardin, Erik Higgins
flute: Immannuel Davis, Anita Rieder clarinet: Nina Stern, Ed Matthew
oboe: Alek Fester, Margaret Owens bassoon: Stephanie Corwin, Keith Collins
horn: Todd Williams, Ian Zook trumpet: Kris Kwapis, Bruno Lourensetto
trombone: Greg Ingles, Erik Schmalz, Mack Ramsey timpani: I-Jen Fang
Carsten Schmidt, conductor
video by Stewart Searle
About the Music
The 2018 Staunton Music Festival included two of the most famous unfinished compositions of all-time. Both Mozart’s Requiem and Schubert’s Symphony in B Minor were not given final form by their creators, though subsequent composers and musicologists have created completed versions that make for effective performance. This video performance focuses on the inspired B-Minor Symphony by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), usually described as his Symphony No. 8 or simply as the “Unfinished.” Typically known as a two-movement stub, there is ample evidence about what its third and fourth movements might have been had Schubert not turned his attention to other projects.
The pairing of a dramatic Allegro followed by a lyrical Andante is hardly striking, although the use of B minor makes this work noteworthy. Between Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven together (the giants of Viennese classicism), we count just 15 symphonies in minor keys—compared to 139 in major. Schubert himself wrote an earlier work in C minor, the so-called “Tragic” Symphony No. 4. But the qualities of this B minor symphony go even further. The two movements that we all know were completed in October 1822. Schubert subsequently gave the score to a friend, and the work—as it exists at all—was not performed until 1865.
Among the Allegro moderato’s brilliant touches is surely the ominous low string motive leading to the first theme, which combines hushed agitato violins, low string pizzicato, and haunting melody in the winds. Schubert is not often credited for his orchestration; melody, yes, but not for creating timbral color. Yet this is a wondrous theme. For those of a certain generation (myself included), it will be hard not to conjure up the evil Gargamel from television’s The Smurfs. But heard anew, this theme combines melancholy, energy, and triple meter lilt to evoke an audible motto for European romanticism. Note, too, the repeated notes in low strings, the subtle introduction of horns in the theme’s second phrase (connoting a sense of emotional distance and longing), and the gradual crescendo that spills over to a radiant second theme in G major. That theme is—not unlike the entire symphony—abruptly truncated at a grand pause. The ensuing C minor outburst plays only a coloring function, but what a moment of dramatic irruption! Schubert had operatic ambitions, and such a passage would find later echoes in Wagner, the trombones providing critical timbre.
The development section is one of Schubert’s finest in any composition, unfolding over roughly eight distinct sections. Starting with low strings, the development gains urgency with tremolo strings and echoing bassoon that build to climax on a dominant-ninth chord. Schubert maintains the power of this crescendo through shifting accents and accelerated sforzandi until they are happening cathartically on every single beat. Three times the texture is ripped apart before a grand unison statement of the low string motive (now in E minor) strides imposingly onto the scene. Schubert brilliantly counterpoints rising strings against the march theme, and galloping dotted rhythms carefully placed in brass and timpani only deepen the demonic energy. From such a height Schubert dismantles the development in stages, turning to D major, thinning the texture, and rounding off with woodwinds that lead seamlessly to the B-minor recapitulation. If we had nothing more than this single movement, it would rank as one of Schubert’s most profound efforts. With its combination of irruptive dissonances, learned counterpoint, striking use of texture and instrumental color, it transcends what had preceded it, imposing itself on our psyche in a way that truly qualifies as sublime.
It is equally impressive that Schubert could create a suitable companion to follow this towering Allegro. The Andante con moto in D Major, in my opinion, navigates a fine line between providing emotional contrast with the previous movement while also including enough continuity to make their pairing feel organically motivated. The contrasts are perhaps more audible: we can hear the fresh radiance of D major balanced at first between quasi sacred winds/brass and high violins. Even as the dynamics reach fortissimo, an impression of resplendent goodness lingers. Mendelssohn would capture a kindred spirit of alternating mystery and solemnity in his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here, Schubert’s second theme carried by woodwinds reveals his own adulation of sylvan retreat. But, as in the Allegro movement, the prevailing mood is catastrophically cut down by a C-sharp-minor storm. Schubert reuses striking material (running violins against march theme) to cap the development’s finest moment. A full recapitulation with coda rounds off the Andante, giving it enough mass to stand alongside the titanic Allegro. Moreover, its major-mode lyricism ensures that the two movements encompass a full emotional spectrum between them.
© Jason Stell, 2018
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