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Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 21, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Whether or not Schubert regarded what we have of his B-minor Symphony as complete unto itself is no longer a matter for speculation. We now know that he planned to complete it, since piano sketches — a few measures orchestrated — have been found for a third (scherzo) movement and there is evidence that the B-minor entr’acte, the first, from his incidental music to Rosamunde, is based on what would have the fourth and final movement.
The composer had gone as far as he could go with the score in 1822 and went on to other musical business — above all the creation of the “Wanderer” Fantasy and the completion of the Mass in A-flat, begun two years earlier. Schubert presented the two completed movements of the Symphony to his friend Joseph Hüttenbrenner, to be passed on to his brother Anselm, in appreciation of the part played by the latter in obtaining for the composer an honorary membership in the Music Society of Graz. The “big” question remains unanswered to this day: Why did Anselm hold on to the manuscript for nearly four decades after Schubert's death — by which time the composer, relatively little known during his lifetime, had become widely appreciated — when reports of the existence of an “unfinished” symphony in B minor had long been circulating in the press? Adding to the mystery is that Anselm made a two-piano arrangement of the Symphony which he and Joseph performed privately, with Joseph assuming that his brother would have the original published.
It was Joseph Hüttenbrenner who made Johann Herbeck aware of the Symphony’s resting place, when in 1860 he wrote to the conductor that he should look at the Schubert manuscripts in Anselm’s possession, adding at the end of his letter, “among them is a treasure, the B-minor Symphony, which we put on a level with the great Symphony in C, his [orchestral] swan song, and any one of the symphonies by Beethoven.”
Yet another unresolved matter is why it took Herbeck five years to approach Anselm and rummage through the manuscripts accumulated in his home near Graz. When he finally made the visit, Herbeck obtained the manuscript (at no cost) by promising a performance of an overture by Anselm on a program with the Symphony and a work by yet another, younger member of the Schubert circle, Franz Lachner. Thus, on December 17, 1865, in Vienna, the three composers shared a program under Herbeck’s direction. How the works by Hüttenbrenner and Lachner fared on that occasion has not been recorded. At any rate, both composers are now forgotten (aside from their Schubertian associations), while Schubert’s Symphony was a hit from the start, with speculation over why it was unfinished applying a romantic patina to the music’s already irresistible audible appeal.
It is clear from the very opening that here Schubert finds the voice heard as well in its successor works with orchestra, the Rosamunde incidental music, the “Great” C-major Symphony, and the last two Masses, in A-flat and E-flat. This is a voice marked by broad, lyric themes and grand orchestral effects, most strikingly the dramatic string tremolos and the dark, noble sound of trombones.
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.