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Length: c. 50 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
Schubert’s early – and even relatively recent – romantically-inclined biographers would have been devastated to learn (some did) that the grandiose, swaggering C-major Symphony, to many minds the greatest of the 19th century’s post-Beethoven symphonies, was not written at the end, in heroic defiance of the encroaching reaper, but at a time when things were going well for the composer.
Documents unearthed during the past half-century confirm that it was written not in proximity to such leave-taking marvels of 1828 as the String Quintet, the Mass in E-flat, and the last three piano sonatas, as had once been thought, but in 1825-1826, which puts it in the company of a dozen of the composer’s finest songs – including “Die junge Nonne,” “Nacht und Träume,” and “Ave Maria” – the vast G-major String Quartet, and the piano sonatas in C, D. 840, A minor, D. 845, and D, D. 850. It followed four aborted symphonic attempts, including orchestral music’s most celebrated torso, the “Unfinished” Symphony of 1822.
The period of this C-major Symphony’s birth centered on Schubert’s long recital tour in 1825, covering the length and breadth of Austria, with the principal interpreter and dedicatee of his songs, the baritone Michael Vogl. The tour brought the young composer more recognition than he had ever known, as well as a decent income. It was during this trip that he was once assumed to have written the “Gastein Symphony,” long the subject of speculation as being the composer’s “lost masterpiece.” It is now widely assumed that there is no lost symphony at all, “Gastein” or otherwise: what we had been looking for all these years is actually the present “Great” C-major Symphony, to differentiate it from the earlier “Little” Symphony in the same key.
On his return to Vienna in October of that year, Schubert found himself rather in demand, as attested by the fact that his portrait (an engraving of a watercolor by his friend Wilhelm Rieder) was displayed and quickly sold by one of the city’s leading art dealers.
It was probably early in 1826 that the “Great” C-major Symphony was finished. A performance, however, had to wait until 1839, eight years after Schubert’s death, when Mendelssohn conducted a truncated version in Leipzig. The Symphony had been brought to Mendelssohn’s attention by Robert Schumann, who found the score amid a pile of manuscripts in the care of Schubert’s brother, Ferdinand. It nonetheless took more than a half-century after the Leipzig premiere before performers could cope with the Symphony’s daunting length and technical difficulties. By the early years of this century it had settled comfortably into the repertory.
What settled in, however, was hardly an accurate reflection of Schubert’s intent. Until recently, the published editions have contained countless errors when compared to the original manuscript, which resides in the library of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. On the most basic level, the “Great” C-major Symphony emerges a faster, more taut, more nervous composition than oldtime performances would have had us believe, and indeed as earlier performers could not help thinking it was. Its driving power, its dissonant harmonies, and the striking trombone coloring taking it a giant step even beyond the highly original “Unfinished.”
The simple correction of the score’s opening marking, from the published versions’ four beats in a bar to the manuscript’s two (alla breve) – one of numerous errors now being rectified – greatly changes the character of the first movement, and by extension the entire Symphony, from Bruckner-like massiveness to something more lithe and springy, more Schubertian, if you will – if no less heroic.
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.