Schubert Symphony no. 4 in Cm, D. 417, ‘Tragic,

performed by the ASMF under Sir Neville Marriner, or below by the Vienna Philharmonic under Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the Muskverein

Mini-German part 3

I’ve never really cared much for nicknames or monikers for pieces… They are often not chosen by the composer, sometimes not even approved of, and sometimes not even coined until long after the composer is gone.
At least in the instance of Schubert’s Tragische, the name was of his own devising. My other gripe with names like this is that I don’t always (in fact, rarely do I) agree with them. ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Titan’ come to mind. ‘From the New World’ seems more a subtitle, and Auferstehung seems perfectly appropriate. Pathetique seems often misunderstood, but we’re not focusing on that for now.
For now, it’s Tragische. When I think of tragic as the name of a symphony, I must say I think of Mahler’s sixth. So relative to that, this one is…. not.
Schubert wrote his fourth symphony only a year after his third, meaning he was only 19 years old. It was completed in 1816, but wouldn’t be premiered for more than 20 years after the composer’s death, in 1849. It’s amazing to me that the work was written and orchestrated and everything, from beginning to end, potentially without ever having been rehearsed or played through. There was no Sibelius or Finale back then.
So anyway, the title ‘tragic’ is Schubert’s own, and it apparently isn’t known why he decided to add the title to the piece; it was added some time after completion of the piece (according to manuscripts or handwriting or whatever), but it isn’t clear what made him do that in retrospect. That makes me feel like, then, that the piece perhaps wasn’t written with the ‘tragic’ idea in mind. It certainly
isn’t the first impression I get from listening to it. Perhaps ‘dramatic,’ but not really tragic.
Some interesting notes about the piece here. I know nothing of these references, so I won’t go into detail, but the Wikipedia article (a brief one) about this piece tells me that Schubert used some ideas from Haydn and Beethoven. The opening of the first movement and the first theme of that movement are taken from (I guess inspired by) works from Haydn and Beethoven, respectively. Let’s talk about that movement (and then the others).
It opens, again, the word I would use would be dramatically. While it feels perhaps ominous or tense, it does remind me a bit of the opening of the third, which was taken out of Rossini’s book. This one feels similar. When that’s over, a very Beethoven-esque first theme takes place, immediately gripping and energetic and almost nervous in stark contrast with the broad, almost stately opening. Having a listen at the opening of Beethoven’s fourth string quartet, one does see the similarity, for sure. Beethoven’s is in Cm. I do have to say I like Schubert’s more. It’s light, crisp, and while still in a minor key, has some life and drama and excitement to it, even if it isn’t all sunshine and bunnies. What ever is? The final statement of the Am theme is truly beautiful, as is the bridge leading to the second theme. Just delightful. It reminds me of early Beethoven, but perhaps with a bit more punch.
I must say, though, I can’t completely disagree with the ‘tragedy’ in this piece. It’s unfair to compare this piece written in 1816 with Mahler’s written almost 100 years later. The tragic bar had been raised, but at the time, I’m sure this piece held its own just fine. It’s also worth mentioning that aside from the unfinished eighth (or however you number it, the one in only two movements), this is Schubert’s only symphony written in a minor key, which is perhaps surprising for someone with as tragic a life as he had. Hmmmmm.
It struck me somehow as interesting that, at least in my favorite recording (a fantastic one) with Marriner, the sonata-form first movement is the shortest, aside from the minuet/trio. In a recording with Sawallisch, they play the final movement a full three-ish minutes faster than Marriner, which makes me think they cut out a repeat or something (maybe?) because it didn’t sound like it was at such a breakneck speed to finish so quickly. Anyway, the first movement is a relatively compact but very gorgeous and rich sonata-form movement.
The second movement is an andante cast in A-B-A-B-A form, something he would apparently do more than a few times in his other works. The A theme is, again…. I wouldn’t call it tragic. It feels… nostalgic, perhaps melancholically bittersweet, but not outright tragic. The B theme is a bit stormier, and pulled right from the language of the first movement and the A theme of this movement. This kind of cohesiveness and logic seems so mature of a nineteen year old kid. Think of nineteen-year-olds today. He’s being quite economical and inventive and logical with his themes, employing techniques and language from some past musical greats, and most importantly, writing beautiful music. The final few iterations of the A and B sections get a sixteenth-note ostinato that Wikipedia says brings cohesiveness to the sections. I don’t know how that’s the case, unless it’s to call more to mind the first movement. Could be. The movement ends quietly.
The minuetto is by far the shortest movement, and I’m very okay with that. It sounds to me to be a bit scherzo-like, but that may not be for a good reason. I find this movement, honestly, to be a bit clumsy; it sounds like it’s getting ready to trip over its own feet at when it gets started. It’s a bit heavy handed, perhaps because of the use of the timpani. The trio is cutely, almost comically delightful, almost even fairy-tale-like. It makes for a good contrast to the menuetto theme, which comes back at the end of the movement, in a typical layout.
The final movement is (as I said earlier) the longest in Marriner’s interpretation, and it begins with a tragic-esque, at least very dramatic swell of sound that kind of takes your breath away. It may be my favorite moment in the piece. It leads us into a theme that makes me feel like this entire symphony is so incredibly concise and logical and well-planned, almost as if the movements are sections of a long one-movement work instead of separate movements.
There’s a wonderful question-and-answer passage between strings and clarinet. The theme here is energetic and lively but also so lyrical. What I enjoy most about this movement that seems perhaps cast in sonata form, more or less, is that it feels (at least to me), like it’s trying to cast off the ‘tragic’ of the piece. While I don’t necessarily feel it to be tragic in the way Mahler is, it certainly has an atmosphere that looms over the piece, and it has its own beauty. I think more than most other movements, the tension or contrast between two themes is very clear here, and it makes for a wonderful finale, an allegro.
This symphony seems like it’s over so quickly. Every time I gave this a listen, it felt like… it was over just that quickly…? Perhaps that’s because relative to Mahler and Bruckner and stuff, it is quite short, at a half-ish hour. But I think more than that, it’s because of the tight cohesiveness of the piece and the real satisfying nature of the themes and the treatment of them throughout the entire piece.
While the third was pleasant, this symphony seems to have an almost effortless lyricism and movement. It doesn’t make the ranks of my favorite symphonies of all time, and isn’t one of those that I think about and want to listen to, but by golly, every time I do, I really enjoy it! It’s also kind of straddling the line between the late Classical and early Romantic eras. It’s just a wonderful piece. Next week, we’ll be jumping ahead almost an entire century for something quite different, but with its heart, I feel, in the same place (in more than one way). See you then.

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