performed, as always, by Neville Marriner and the ASMF, or below by Marriss Jansons and the Concertgebouw (apologies for the anime image, but it’s a nice performance)
Mini-German: Part 2
(I know he’s Austrian)
Now for a slight change of pace. Sort of. While this work came a decade after last week’s Beethoven piece, it is… at least to my ears, not as far ahead of its time. That’s no criticism at all. Let me explain.
For one, Eroica was just kind of a phenomenal thing. Beethoven was already into his thirties when this piece was written. Schubert was about half that age when he wrote his third (18 years old). That’s perhaps the greatest factor.
But first, let’s talk about the relationship between these two composers. For the real well-written (and original source) version, go check out this section of the Wikipedia article on Beethoven and his contemporaries.
Actually, before we talk about that, let’s talk about the climate in which Schubert wrote his third symphony, at least briefly.
The piece was written at a time when the works of one Gioachino Rossini (born only five years prior to Schubert) were quite popular, and it seems the young (and impressionable) eighteen-year-old genius was smitten with his style. On a larger scale, though, Beethoven had been around some time longer and also made quite an impression in Vienna. The above points out that Schubert grew up hearing Beethoven’s music and that he held his elder composer in the highest esteem. This may
seem apparent from the styles of their early symphonies (the first two symphonies of both of them). Schubert’s third, though, takes a more Rossini-esque direction, at least at the beginning.
This piece was written about seven years before the two composers (Beethoven and Schubert) actually met in 1822 (which apparently happens to be about a year after Beethoven and Rossini met when the latter visited Vienna. The Rossini section of the same article mentioned above states that Beethoven apparently had slightly less encouraging words for Rossini than for Schubert, claiming that the Italian should stick to comedic opera).
But that’s beside the point. Small world, though.
In any case, it’s perhaps these two influences that are the most significant as backdrops for this work. It seems works like this smaller-scale symphony (smaller I guess mostly in duration) suffer from some lack of attention in the concert hall in favor of the composer’s ninth, for example, but I would love to hear it live. It’s a masterful, colorful, inventive and impressive work for an eighteen year old, perhaps a good thing considering he was already past the midpoint in what would be his tragically brief life.
I’m glad we are getting around to these symphonies, though, really. Franz Schubert is a composer who, while I still have largely neglected, has made quite an impression on me considering my tenuous familiarity with his works. So far, we’ve only given attention to two of his symphonies (the first and second, yes, in order), but I’ve listened to them all and really enjoyed them. His sonatas are also truly wonderful; I haven’t listened to any of his songs, unfortunately, but am aware of their reputation. Beethoven had fantastic things to say about them per the above article, and I will have the chance to go hear them later this month as performed by one of the vocalists from the performance of Gurre-Lieder earlier this year.
Back to the topic at hand. I think this symphony is really just fantastically approachable… it’s not complicated or arcane, not difficult to understand, and thoroughly enjoyable while not lacking substance.
The first movement opens with a broad, dramatic sort of operatic overture style, Wikipedia says French. In any case, it does sound broad and sort of epic. There are two sections to this opening, the second more lyrical, and even here it’s apparent what a knack for lyricism and melody Schubert has. After this really captivating opening section, the first theme of the sonata-form movement appears and it’s in stark contrast to what we’ve heard so far. Clarinet takes the lead (we just finished our clarinet series!) over syncopated strings and it’s bouncy and light and playful, but not without its thundering, powerful ending leading into the B section. This is a very expressive movement full of things to enjoy. It is also perhaps a nice movement to get an idea of what a slightly more mature Schubert is about. His first two symphonies were lighter in content than this. There’s so much genius here.
The second movement is an allegretto, and about half the length of the first (and longest) movement. The opening theme has a dainty, sort of humorous but very pleasant and kind of lilty jump to it. The contrasting middle passage is slightly sweeter and more lyrical. But this movement in general is just quite…. sweet and delicate and classical. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be gorgeous, and just like that it’s done.
The third is menuetto, but it feels quite a bit like a scherzo because of its speed and energy. This was obviously before the time of Bruckner and his towering scherzi, but I feel there’s something in this movement that suggests it. Something just as wonderful is the trio, suggestive of a Ländler. It is delicate and bucolic and wonderfully contrasting to the scherzo-like theme that the movement opened with. It’s truly beautiful, but then it’s gone. These two middle movements are in a very straightforward ternary (A-B-A’) form: opening theme, contrasting theme, opening theme again. It’s a fantastic example of how your structure and ideas don’t have to be complex and deep and confounding if the content is good. There is GREAT content in every movement of this symphony, and it isn’t obscured by some absurd structure or treatment of the material. Even the sonata form is clean and crisp.
The final movement comes just as quickly, presto. It too is in a sonata-form of sorts. It is a fitting end to the symphony, being the liveliest of the content we’ve heard so far. The orchestration and texture strike me also as especially interesting, with lots of contrast in question-and-answer and dynamic levels. While Wikipedia describes this movement as being “in sonata form with a looser conception,” without looking at the score or thinking too much about it, at first listen, it feels more like some kind of rondo or theme-and-variations. Regardless, it’s energetic and entertaining. And then it’s over.
I think some of the learning curve or apprehension or whatever that people have about classical music is, aside from the ‘knowing how to listen’ or what to listen for, but that there’s some underlying complexity that they must ‘get’ in order to enjoy the piece. And that isn’t ALWAYS true. Obviously, with something like… oh, a Mahler symphony or even Beethoven, in some cases, is that if you ‘miss’ the plot (the treatment of the themes, underlying ideas, connecting concepts, etc.), you don’t follow the drama or the development. And I get that. I had the challenge last week of getting a complete classical newbie friend up to speed on Mahler 3 in a half hour over dinner before the concert.
That all being said, perhaps a better ice-breaker introductory piece is not one that has all the drama and richness and emotion of Rachmaninoff’s second or Sibelius or Mahler, but something like Schubert here, with the advantage of being short and sweet without being dry and bland. It’s a matter of ear-training, of understanding the plot, and I feel like this is a wonderful symphony to do that with. It is perhaps a better instrument for that than the Eroica last week if only for it’s brevity. I can see the Eroica being a bit overwhelming or difficult for new listeners. Try Schubert, then. And not just this piece; there’s more on the way. See you soon.