Schubert’s Symphony No. 9
Notes by TŌN horn player Emily Buehler
A Masterpiece Unheard
Could you imagine completing what you think to be one of your greatest works, never to hear it performed? This is exactly what happened to Franz Schubert and his Symphony No. 9. He finished composing the piece in 1826, but it wasn’t performed until 1839 . . . 11 years after his death! People simply didn’t know it existed. Schubert entrusted his scores to his friend Franz von Schober, who ended up leaving them with Schubert’s brother, Ferdinand. Apparently, no one understood their value or took any action to get them published until 1829. Ferdinand enlisted the help of Robert Schumann, who was able to list Schubert’s posthumous works in the newspaper. Unfortunately, the response was underwhelming.
Two years later Schumann was in Vienna visiting the graves of Beethoven and Schubert. He recalled Ferdinand still lived nearby, and was able to visit. Famously, Schumann described what he found: “He [Ferdinand] knew of me because of that veneration for his brother which I have so often publicly expressed; told me and showed me many things. . . . Finally, he allowed me to see those treasured compositions of Schubert’s which he still possesses. The sight of this hoard of riches thrilled me with joy; where to begin, where to end! Among other things, he drew my attention to the scores of several symphonies, many of which have never as yet been heard, but were shelved as too heavy and turgid. There, among the piles, lay a heavy volume of 130 pages, dated March 1828 at the top of the first sheet. The manuscript, including the date and a number of corrections, is entirely in Schubert’s hand, which often appears to have been flying as fast as his pen could go. The work, a symphony in C, Schubert’s last and greatest, had never been performed.”
The piece opens with a slow horn call, turning into a noble Andante, and whirlwinds into a riveting Allegro. You can recognize a kind of metamorphosis of the opening horn call to the quicker section, and this is harkened to once again at the final moments of the movement. The second movement can not be of more contrast. The character here is grave, yet march-like. Schubert has a beautiful way of moving from major to minor, and holds onto that in this movement, each modal movement done with intrinsic intention and meaning. Schubert wrote, about the ending of this movement: “A horn is heard from a distance. It seems to come from another sphere. Here everything listens, as if a heavenly spirit were wandering through the orchestra.“ As we move along to the third movement, you may find your feet tapping to this dance music! It is rumored that Schubert would entertain friends all night by playing dance tunes “off the cuff” in an improvisatory style! This was a natural way of writing for him. In the elegant final movement, Schubert hints back to important key relationships, themes, and rhythms from previous movements, and connects them into something new.