Schubert Symphony no. 5 in B-flat, D. 485

performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Claudio Abbado

(That’s the first movement. Here are the second and third/fourth.)

“O Mozart! immortal Mozart! what countless impressions of a brighter, better life hast thou stamped upon our souls!”

Schubert’s diary entry for June 13, 1816
per Peter Duncan’s The Symphonic Repertoire, p. 95

Oh, Schubert. Everything of his that I’ve listened to I have truly enjoyed. There’s a certain draw to his string quartets, but we haven’t even really gotten to the really good later stuff yet. There’s also lots more piano music to get to beyond just sonatas, and we’ll have to work on that eventually as well.

However, as was the case with Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, and more, I started my discovery of Schubert with his symphonies. They were kind of a common denominator, large-scale forms that all of those composers wrote a bunch of (or if not many than at least large scale), and all with a large degree of fame. It was only later that I started feeling that I was missing out in a big way by not paying any attention to their more intimate chamber or even solo works.

But we’re finally at Schubert’s fifth (one ahead of Beethoven now), and listening again to this work reminds me of Steve Schwartz’s comment that I included in last week’s Beethoven article. He was speaking of how Beethoven’s symphonies are ‘music with edges’, it’s passionate, unbridled, intense, and how its inherent qualities make it difficult if not impossible to choose a definitive recording. And indeed, many (perhaps more dedicated listeners) have multiple Beethoven symphony cycles in their collection. I count five complete cycles in my collection, with at least two or three more I’d like to get eventually.

But this isn’t about Beethoven. What Schwartz said about Beethoven was that “There’s very little modest contentment, such as one finds in Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Dvořák.” Modest contentment. I wouldn’t have thought to use those words, but when I read them, they seemed perfect. I often express Schubert’s [or at least his] symphonies as having a kind of subtle, understated beauty. Even the spectacular, moving epic ninth has a certain polish, a certain delicacy to it, sometimes interpreted as the faintest of melancholies, others as an emotional tenderness, that touches the deepest parts of the heart.

The fifth, to me, is a good example of that. It’s Schubert’s ‘classical’ symphony. I suppose we should have talked more about Mozart than Beethoven, because Schubert tips his hat to the former with his fifth. I say it’s classical because it’s the smallest of his symphonies in instrumentation. One flute, two each of oboes and bassoons, two horns and strings. No clarinets, trumpets or timpani.

You have to be careful listening to this symphony, I think. In a way similar but more delicate than, say, Beethoven’s works from last week (at least the string quartet), Schubert presents us with two unassuming, pretty simple subjects in the first movement, but they come to life in exhilarating ways. While I talk about the music as ‘delicate’ or ‘understated’, that’s not to say it’s boring or uneventful. It truly is breathtaking, refreshing, and moving, but not in any kind of coarse, rough, brash way.

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The symphony opens with a little four-bar introduction that descends right into the first theme, beginning with the dotted-crotchet B and repeated F. This plays through once, then again graced with the flute’s presence. It swells quite nicely into a pretty full-bodied passage, with low strings echoing higher ones just a bit behind. The first theme rounds out and the second, lighter, bouncy equally pleasant theme presents itself. Mozart comes to mind here, right? Beautiful harmonies and melodic lines, as well as crisp, strong rhythms characterize the exposition, which is repeated. Wikipedia tells us, in fact, that “The main is a simple rising arpeggio with a dotted rhythm that dominates all of the themes of the exposition.” This undoubtedly lends a bouncy, lively character to the first movement.

It’s clear when we’re at the development. Not only have we reached the end of the section that was repeated, but there’s a clear sort of extension or continuation of the material that we didn’t hear earlier, first led by flute then other woodwinds. Then Schubert lets his genius and creativity run wild. Again, we have such unassumingly simple, straightforward themes, content that has such potential, that once they start to grapple with each other in the development, sparks do fly. While the two things themselves were quite pleasant, the (brief) development section reaches a stormy height before recapitulating.

Here’s where something else interesting happens, and it seems to be a thing Schubert likes doing. Wait for the recapitulation, where the opening subject reappears in full unadulterated form and then jump back to the very beginning of the movement and listen. Compare these two appearances of the first subject. You might not need to do this to notice that something is off. The B-flat major beginning was so crisp, so well established that this recapitulation seems…. off, and it is. Schubert recapitulates to the subdominant, (here E-flat) instead of the tonic. If you’ve been listening to lots of Beethoven, you might expect this to be a joke, a false recapitulation somewhere, but Schubert is committed, and the piece ends in this manner.

The slow movement sounds…. like later Mozart than the world ever saw. This is decades after Mozart’s death, but Schubert clearly has the composer in mind (and heart) in this symphony, and we can hear it in this slow movement. It doesn’t feel much like the 6/8 it’s marked in, and the charm and sunshine of the first movement is gone in favor of something at least slightly more somber. It’s harmonically rich, warm, expressive, and pretty straightforward too. It has its moments of (relative) darkness, like a cloud obscuring the sun and bringing a cool breeze on a spring day, one that might threaten rain but soon clears up. Wikipedia says of the harmonic structure:

The slow movement opens with a theme in two repeated stanzas. Without pause there is a modulation into C that is very characteristic of Schubert, even at age 19. The return to the main theme is straight, passing through G minor on the way; there is a repetition of the distant modulation afterwards, though to G this time and with a more immediate return.

I was proud enough that I heard the recapitulation in a key other than the tonic, but C♭ and all the rest is a bit beyond me. That’s the second movement, and also the longest, and sounds at least to me like it’s looking forward to the ‘Great’ ninth. 

The third movement is heavy for a minuet, to me. It’s almost swashbuckling in nature, full of drive and a bit stormy. Abbado’s minuet drags a bit compared to Marriner with his band in the field, but  it’s still nice. Wikipedia gives us more information about the association with Mozart:

The menuetto has the chromaticism though not the polyphony of the menuetto of Mozart’s 40th symphony. The progression used mid-way through the movement to modulate is borrowed almost directly from the 40th — using the same approach (a gradual layering of instruments) to a dominant 7th chord.

In contrast with the heavy, driving minuet, the trio, while keeping with similar-sounding content, is much lighter and sunnier, a bit of fresh air before the minuet returns, and without the chromaticism of the minuet, which rounds out the movement.

Wikipedia tells us that the fourth movement is the shortest, which must mean…. that neither of my recordings observe some repeat in the minuet, because both of the recordings have the fourth at least a little longer than the third. It’s crisp and lively, beginning quite amicably, in much the same manner as the first movement. This bubbly, friendly theme continues to build until the strings are whipped up into a breathtaking frenzy, made more tense with 16th-note runs and syncopations, like we might hear from a nonexistent later symphony of Mozart. There’s crunch and bite to low strings, an undercurrent that pushes the entire ensemble forward. This is contrasted with another light, equally brisk, but subdued theme led again by strings and flute, and it seems what we have here is another sonata form movement, with two contrasting themes, and the furious syncopations and runs in strings acting as the bridge between the two subjects. After a repeat of the exposition (at least with Abbado), we’re already halfway through the movement, leaving a short and not terribly developing development before the recapitulation, this time in the tonic, to round out this splendidly straightforward symphony.

What I hear is beauty, an adoration for perfection (Mozart), the slightest tinge of melancholy, and a passion for expression. Really all of Schubert’s symphonies have been this way, for me, so far, but this is obviously the most developed of them so far, written at the ever-so-mature age of 19.

What this means, folks, is that we only have two more completed symphonies of Franz Schubert to discuss, both of which are in C major, the sixth and the ninth. There are three fragments of symphonies or symphonic works, as well as the seventh, eighth, and tenth, all at varying degrees of (in)completeness. But that’s going to be it for Schwammerl for now, and we’ll get back to him eventually, likely with the great volume of chamber and  piano works still left to discover and enjoy. Stay tuned.

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