Principal Conductor Guillermo Figueroa leads The Symphony Orchestra in a series of uplifting and joyous works, including one of the most universally beloved symphonies in the Classical repertoire, Schubert’s so-called “Unfinished” Symphony. Jason Vieaux, recent recipient of the Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo Album, will lead the stage in a glorious modern guitar concerto by Joaquin Rodrigo, Fantasia para un Gentilhombre. The performance concludes with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 3, one of his earliest successes.
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SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 2017, AT 4:00 PM
Symphony No. 8 in B Minor (“Unfinished”), D.759
Schubert actually wrote a number of unfinished symphonies. Besides the famous one, there are fragments of five other symphonies that he began but abandoned. The one known as the “Unfinished” was written in the fall of 1822, when Schubert was twenty-five. He began work on October 30, and completed two movements in November; he then began a third movement, a scherzo, sketching out 129 measures and fully orchestrating the first nine. And then he stopped. The following year he had the manuscript delivered to his friend Anselm Huttenbrenner, probably as a gesture of appreciation for having been elected a member of the Styrian Music Society of Graz, of which Huttenbrenner was a member. At that point Schubert apparently forgot about this symphony. He never heard it performed.
The manuscript came to light in 1865 when conductor Johann Herbeck was visiting the aged Huttenbrenner in Graz and inquired about the existence of any Schubert manuscripts. Huttenbrenner showed this symphony to Herbeck, who led the premiere in Vienna on December 17, 1865. From that moment, it has been one of the most popular pieces of music ever written.
Despite its odd form—two movements instead of the customary four—the symphony is a fully satisfying musical experience. Its two massive movements, both at a fairly moderate tempo, offer the unusual combination of lyricism and monumentality: lyrical because this symphony is built on some of the most easily sung tunes in classical music, monumental because of Schubert’s ability to transform these melodies into music of stature and power. Many other features contribute to the symphony’s appeal. Chief among these is Schubert’s control of orchestral color; three trombones give this music unusual weight, but even more impressive are the many shades of instrumental color he achieves through subtle handling of solo winds. Also impressive is the ease of Schubert’s harmonic language. The work glides effortlessly between unexpected keys, with the effect of delicately shifting patterns of light. Through both movements runs a haunting, somber beauty.
Why didn’t Schubert “finish” this symphony by writing the other two movements? There have been many, many answers to that question. In The Victor Book of the Symphony (1935), Charles O’Connell offers, in quite purple prose, the conclusions of one generation: “[The “Unfinished”] is utterly perfect in finish. It leaves nothing unsaid. It explores the most mysterious regions of the human soul and heart. In language of inexpressible beauty it communicates from composer to hearer an intensity of passionate emotion, a degree of spiritual exaltation, a completely satisfying and wholly expressive message. Music can go no further; Schubert himself, having said in these two movements all that even he, with his almost inexhaustible flow of melodious expression, could say, gave over the task of writing two more sections.”
Closer to our own day, and in a more grimly realistic explanation, Maurice J. E. Brown has noted that Schubert contracted syphilis in the fall of 1822 while working on this symphony and was critically ill throughout 1823. Brown suggests that when Schubert recovered his health a year later, the sensitive composer identified this music so closely with that illness that emotionally he was unable to resume work on it.
Perhaps we will never know why Schubert did not write more than these two movements. The unusual form has not kept it from becoming one of the most famous symphonies ever written, and few of the millions who have loved this work have ever considered it “unfinished.”
The Symphony recognizes with thanks our season program notes contributor, Eric Bromberger.
NPR describes Grammy-winning guitarist Jason Vieaux as “perhaps the most precise and soulful classical guitarist of his generation,” and Gramophone magazine puts him “among the elite of today’s classical guitarists. Read more!
Vieaux will also be featured in his own concert recital on Thursday, February 16 at 7:oo pm—don’t miss this rare opportunity to see two-time Grammy winner perform solo at The Lensic!
As newly appointed Principal Conductor for The Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Guillermo Figueroa will lead the orchestra into an exciting new chapter in the 2016–2017 Season. Read more!