Endless progress. Perpetual Extension. A certain idea of the vastness of space, to be filled with music. Solemn, grandiose music. Those keywords kept coming back while I read Wolfram Steinbeck’s study on Franz Schubert’s symphonies and more specifically about Schubert’s Symphony No. 2 in B flat, D. 125. Schubert wrote this early symphony between December 1814 and March 1815. The short time span shows Schubert’s determination to master a form considered to be the purest art form in Romanticism. The writer E. T. A. Hoffmann who so strongly inspired Robert Schumann, wrote: “[This kind of music] is the key to a realm unknown to humans; a world that has nothing in common with the exterior world that we perceive with our senses […] where all feelings, that could be described by words, are left behind and fade into the indescribable.”
Steinbeck says that the study of Schubert’s chamber music and of his symphonies are best suited to document the composer’s musical evolution, his ascent to one of the great masters of German Romanticism. One can see how the composer “conquers with an unrestricted vigour the world of instrumental music, how he shrinks back, panicking about the easy progress, how he achieves maturity through a painful process – and dies.” That sums up the tragedy of Schubert’s life. He barely had fully realized his musical potential when he died.
Schubert dedicated the second symphony to Dr Innozenz Lang, the director of the Schulkonvikt where he had started teaching to make a living. When he finished this work, he was 18 and he had begun to understand that he was more than the average musician. Great ideas and a great talent were hidden in this silent young man. He had already won the praise of his teacher, the eminent Antonio Salieri, but the way I picture Schubert, he probably was reluctant to acknowledge this. Ebullient in his creativity, inhibited in his consciousness about his genius, modest in his behaviour – these different sides of his personality would come to haunt him.
It is unclear whether Schubert ever heard his second symphony being performed. The first public performance known took place in London in 1877, 62 years after it had been created. It might have been played though in a semi-private setting at the “Schottenhof” by the amateur orchestra that Schubert was associated with. The “Schottenhof” was the house of the violinist Otto Hatwig, employed by the Burgtheater. The small orchestra allowed the composer to try ideas and benefit from the feedback of a friendly circle of musicians and listeners.
Symphony No. 2 is an impressive work of four movements, held together by the strong link between the different themes, one giving birth to the next. Schubert already achieves a high degree of thematic coherence in this second symphony, with a central rhythmic theme being the focal point. The piece also has a singular dynamic, that makes it very lively and loaded with energy, very appropriate for an experimental work of a gifted young composer.
The symphony has been recorded by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Claudio Abbado.
© Charles Thibo