Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in b minor, D.759

So many of us in life start out building temples: temples of character, temples of justice, temples of peace. And so often we don’t finish them. Because life is like Schubert’s "Unfinished Symphony." At so many points we start, we try, we set out to build our various temples. And I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable. We are commanded to do that. And so we, like David, find ourselves in so many instances having to face the fact that our dreams are not fulfilled.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is an excerpt from a sermon given by Dr. King at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on March 3rd in 1968.  One month and one day later he would be dead from an assassin's bullet in a Memphis, Tennessee motel.

I like to think that in this world, there still exist prophets.  And I don't mean that in the crazy "drinking the Kool-Aid", riding-the-comet sense.  I mean that there are people who can perceive their own actions and thoughts outside the ebb and flow of humanity.  My 7th grade English teacher would call them aliens.  She claimed that if in fact there existed sentient beings among us who were not of Earth, they would easily blend in under the guise of our most revered and famous minds.

I don't know if that's entirely true, but I will readily agree that there are a class of people who exist above the din of our structured society.  They often speak quietly, and are very rarely recognized significantly before their death, and a great tragedy is that their death is often part of their legacy.  A capstone on their contribution to our history.

My scoutmaster from my youth often would claim that "you can't see the forest through the trees." It is a strange adage to be certain, since we normally equate trees and forest as cut from the same cloth. However, we often are unable to see greatness when looking directly upon it.  We have to see it from another angle before we can perceive that what we are observing is in fact something significant.

Like many composers of art music, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was more popular in death than life. If I had to wager a guess, I would have to blame the inherent lack of Facebook for this seemingly perpetual travesty.

Don't worry, they're not.  This was the least stupid one I could find.
The internet has given us many, many wonderful things, chiefly the ability to research ad nauseum pretty much anything you can imagine.  Hell, this blog is a testament to that in and of itself! More so, the internet, in some ways, has leveled the playing field a bit and given a voice to the previously voiceless masses.  This...has not always been such a good thing.

So Schubert lived in Austria and grew to be well-respected among a decent circle of musicians and music-lovers in Vienna, but it wasn't until after he died that people really began to understand the scope of what the young musician had accomplished.  The communication and marketing of his time was nowhere near the break-neck pace that we experience in daily life today.

Schubert died at age 31, but at his death he had composed over 1,500 works of music- including "over six hundred secular vocal works (mainly Lieder), seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music and a large body of chamber and piano music" and one incomplete symphony.  This is a massive amount of music to have been written by an average composer.  This is an insane amount of music for someone to write in under three decades.

The crazy part is that his family and friends sat on most of his library for quite a while after he died. Eventually, Felix Mendelssohn discovered several works and began performing them and pushing them to the forefront of the musical circles of his time.  Franz Liszt began transcribing and performing his lieders (songs), followed by Antonín Dvořák, with Hector Berlioz and Anton Bruckner all paying tribute or claiming influence from Schubert's pen.

Schubert, by all accounts, was a Classical Era composer.  He was studied in the form and function of Mozart and Beethoven and composed in a style that was indicative of the unyielding format of his time.  The example for today follows the traditional sonata form that was pioneered in the early 18th century.

If you'd like a more entertaining explanation of this format, Peter Schickele AKA PDQ Bach has a wonderful video (shown below) that explains it in baseball terms:

If you watch that all the way through you'll notice that at a few points the announcers get frustrated with the deviations from the standard sonata form that's detailed above.  You see, Beethoven himself would bend these conventions of form from time to time and that's why he was considered to transcend the Classical Era and also be a founding member of the Romantic Era.  Schubert was also given such a distinction.

His "Unfinished Symphony" is a bit of a mystery.  He began writing the work in 1822, as a means of expressing gratitude to the Graz Music Society whom had awarded him an honorary diploma.  He sent his friend and leader of the society, Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a copy of the first two movements and a few pages of a scherzo that was intended to be the 3rd movement.  That surmises what we know for certain about this symphony in b minor.  

There's some reason to believe that there might have been more to this work and several scholars have posited that Schubert did indeed complete a fourth movement, but simply reworked it into the incidental music for Rosamunde, a play by Helmina von Chézy.  The other peculiar thing noticed by historians is that the copies sent to Hüttenbrenner had a few pages torn out.  So Schubert dies in 1828 and Hüttenbrenner sits on this partial symphony for a whopping 37 years!  It wasn't until 1865 that this work was premiered.  We don't know why Hüttenbrenner held onto it for so long, or why there were pages missing, but it raises a lot of questions.  

What we do know about the work is that it is a remarkable piece of music.  Schubert places a great emphasis on melody, which is where some stake the claim that this is the first true Romantic symphony. The major difference between Classical and Romantic music is the departure from the strict forms established in the 17th century, but another part to that is the triumph of melody in the 19th century.  Program music was born at this time and was designed to tell a story through song and melody and as a result much more expressive themes had to be invented and more loquacious harmonies to compensate.  The rigid construct of Classicism would not allow for such liberties, but such lofty compositional goals could not have been built without first given the foundation and framework established in the Baroque and Classical eras.  

When you listen to Schubert's "Unfinished" you hear a true sonata form work to the core. However, deep within the structure, particularly through the development in the 1st movement, you begin to hear the boundaries being tested.  Without delving too much into the theory of it, he breaks quite a few conventions with what would be the expected tonalities throughout the middle of the piece. It's almost as if he were testing the proverbial waters for what was possible through expanding beyond the confines of the traditional sonata form.  

Schubert was dead for almost four decades before this symphony was published.  We don't fully know if this was a dream mistakenly deferred and went unrealized from a life cut short or even if he meant to return to the work and finish it as a symphony at all.  What we do know is what Dr. King told us at the beginning of this article- there is not one among us who will live to see the culmination of the entirety of our dreams.  

And that's OK.

We still struggle with violent opposition to equal rights in our world today.  Does that mean that the struggles Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contemporaries went through in the 60's were not worthwhile?  Or does that simply mean that they were an irreplaceable cog in the vast machinery of humanity as we continue to grind out a path toward enlightenment?  

Would the Romantic Era of music have happened without the influence of Schubert?  The answer is a pretty resounding yes as much of his music went undiscovered until well into the midst of Romanticism.  But did his contributions have an immeasurable impact on the future compositions that would follow in the centuries after his passing?  It's evident they did as we still remember Schubert for what he wrote.  

You see, the beauty of humanity is that we are blessed with the ability to collectively enhance our intelligence from generation to generation, that the sum of our entire existence is carried forward to the youngest of our species.  We are continually updating ourselves and furthering our knowledge and understanding of the universe and passing that forward to those that will come after.  

So, while we may not live to see the ratification of our efforts we can rest easy knowing that the dent was made, the first ground was broken and the foundation laid.   For in spite of our own unfinished symphonies, time will pass also.

See you next Friday.