Nickel for Your Thoughts: Schubert’s Great Symphony

Program Spotlight, Tony Nickle

In his own words, Vice President & Artistic Administrator Tony Nickle shares what he believes to be the high points of the program, but with a little edge and humor for good measure.

We’ve made it to the end of an historic and amazingly successful season, managing to bring you live music in Jacoby Symphony Hall and online nearly every weekend since September, and we have just the majestic and triumphant program to fit the occasion: Sir Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Franz Schubert’s ninth and final symphony, “The Great C Major.”  

Elgar composed his Introduction and Allegro in 1905 at the height of the Edwardian Era in Britain, and it wonderfully encapsulates the confidence, elegance and luxury associated with the period. The horror of World War I wasn’t even on the horizon yet, and images of high fashion and garden parties ruled the day. Elgar sets the piece for string orchestra with a separate string quartet, often engaging the two parties in dialogue much in the same way that Baroque composers did between full orchestra and soloists or small ensembles with the concerto grosso (refer to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons). Through much of the piece there is also an element of the unceasing rhythmic engine that the Baroque Era is famous for.  

Elgar’s 15-minute gem full of sonorous harmonies and sweeping melodies is a wonderful, heavy appetizer for our main course, Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Clocking in at around one hour, when this work was written in the late 1820s only Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony matched it in scale. The Romantic Generation that followed in the footsteps of Beethoven and Schubert loved the possibilities that larger scales provided in their quest to fill their music with wordless narratives and dramatic storm and stress. Yes, Schubert’s Ninth is certainly able to be classified as Classical (capital C) in its structure, but there are a number of creative devices he used that were quite forward looking, and continued to be developed by subsequent generations of composers, including Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner and Mahler. The opening theme in a solo French horn serves as a unifying idea throughout the immense first movement; this isn’t purely academic, it’s a ground plan for how to grow a segment of music while holding it together structurally so it doesn’t fall apart or meander. It was an immensely critical concept to these aforementioned composers’ basic constructs.  

There’s one other fun and interesting bit I’d like to mention about the beginning: the first movement opens slowly and full of grandeur before arriving at the Allegro (fast) portion that dominates the huge majority of the movement. Nothing particularly earth shattering about this; Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven had all done this on the regular some years earlier. What is novel for the time is the way Schubert makes this tempo transition. All of those goliath composers typically wrote a slow introduction with a final cadence that immediately launched into the new, faster tempo; in this case, Schubert gradually builds underlying movement in the strings so that when we arrive at the Allegro we almost don’t even know how we got there. Schubert sort of gives us what we want before we know we want it. It’s moments like this that make me want to listen to a piece again and again, because on first listening you never see (or hear) it coming.  

I hope you all have a chance to join us in person Friday or Saturday nights in Jacoby Symphony Hall or on our Friday livestream to celebrate the end of this truly remarkable season. I’ll be back here talking about our concerts in September. Until then, I hope you all have a great summer full of friends, family, travel, and especially great food, wine, and cocktails. 

Learn more about the Schubert’s Great Symphony season finale program here.

By Tony Nickle, Vice President & Artistic Administrator