Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony & Mahler’s Seventh Symphony

PROGRAM NOTES by Paul Schiavo

Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, “Unfinished”

Born: January 31, 1797, in Vienna
Died: November 19, 1828, in Vienna
Work composed: 1822
World premiere: December 17, 1865, in Vienna, Johann von Herbeck conducting

Schubert’s B-minor Symphony is far from unique in having come to us incomplete. Yet Schubert’s symphony is distinct from other unfinished pieces in at least two respects. First, it is more obviously and more severely truncated than other works: it is precisely half a symphony—two movements complete in all respects. (Surviving sketches for a scherzo third movement are too slender to consider.) It is impossible to hear these two movements without a sense of what is lacking, and for this reason Schubert’s symphony alone bears that adjective as its title.

The other fact that distinguishes this symphony from other unfinished works is that its creation was not cut short by the composer’s demise—the legend of Mozart dictating his Requiem on his deathbed has no parallel in the history of the B-minor Symphony. Schubert was 25 when he composed this work, in the autumn of 1822, and though he would die at an appallingly early age, he still had six years in which he might have completed it, and his apparent failure to do so has been the subject of much conjecture.

Listeners, however, must accept the two movements of the “Unfinished” Symphony as they stand: “a mighty torso,” to borrow the words of musicologist Alfred Einstein. Just how mighty cannot be appreciated unless we consider the music in its historical context. In 1839, Robert Schumann wrote of Schubert’s C-major Symphony (No. 9): “It is the greatest achievement in instrumental music since Beethoven.” Had he known the B-minor Symphony, which lay undiscovered until 1865, he might have included it in his encomium, for its music is on the same high level. The deep pathos we encounter in the B-minor Symphony, its broad tonal terrain and the ambitious scale of the individual movements all mark the “Unfinished” Symphony as a worthy successor to Beethoven’s middle-period works.

Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets; 3 trombones; timpani and strings.

Symphony No. 7 in E minor

Born: July 7, 1860, in Kalište, Bohemia
Died: May 18, 1911, in Vienna
Work composed: 1904–06
World premiere: September 19, 1908, in Prague, Mahler conducting

More than any of Mahler’s compositions, his Seventh Symphony confronts us with paradoxes and contradictions. One senses throughout its unfolding something of the great Mahlerian drama, the struggle to affirm life in the face of mortality. The urgent march figures of the opening movement, the ghostly sounds of the Scherzo, the triumphant finale: all suggest some personal drama, one whose exact nature Mahler chose not to reveal. And without an explicit literary or biographical framework, that drama remains ambiguous, to say the least.

We encounter further uncertainty upon considering the history of the Seventh Symphony’s creation. Alma Mahler, the composer’s widow, declares in her memoirs: “In the summer of 1905 Mahler wrote the Seventh Symphony in one burst,” after making only preliminary sketches the preceding year. The composer, however, gives reason to question this account of free-flowing creativity. In a letter written in 1910, he recalled that by the summer of 1905 the symphony’s second and fourth movements were already finished, but that further progress eluded him. Growing depressed, he traveled to the mountains of northern Italy in a search for inspiration. Failing to find it, Mahler returned, dejected, to his lakefront summerhouse.

Ironically, it was just then that his imagination was freed: “I got into the boat to be rowed across,” his reminiscence continues. “At the first stroke of the oars the theme…of the introduction to the first movement came into my head.” Following this fortunate flash of inspiration, the rest of the work followed quickly enough for a draft to be completed by the time Mahler returned to Vienna in the fall. Even so, the composer experienced unusual difficulties in finishing the symphony. Details of orchestration were revised with nearly every rehearsal and performance he conducted, starting with its 1908 premiere in Prague, until the score was published.

The composition opens with an insistent rhythmic pulse in the strings, presumably the idea that Mahler discovered on that alpine lake in 1905. This figure sets the stage for a dramatic theme announced by a tenor horn, a strange fanfare that haunts the entire first movement. There follows the first of two movements Mahler designated Night Music. Once again, a horn call provides the principal idea, which eventually assumes the shape of a long march. Bird songs from the flutes and the sound of cowbells add unusual color. The ensuing Scherzo conveys a dream-like mood, and on the whole it is a fitful rather than tranquil reverie. Mahler headed the movement with a character indication, Schattenhaft (“shadowy”), which seems entirely appropriate to what we hear.

Alma Mahler referred to the fourth movement, the second “Night Music,” as a “serenade,” and both its tempo marking (Andante amoroso) and the music itself suggest a romantic interlude. Moreover, her memoirs link this movement to “murmuring springs and German Romanticism.” The unusual scoring features guitar, mandolin and solo violin.

Launched with a burst of timpani and brass, the finale finds Mahler at his most exuberant. Episodes follow one another in quick succession, and even the contrapuntal passages give an impression of sheer abandon rather than calculation. At length, the composer recalls the principal theme from the opening movement and combines this with thematic material of the finale as the music approaches its climax.

Scored for 4 flutes, the fourth doubling on piccolo, and piccolo; 3 oboes and English horn; 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons and contrabassoon; 4 horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones and tuba; tenor horn; timpani and percussion; 2 harps, guitar, mandolin and strings.

© 2006 Paul Schiavo

Back to Performance Information