Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony,” known as one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in classical music involving almost two centuries of gossip and intrigue, will be the centerpiece of performances presented by Bozeman Symphony on February 2nd and 3rd.
Schubert composed the first two movements of his Symphony No. 8, commonly known as the “Unfinished Symphony,” in 1822 and lived for six more years after the completion of these movements. So why didn’t he finish it? Musicologists and music lovers have been trying to decide why Schubert never finished this symphony for almost two centuries to no avail. Was he just not excited by it? Did he have other things to write and never got back to it? Did he think it had little value as music? He did go on to write the fantastically successful 9th Symphony, so he obviously wasn’t through composing.
Perhaps the reason for speculation and intrigue surrounding the Symphony is that very few facts are known about it. Schubert left us with only two movements and a sketch of a Scherzo, which we assume would take its place as a third movement. A symphony, however, is a piece that has four movements. Up through 1822, no work in the form of a symphony was comprised of only two or three movements. It was always four.
Adding to the mystery, the “Unfinished Symphony” wasn’t discovered until the 1860s, more than thirty years after Schubert’s death. In 1823 the Graz Music Society presented Schubert with an honorary degree. In return, Schubert felt obliged to present the Society with a symphony dedicated to them. He sent his unfinished work, along with at least the first two pages of his scherzo to longtime friend and member of the Graz Music Society, Anselm Hüttenbrenner.
No one knows why, but Hüttenbrenner never let anyone know he had the score - even the Graz Society. It remained secretly in his possession until nearing the end of his life, he revealed the score giving the masterpiece its world premiere in Vienna on December 17th in 1865.
Musicologists speculated for several decades that because of Hüttenbrenner’s secrecy, perhaps there were two more movements hidden in an attic somewhere in Vienna. However, it is now certain that Schubert left us only with two incomparable movements of music, both thrilling and sublime. Alan Leech, principal bassoon of the Bozeman Symphony, shares: “I have always thought that perhaps the reason Schubert did not complete the other movements of this work was that he had “painted himself into a corner,” and wasn’t certain where to go from there. There are beautiful woodwind and string melodies to be heard, and the flowing tunes are very endearing. Whenever I hear the two movements of this symphony, I find them reasonably complete and satisfying: they do seem to speak for themselves, and perhaps I understand why he left just the two movements unattended by additional ones.”
A few other details add to the intrigue. In late 1822 Schubert contracted syphilis and subsequently suffered from depression and failing health. Some have also speculated that he was almost paralyzed by learning about Beethoven’s symphonic form innovations. Others claimed that Schubert was obsessed with composing his Wander Fantasy for solo piano. And finally, many have speculated that the material intended for the fourth movement was used as the entr’acte for the incidental music for Rosamunde. These reasons are merely circumstantial. No definitive proof supports any of these theories.
What is known: Schubert gave us two movements that can be best described as perfection. Precious gems in the treasure trove of symphonic music. They have remained stalwarts of the standard repertoire immediately from the time they were premiered. Moreover, the “Unfinished Symphony” occupies a special place in the history of music as the first Romantic Symphony - a bridge from the Classical period to the Romantic period due to its lyrical motivation, and an orchestration not solely designed for functionality. Schubert’s two movements are a masterpiece and cherished the world over year after year.