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FastNotes

  • Schubert’s Symphony No. 5, written only a few months after No. 4, is often described as a work which pays homage to the Classical masters Mozart and Haydn.

  • The fresh, unencumbered opening of the Allegro is lightness itself. Jaunty and tuneful, the principal themes are introduced with the unmistakable Schubertian chromaticism totally in evidence.

  • If the first movement is a leap, the second is a soft landing. The Andante con moto sings, even sighs at times.

  • The Menuetto is a typical dance movement at first. Many believe this movement, in G minor, is an homage to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (also in G minor and a work which clearly influenced Schubert).

  • The Finale, marked Allegro vivace, builds on the dance-like Minuet. As with the first movement, it is bouncy and jocular, with frequent harmonic surprises.


Composed: 1816
Length: c. 27 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings
First LA Phil performance: December 1, 1938, with Otto Klemperer conducting

A Vienna native, Schubert grew up with the figure of Ludwig van Beethoven, also a Viennese resident at the time, looming large. And indeed, Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 (which he entitled “The Tragic”) was clearly the work of a young composer still under a Beethovenian spell, a young man struggling with the shadow cast by Vienna’s resident 800-pound musical gorilla.

His Symphony No. 5, written only a few months after No. 4, was Schubert’s moment of breaking free from the symphonic domination of Beethoven. The Symphony is often described as a work which pays homage to the Classical masters Mozart and Haydn, but, in the same breath, it is frequently dismissed as lightweight. Does this somehow imply that this work isn’t up to the standards set by Beethoven, or even by Schubert himself?

Hardly. Looking at it another way, describing Symphony No. 5 as “light” pays the greatest compliment to the then- 19-year-old Schubert. In this work, the young composer manages to defy gravity, or at the very least, attempts to take charge of its forces musically. By looking back to the older masters, and breaking free of the Beethovenian model, Schubert has lightened his burden, if you will, discovering a unique symphonic voice in the process. Schubert even scored this work delicately – without clarinets, trumpets, or timpani.

There is no heavy, lugubrious Adagio introduction here, either: on hardly a moment’s notice, the first theme is announced. The fresh, unencumbered opening of the Allegro is lightness itself. Jaunty and tuneful, the principal themes are also introduced with the unmistakable Schubertian chromaticism totally in evidence; and, rather than pulling us down or adding weight, this chromatic motion keeps pushing ahead, providing motion, buoyancy, and an occasional harmonic surprise. Just as the second theme has been stated, a rising line provides a further sense of airiness to the movement. This “rising” idea returns at the end of the movement (and in fact, throughout the whole symphony), in the recapitulation; this time, the rising notes seem to literally leap into musical space.

If the first movement is a leap, the second is a soft landing. The Andante con moto sings, even sighs at times, perhaps mindful of a Mozartean model. Schubert may be paying tribute, but he is always himself, ever propelling this movement with short, rising chromatic passages – his musical fingerprint.

The Menuetto is a typical dance movement at first, and like a dancer, Schubert must contend with gravity. A sense of landing on the ground is clear – one can almost feel a dancer’s feet sweep up, then gently fall; likewise, in the Trio, one can imagine graceful and elegant dancers slowly rising with the music. Many believe this movement, in G minor, is an homage to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (also in G minor and a work which clearly influenced Schubert).

The Finale, marked Allegro vivace, builds on the dance-like Minuet. As with the first movement, it is bouncy and jocular, with the unmistakable touch of Schubert in the occasional chromatic sleight of hand and the frequent harmonic surprises.

All in all, the lightness of Symphony No. 5 represents a tremendously optimistic and whimsical moment for Schubert, whose short and tragic life was riddled with every kind of sickness, disappointment, and suffering. We can be thankful that he captured such an instant of cheerfulness in this work.

— Dave Kopplin