The Great Schubert Symphony
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and String Orchestra, Op. 47
  • Elgar heralded a major renaissance in English music at the start of the 20th century
  • This work salutes a centuries-old English tradition of works for string ensemble
  • Combining string quartet with string orchestra relates this to the Baroque Concerto Grosso
  • The fugal Allegro combines Baroque counterpoint with Elgar’s musical vocabulary

At the turn of the 20th century, England was undergoing a musical renaissance the likes of which it had not seen in four hundred years.  This flowering of British music reached its pinnacle in composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten.  Their elder statesman was Edward Elgar, who is best known for the Pomp and Circumstance marches and his 1899 symphonic masterpiece, the so-called "Enigma" Variations.  Both a violinist and an organist, Elgar wrote brilliantly for strings.  One of his finest works is the Introduction and Allegro, dating from 1905, which opens this program.

This piece falls neatly into the English tradition of superior compositions for string ensemble, repertoire that can trace its origins back to Henry Purcell.  It also embraces the broader European tradition of setting a discrete ensemble of soloists into relief against a larger string ensemble.  In the Baroque era, this type of work was called a concerto grosso.  A further bond with Baroque models in this work is the fugal Allegro section.  But Elgar's personal trademarks:  beautiful melody, rich harmony, and clear linear structure emblazon this work with his own inimitable style, endowing Baroque influence with an early 20th-century stamp.

Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C, D. 944 ("The Great")
  • This symphony inspired Schumann’s famous description of “heavenly length”
  • Schubert sought to emulate the size and scope of Beethoven’s largest symphonies
  • Notice the importance of trombones - they play in every movement
  • Optimism, joy, and grandeur pervade the Ninth Symphony

From the standpoint of orchestration, rich thematic material, and sheer majesty, the "Great" C major is the undisputed pinnacle of Schubert’s symphonic maturity.  Maurice J.E. Brown, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, calls it "his greatest masterpiece."  Biographer Harold Truscott considers the C major Symphony "a summing up of Schubert's instrumental thinking from 1811 onwards."  Schubert himself thought the work represented his striving for the highest art.

Ironically, he never heard the symphony performed.  He began work on it in 1825. Despite travels to Steyr, Linz, Salzburg, and Gastein, he still found time to work on the symphony. After he presented the manuscript to Vienna's Gesellschaft der Musikifreunde [Society of the Friends of Music] in 1826, he was rewarded by a stipend "in recognition of his achievements and for further encouragement."  In 1827, Schubert had the manuscript copied for the Gesellschaft, still vainly seeking a performance.  The Vienna Philharmonic rejected the work, deeming it overly long and too demanding for the players.  Even after Schubert's death in 1828, his brother Ferdinand was unsuccessful in his attempts to sell the score to a publisher.

Posthumous discovery
That changed when Robert Schumann called on Ferdinand Schubert during the winter of 1838-1839.  Schumann examined the score and was awed by its genius. The discovery prompted his famous letter to Felix Mendelssohn that has given musical posterity the phrase "heavenly length." (Schumann was describing Schubert's inexpressibly lovely Andante.)  Mendelssohn conducted the premiere of the symphony with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on 21 March, 1839. Even with extensive cuts, it still created a sensation.  Publication followed in 1840, and the "Great" C major has been standard symphonic repertoire ever since.

Haydn and Mozart? Or Beethoven? Schubert’s role models
We do not know for certain whether Schubert ever heard Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He may have been present at its historic premiere in May 1824. Beethoven's final symphony was certainly a model for the younger Viennese composer.  Indeed, Beethoven had wrought a powerful influence on Schubert as early as his Fourth Symphony ("Tragic," in C minor, D.417), composed in 1816.

In his earliest symphonies, Schubert relied more heavily on Haydn and Mozart for his inspiration and formal guidelines.  After the Fourth, he evidenced a freer approach to the symphony, exercising more personal discretion in areas like modulations, formal structure, and proportion, all of which we have come to associate with the romantic (as opposed to classical) symphony.  These factors reach their apogee in Schubert’s Ninth. It is the strongest symphonic link in the continuum from Beethoven to Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler.

About the music
Schubert was clearly emulating Beethoven's enormous scale. Though he would not have placed such labels as ‘classic’ or ‘romantic’ on his own music, the duality between the two styles is one of the "Great" C major's most compelling fascinations.  Scoring details such as the use of trombones in all four movements make it unusual.  Formal departures from the norm, for example the full sonata form of the scherzo movement, break from tradition and confirm the individuality of the symphony.

Even the slow introduction, brought to such perfection in the late Haydn symphonies, takes on new character in Schubert's asymmetrical, heroic opening horn theme.  Its second measure dotted rhythm provides the impetus for the entire Allegro to follow; his re-integration of that theme into the development section and the coda is one of many felicitous touches in this work so suffused by genius.

The balance of the symphony adheres to classical models. Principal oboe has the main theme in the Andante con moto, which balances march-like elements and brief string outbursts with wistful woodwind writing. In climactic moments, the brasses play with surprising force. Schubert’s writing almost foreshadows Mahler.

Vigorous rhythms drive the Allegro vivace portion of Schubert’s Scherzo. He balances the rambunctious opening gesture with a gentler Austrian Ländler [a slow waltz]. The central Trio transports us to the world of folk song and rural village dancing.  Schubert’s sudden key changes and gentle use of the brass add interest throughout.

The grand finale is like a force of nature: as if Schubert had gathered up all world energy and invested it in his orchestra. The glory of Alpine Austria and the great outdoors pulses through this Allegro vivace, bringing Schubert’s magnificent symphony to an exuberant close.

The score calls for woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

© Laurie Shulman, 2020