Schubert Symphony no. 6 in C, D. 589

performed by The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under the late Sir Neville Marriner, or in a superb recording with the Vienna Philharmonic under István Kertész

(cover image by Patrick Baum)

It’s also been a while since we’ve seen Schubert, but a bicentennial is a good enough occasion for his return to the blog, and since he has more than one incomplete symphony, and we’re already on number six, we should really be focusing more of our efforts on the string quartets. All in good time.

The sixth symphony was composed between October 1817 and February of 1818, so exactly two hundred years ago (!), but it wasn’t first publicly performed until 1828 in Vienna, a few weeks after the composer’s death. This “little” C major symphony was apparently substituted for the ‘Great’ C major symphony (the ninth, or whatever, depending on how you decide to number it) as that later symphony was thought “unplayable.” It must have been after this that that manuscript was lost, though, because that work went untouched for sometime before its eventual (re)discovery and premiere.

The L.A. Philharmonic’s program notes by Hugh MacDonald remind us that not a single of Schubert’s symphonies were published in his lifetime, and that none were publicly performed. Let’s ponder for a moment how fortunate we are to have these works two centuries later, after a few decades of neglect. MacDonald tells us that Brahms, when given the chance to conduct a concert of Schubert’s works, declined “on the grounds that there were few works by Schubert suitable for performance in the grand style.”

Well, fine.

While indeed impressive for a 21-year-old composer (insert jab at today’s younger generation that makes me sound old), it indeed is not a ‘grand’ symphony, but it is a beautiful one. The work lasts, in Marriner’s recording, for just under 32 minutes; the movements are as follows:

  1. Adagio- Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Scherzo: Presto; Trio: Piu lento
  4. Allegro moderato

From the dramatic opening chords of this work, it strikes us (okay, me) as operatic in nature. Maybe that’s just because Don Giovanni comes to mind, but also Beethoven. It’s pristinely lyrical, crystal clear, and it sounds almost like the overture to an exciting operatic work, but instead we get the symphony proper.

In the first movement, and throughout the symphony, I hear Mozart and Beethoven. If LvB were one of the earliest Romantics, then maybe Schubert was one of the very latest Classical composers; of course they overlap, but Schubert strikes me as more pre-Romantic than post-Classical, especially here.

There’s such perfect contrast between the themes of the first movement, really a sense of theatrical drama unfolding. It’s full of sweet, youthful charms, but with a (proto?) Romantic kick, eventually ratcheting up for a small but thrilling coda, which drives home the Beethovenesque nature of this movement.

The second movement is exquisitely elegant, with even more fantastic melodic material in the outer sections. I expect, almost want, there to be a soprano or something breaking out in song at some point here, an Italian aria of some kind. This article mentions an actual, concrete Italian thing about the work:

Played at a true andante tempo, this middle part, with its stacatto [sic] triplets, takes on a tarantella quality. Thus we find another mark of this work’s affinity with Italy.

The central passage of this second movement is more boisterous, akin to the opening of the first movement. More importantly, though, do you hear what might just be the first glimpses of the grandeur of the ‘Great’ C major symphony? I certainly do.

If you didn’t hear Beethoven earlier, you certainly should now. It’s a light, bouncy, spirited scherzo with a more majestic, almost regal trio section. The ‘little’ moniker seems more and more appropriate for how it seems softly, subtly, to foreshadow the later, greater C major symphony and what the (more) mature composer would sound like.

Beethoven. Mozart. Rossini. Haven’t we heard this before? Not yet, actually. It, too, throws melody to the fore, right in your face, and it’s irresistibly, stupidly charming. I think this movement by far is the strongest of the four, and would indeed be more so if the three that preceded it didn’t already kind of play all their cards with melodies and exuberance. It is, overall, a stronger, more fully-developed movement, and by far the longest of the four.

At least we go out with a really delightful bang. As a collection of delights, this work is undeniably charming and pleasant, even bordering on the kind of ‘spiritual’ satisfaction and perfection that Beethoven achieves. However, I feel that as a symphony, the novel of the music world, it might just be a bit lacking.

There was certainly a lot going on operatically in the music world, and who can fault the young Schubert for being influenced by it? Apparently one Gramophone reviewer can. This reviewer calls the work “the most egregious of Schubert’s eight symphonies… more a symphonic suite than a fully fledged symphony.”

I never thought I’d criticize a Schubert symphony, but I must agree with the reviewer. I don’t dislike the work for that. It’s full of charm and masterful melodies and cleanliness, but it feels like with all the feature of woodwind and clarinet, the operatic nature of all four movements, that it’s sweet on top of sweet on top of sweet. Maybe if we could swap one or two of these movements around with something that would give the work a little more scope, or variety, it would feel more like a complete offering.

Be that as it may, Schubert still writes a charming melody and has a keen sense of orchestration.

And now there’s only one more completed symphony from the tragically young composer to discuss, but it’ll be some time before we do so. Nothing else this week, but stay tuned this weekend for a bit of Brahms, and thank you as always for reading.

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