Around and around and around – this symphony is like a never-ending dance. Not that you want it to end! The melodies lock themselves in your head, the rhythms take control over your body, you swirl around and when the music stops, you feel happy and dizzy, a little breathless perhaps, but you are hooked on the endorphins and you just want to start all over again: Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 in C major, D. 589, which goes by the nickname “The Little” even though Schubert initially gave it the name “The Great”. But the composer later wrote an even greater symphony in C major: Symphony No. 9, D. 944, that I have presented in a post in January this year.
Schubert wrote this symphony between October 1817 and February 1818; the autograph has survived until today and is in the possession of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde* in Vienna. Its first performance took place probably during spring 1818 by an orchestra composed of friends of Schubert and it is likely that the composer took an active role in the performance. The official premiere however had to wait until after the composer’s death. It took place on December, 14, 1828 in the context of a memorial ceremony for Schubert in the Redoutensaal in Vienna, a prestigious ballroom in the Vienna Hofburg.
“A nice, diligently crafted work”, wrote a music critic in 1828, ” with the scherzo and the finale being perfectly charming”. The only element meriting a slight reprimand is the dominance of the winds over the strings, he went on, and indeed, Symphony No. 6 is a woodwind symphony according to the researcher Gernot Gruber, with a simple harmonic structure, fitting the fashion of the time, that was defined by Gioachino Rossini’s operas.
Singing Schubert’s songs
I find it very much appropriate to perform this galvanic piece to commemorate Schubert’s life and work: As paradoxical it may seem, I like to think of Schubert as a happy man. I would have wished him so much more happiness! The musicologist Wolfram Steinbeck has identified the “heitere Sanglichkeit” (joyful melodiousness or lyricism) as the element that makes Symphony No. 6 such an exciting and enjoyable piece. And indeed, Schubert’s talent at composing songs with melodies easy to memorize and natural modulations adapted to the human voice, make this piece both extroverted and intimate.
According to Steinbeck, the symphony is not very popular among orchestras and conductors, who seem to prefer other more tragic or even more intimate symphonies. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe however had no qualms about this piece when it recorded it under Claudio Abbado with Schubert’s other symphonies.
Schubert headed for difficult times shortly after he had finished D. 589. A deep personal crisis paralysed the composer for a long time, a crisis triggered by many elements. A dispute with his father, who did not approve his choice to live as a freelance composer, the lack of public success, his failure to compose operas that would have gained him a reputation similar to Rossini’s fame. But even these dark times came to an end. Schubert composed wonderful pieces of chamber music and symphonic works in a more mature phase of his life; his Symphony No. 6 was only a first culminating point of the composer’s genius and creativity.
© Charles Thibo