Schubert & Stravinsky
Saturday, April 11, 2015 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828)
SYMPHONY No. 8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Premiered: Vienna, Austria, 1865
- I: Allegro moderato (B minor)
- II: Andante con moto (E major)
The most famous incomplete piece of music in history should probably be called the “Abandoned” rather than “Unfinished” Symphony. Schubert had six years of life left to finish it, after all, and wrote an enormous symphony (the epic Ninth) in the meantime. The reason Schubert walked away from his this happened appears to be a strange mix of the musical and the personal.
Schubert wrote the symphony as a thank-you present to the Graz Music Society, which awarded him an honorary diploma in 1823; he sent a bundle of orchestral manuscripts to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who was on the Society’s board. This consisted of what we now know as the first two movements of the Unfinished, with a partly orchestrated piano sketch of the Scherzo and a scribbled note vaguely evoking the possibility of a Finale. Perhaps understandably, Hüttenbrenner, on behalf of the Society, threw it into a drawer to await the missing movements – which never arrived.
Why did Schubert never finish the work? Actually, there is some evidence that he at least tried to do so. The piano sketch in the Hüttenbrenner bundle later became the longest Entr’acte in his music for Rosamunde – a long, lightish piece in B minor and triple meter, with clear resemblances to the two Unfinished movements. This is in all probability the missing third movement – but there is no credible candidate for a finale. It was simply never written. 1823 was the year that Schubert became sick with the syphilis that killed him at the age of 31, and there is some evidence that he associated the nascent symphony with his illness; he became similarly allergic to the Wanderer Fantasy, composed the same year.
There are also musical reasons for Schubert thinking that he had composed himself into a corner with the Eighth Symphony. Both of the extant movements are in triple time. Triple-time first movements are unusual; the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica is the classic case of the exception proving the rule. Two triple-time movements in succession were unknown at the time, and the Scherzo would have been a third.
It is also worth pointing out that the Eighth is not even Schubert’s only “unfinished” symphony. Schubert left the Eighth in four unperformable piles of fragments for no obvious reason. The Ninth, of course, was not only completed but is Schubert’s orchestral masterpiece, while the Tenth was left as a small pile of musical rubble when Schubert died. It is also possible – the silliest possibility – that Schubert was an early casualty in the Nine-Symphonies-Then-Die jinx that felled Bruckner and Mahler. Many nineteenth-century composers quite genuinely believed that writing more symphonies than Beethoven would kill them.
what is left, then? for all its (literal) shortcomings, one of the key works of the romantic symphonic canon. felix mendelssohn would base an entire career on the texture of the first movement’s opening – gently chattering strings under the woodwind’s gentle exposition of the first subject; the second subject could have come straight from schubert’s immense songbook – not that the first subject was exactly frantic. the very essence of schubert’s music is modulation – or, rather, key change (not quite the same thing); this music darts in and out of several very unlikely keys as the music progresses through the development. in the recapitulation, the second subject returns in d major rather than the expected b major. beethoven would have gone for b, but schubert – the romantic, remember – takes the mozart road; an unexpected and strangely comforting gesture of musical conservatism. this outwardly unassuming music actually lays the ground for the oncoming juggernaut that was wagner.
The second movement – a formally simple sonatina with two subjects – is in the unexpected key of E, which is barely any relation to the alleged overall key of B minor. This is Schubert at his most lyrical (and is there a more lyrical composer?); the two melodies have no development section to torment them – but listen for the weird string passage that separates them, the vaguest hint of a darkness that this symphony almost entirely evades.
As Beethoven lay dying, it would be Anselm Hüttenbrenner who took Schubert to his bedside, to exchange scribbled notes with the deaf genius. With them was Hüttenbrenner’s brother Josef. For some reason, Schubert handed Josef a pile of manuscripts a few days later – mostly incidental music for a play, Claudine von Villa Bella. Josef’s parlourmaid used the music to start a fire.
At least Anselm had the grace to stuff Schubert’s music in the back of a drawer.
IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882 - 1971)
Composed: 1910-11, revised 1947
Premiered: Paris, France, 1911
Some might feel that Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps seem a million miles from the lush extravaganza of The Firebird, but there is a thread to be traced linking them all. Never far away is the composer’s adored teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who looms unmistakably over The Firebird, to the extent that Stravinsky has even been accused of plagiarism from the older master. Plagiarism is a strong word, but there are certainly borrowings from Rimsky in The Firebird – and there is a more than a family resemblance between the opening of Petrushka and a passage in Rimsky’s Mlada. As for what seems the huge leap from Petrushka and Le Sacre, the strange fact is that both works were on Stravinsky’s desk simultaneously for three months of 1911. Rimsky had died in 1908, and there was no fixed standard of musical copyright across Europe. Ironically, this affected Stravinsky himself when his works became famous; they were widely pirated, a problem that turned him into a legendarily unforgiving defender of his own rights. The 1947 edition of the score (heard this evening) was made as much to fix the copyright of the music as to delete an offstage band and a harp.
Though it became famous as one of Diaghilev’s ballets, Petrushka was originally intended to be a piano concertino, and the final version retains an important obbligato piano part. Diaghilev heard Stravinsky play through the piece – very badly, as Stravinsky was an indifferent pianist – and immediately suggested turning it into a ballet on the tale of Petrushka, with choreography by Mikhail Fokine and the legendary Nijinsky in the title part. It became a huge European success, despite a frighteningly bad German premiere in which half the orchestra got lost.
Petrushka, the main character of the ballet, is simply the Russian equivalent of the Commedia dell’ Arte character Pulcinella, who later became the subject of another Stravinsky work in his later neo-Classical period. Like Pinocchio, he is the puppet that becomes human – a duality reflected in the jarring bitonal C major/ F# major fanfares that reoccur at strategic points in the music.
The music opens with a bustling evocation of the Shrovetide Fair in St. Petersburg, interrupted by the barrel organ playing the French song La jambe de bois (The Wooden Leg) – a song very much in copyright at the time, as Stravinsky should have known; he had to settle handsomely with the composer’s lawyers when the ballet became a hit.
Drums roll, announcing the enigmatic Puppetmaster and his three wooden stars: Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor. These three perform the famous Russian Dance. But Petrushka is no normal wooden doll: the bitonal fanfares, now quiet in the woodwinds, tell us that he is part human and in love with the Ballerina, who rejects him.
The Moor is luckier with the Ballerina’s charms; she portrays her lust for him in a frightening trumpet solo, supposedly played by her on a toy instrument but actually played by the orchestra’s dauntless first trumpet. Petrushka attacks the Moor, who beats him horribly and kicks him from the tent and returns to discussions with the Ballerina.
As the close of the story approaches, the music returns to the Fair music and a sequence of dances – a dancing bear and a band of gypsies are followed by dancing coachmen and, finally, local people lurching into the general frivolity. The music is dominated by an in-joke; Stravinsky quotes the Russian (copyright-free!) folksong Down the Petersky Road – which was his childhood home.
At the climax of all the dancing, Petrushka enters, chased by the Moor, who kills him with a single blow from his Arabian sword. Accused of inciting a real murder, the Puppetmaster holds up Petrushka’s wooden corpse to prove that he is just a wooden doll – when the ghost of Petrushka appears on the roof behind him. The bitonal fanfare tells them and us that a terrifying miracle has taken place; the Puppetmaster flees in terror.
About the Concert
Our last classical concert bookends two towering masterworks! Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony brings his unique gift for song to the instrumental world of the symphony. Meanwhile Stravinsky’s landmark Petrushka is a musical event like no other. In between our Young Artist Competition winners will dazzle you with their thrilling performances.
Join us for the pre-concert lecture with Bill Scanlan Murphy at 6:30pm.