This symphony is great. Franz Schubert knew it. Vienna preferred to ignore it. At least for some time. Too long, too difficult. Too great for Vienna. The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde* in Vienna was not up to it. In 1861 the musicians rehearsed part of Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C major “The Great” (D.944), but soon gave up. Let’s have a look at the historical context. How did it all come about?
Challenged by Beethoven
In March 1824, he wrote to a friend: “I am the most unhappy and wretched man on earth, every night, when I go to sleep, I hope not to wake up anymore.” It did not prevent him from composing his brilliant String Quartet No. 14. He knew he had to compose one more important symphonic works, but it had to be different. Different from what he had written so far. And different from what Beethoven had written so far. Different from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
Recent research works claim that Schubert started to write this vast work – 74 minutes long – in spring 1825. At that time he was traveling through Austria – seeing something else than Vienna, meeting people different from his circle of close friends. According to the letters he wrote, he greatly enjoyed this trip and was exuberant about the beauty of the countryside around Linz and Salzburg.
In October 1826, Schubert wrote to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde that he would dedicate the symphony to the association, and in December it came into the association’s possession. Soon after, scores were printed and rehearsals began, but not for very long as Leopold Sonnleitner, an active member of the association, remembers in his memoirs, published in 1861. The symphony had its premiere on March 21, 1839, more than ten years after Schubert’s death, in Leipzig, conducted by no other than Felix Mendelssohn.
“Today, I was in heaven!”
I could rhapsodize for hours about the beauty and the vigour of the work, but here is an expert doing a much better job: “He who doesn’t know this symphony, knows little of Schubert […] The symphony is taking us into a realm where we have never been before.” The author – Robert Schumann is his name – goes on and praises the masterful composition technique, the vitality, the multiple shades of its colours, the precise accentuation. Schumann heard the second performance in Leipzig, nine months after the premiere, and wrote to his wife Clara: “Today, I was in heaven. I cannot describe it: human voices, all expressed by instruments, witty beyond any measure, and the [miraculous] instrumentation despite [what] Beethoven [has shown us already], and then this length – like a novel in four volumes, longer than [Beethoven’s] Symphony No. 9. I was completely happy, I only wish you were my wife and I could write such symphonies.”
There you have it. Schumann in heaven. Because of the last symphonic works that Schubert would finish. Hallelujah! To reach heaven with Schubert, you have at least two options: D.944 has been recorded by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Giuseppe Sinopoli and by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
© Charles Thibo