performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner
(Below is the Failoni Orchestra under Michael Halasz)
There is a tenuous connection to one of the characters in this week’s “on this day” series. Although he may not be a name many casual fans of classical music would recognize, Antonio Salieri played a large part in the development of the young Schubert and his musical education. Salieri’s influence was greatest in opera, which he wrote in three languages. He was apparently one of the most respected, sought-after teachers of his era, and aside from Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt were also among his pupils. We can talk more about Salieri later, but for the most part, for the rest of the 19th and most of the 20th century, his musical works fell out of fashion, were slowly forgotten, until the past few decades.
Schubert’s first symphony was written in 1813, when he was only 16 years old. It’s impressive. One could make the comparison that by the time Mozart was about that age, he’d already written at least two dozen symphonies (his 25th was written when he was 17), among arias, concerti (a handful for piano, one fur trumpet, etc), at least one string quartet, then larger works like his Kyrie, A Te Deum, Missa Brevis, as well as sonatas for multiple instruments (separately, but at least 16 violin sonatas), and on and on. Schubert, on the other hand, after coming to the attention of Salieri when he was only 7 (for his vocal abilities), entered the Stadtkonvikt at 8 years old. This was where he was exposed to
Mozart and Haydn, and it was here that he began composing, after Salieri began teaching him privately in music theory and composition. The Stadtkonvikt orchestra was the first for which he wrote, and was occasionally allowed to lead them. He composed some chamber music, lyric pieces, works for piano, and even liturgical choral works (Kyrie, Salvia Regina), and his first symphony was among these compositions.
It may sound like we are heading in the direction of a “quality vs. quantity” argument, but we can’t. The thought crossed my mind, but Mozart is uncontestedly one of the most celebrated composers in history, and for good reason; it’s just that I don’t find most of his works particularly interesting. Pleasant, yes, enjoyable, in some ways, but thrilling? No.
I tend to enjoy Haydn’s works more, and although Schubert came in at the very tail end of the Classical era and can’t really be considered a driving force in it, he is still early enough that I tend to group him more with the earlier group. Even Beethoven’s early works are a bit too classical for me. But that’s just me.
That being said, I have come to enjoy thoroughly Schubert’s ninth symphony (as part of another project, and we’ll talk about both that symphony and the project later), but decided it would be logical or studious to go back and listen to his first first.
And that is what I did.
While the opening adagio still sounds a bit like the clean, straight-laced, proper kind of music that newbies to classical music may attribute to seventeenth century evening banquets with powdered wigs and fancy dresses, it’s not. There’s something here that is pleasant and interesting and simple but genius. The adagio is by far the longest of the four movements here, and it opens with a prelude-like statement with lots of timpani (which is heavier in the …. Recording than the …. One). After this confident opening, there’s a quiet passage in the woodwinds that sounds almost ominous, but the strings brighten it up, and we are introduced to a very pleasant, lively crisp first theme. The second theme is just as clean, but slightly more solid. The movement is clean, exciting, bold, richly orchestrated, while not overbearing. The recapitulation is perfectly noticeable and clean with a clear structure.
The only possible dull moment of this symphony is the second movement, marked andante, but even it isn’t boring, per se. It’s just the slow movement. It’s pretty enough. The opening has a very chamber-y feel but about a minute and a half in sort of takes a dramatic turn. It builds a bit more character and then really does feel like it’s going somewhere. It has a flowing, light kind of pleasant nature to it. I want to say catchy, but not in that cliche, pop-music sort of way. It does have a pleasant lyricism to it. It’s pretty quiet, but it holds a nice place in the progression of the symphony, because the next movements are more lively (especially if you’re listening to Sawallisch with the Staatskapelle Dresden… their recording of the third movement is more than a minute faster than Marriner’s here… in a slightly-less-than-five-minute-recording. Sawallisch comes in at like 3:45. It’s certainly fun and fast that way, but there’s a certain…. stately kind of meter to it. It’s the traditional minuet and trio, and it’s quite nice. It has its heavier little bits in between the daintier passages, but has plenty of personality and in my opinion is pretty enough that I don’t mind the repeats.
The fourth movement is just…. it’s nice. It has the same exciting, lively feel as the first movement, but a bit more so. It is marked allegro vivace, and it certainly is. It has contrasting bits and although there’s nothing about it to me that is outstandingly unique, the entire piece as a whole has a certain character or kind of unidentifiable quality that makes it exciting and enjoyable, but in an entirely different way than say Brahms or Beethoven or something more fully-formed Romantic. It’s a small (relatively speaking, I suppose) work of less than half an hour, but for a young composer just getting experience and learning so much, it’s a wonderfully vibrant piece, and one that I have come quite to enjoy, not just as background music, as I did with the Mozart Monday series we had for a while, but really intent, focused listening. I’m excited to learn about the pieces between Schubert’s first and ninth. I have come to enjoy them both.
Part of my reading about Salieri’s influence on the young Schubert has made me wonder, yet again, what chances or hope a young talented person has in the wrong environment. Are people like Mozart and Schubert talented because they were exposed to music at such a young age? There’s obviously a genetic element to it, but what about the opposite? What about someone who has some amazing mind for music or language or something but perhaps not the environment ever to discover, much less develop, that talent? Has this happened? I must think so. I cannot imagine (although an interesting romantic fairytale kind of idea it is) that everyone who has a talent is somehow driven to express or discover and nurture it. I’ve pondered here before over the significance of teachers and instruction, as well as the serendipity of life and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities one may get; I feel that Schubert already had enough of the motivation and exposure to realize his own genius, but then again… many of his works were nearly (or have been) lost, and it wasn’t until many years after his death that he began to gain popularity. And look at him now. Anyway, that’s about it for now.