Program Notes: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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Symphony No. 8 in B Minor “Unfinished” D.759


Born January 31, 1797, Vienna

Died November 19, 1828, Vienna

Duration: 22 Minutes

In the fall of 1822, Schubert began a new symphony.  He quickly completed two movements and began a third, a scherzo.  He sketched out 129 measures of this scherzo and took the time to orchestrate the first nine.  And then he stopped.  The following year Schubert sent the manuscript to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, probably as a gesture of appreciation for Schubert’s having been awarded a “diploma of honor” by the Styrian Music Society of Graz, of which Hüttenbrenner was a member.  And at that point Schubert apparently forgot about this symphony.  He never mentioned it again.  He never heard it performed.

The manuscript sat on dusty shelves for four decades.  In 1865 conductor Johann Herbeck visited the aged Hüttenbrenner in Graz and inquired about the existence of any Schubert manuscripts, Hüttenbrenner showed him the symphony, and Herbeck led the première in Vienna on December 17, 1865.  It was an instant triumph, yet mystery continues to swirl around this music.  Why did Schubert stop?  Did he stop?  (Some have suggested that Schubert actually completed this symphony and later used its finale in his incidental music to Rosamunde).  And why should an “unfinished” (and forgotten) symphony have become one of the best-loved pieces ever composed?

Despite its odd form–two moderately-paced movements instead of the customary four at different tempi–the Symphony in B Minor is a fully satisfying musical and emotional experience.  The “Unfinished” is built on some of the most singable tunes in classical music, yet Schubert can transform those melodies into dramatic music full of craggy attacks, epic monumentality, and eerie silences.  Schubert’s control of orchestral color is remarkable here, as well: three trombones give this music unusual weight, but even more impressive are the many shades of instrumental color he achieves through his subtle handling of solo winds.  Also striking is the ease of Schubert’s harmonic language–this music glides effortlessly between keys, sometimes with the effect of delicately shifting patterns of light.  And through both movements runs a haunting, somber beauty.

All alone, cellos and doublebasses lay out the ominous opening of the Allegro moderato, marked pianissimo.  But this turns out to be only an introduction–the movement proper begins as winds offer the long opening melody over skittering, nervous strings.  Cellos sing the famous second subject, and then comes a complete surprise: Schubert ignores both these themes and builds the development on that dark introductory melody.  That music explodes with unexpected fury, and what had seemed a “lyric” symphony suddenly becomes a very dramatic one.  Then another surprise: Schubert recalls the themes of the exposition and closes on a subdued memory of the introduction.  This movement is powerful, lyric, dramatic, beautiful–and utterly original.

The second movement also proceeds at a moderate pace: Andante con moto.  Once again, there are two principal themes–the violins’ sweet opening phrase and a poised woodwind melody over syncopated accompaniment.  And once again, this movement combines a granitic monumentality with the most haunting lyricism.  A short development leads to a full recapitulation, and a beautifully extended coda draws this symphony to its calm conclusion.

Such a summary may describe the “Unfinished” Symphony, but it cannot begin to explain its appeal.  We may never know why Schubert did not complete more than these two movements, but the symphony’s unusual form has not kept it from becoming one of the most famous ever written, and few of the millions who have loved this music have ever considered it “unfinished.”


Concerto in A Major for Clarinet and Orchestra, K.622


Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg

Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

Duration: 28 Minutes

The second half of 1791 seemed, at least on the face of it, a promising time for Mozart.  After several years of diminished popularity and income in Vienna, he suddenly found his music much in demand.  Early that year Mozart was commissioned to write an opera for the coronation in Prague of Leopold II as King of Bohemia.  Working as fast as he could (legend has it that he composed some of the opera in a carriage on his way to Prague), Mozart got La clemenza di Tito done on September 5, barely in time to conduct its première the following day.  While in Prague, Mozart heard performances of some of his other works, then rushed back to Vienna to complete The Magic Flute.  This was premièred on September 30, and–to Mozart’s pleased surprise–it was an immense success.  It was given twenty times that month, Mozart went to see it repeatedly, and at one performance he surprised the audience by playing the glockenspiel to accompany Papageno.  Meanwhile, he was at work on his setting of the Requiem Mass, which had been commissioned by a mysterious “stranger in gray” in July.  Despite brief periods of illness, Mozart’s prospects seemed very bright in the fall of 1791.  There was no way to foresee that they would come to nothing–he died on December 5, eight weeks short of his 36th birthday.

It was at the beginning of October, during the first week of the heady success of The Magic Flute, that Mozart composed his Clarinet Concerto–it would be his final masterpiece and virtually his final completed work.  During his first years in Vienna Mozart had become friends with Anton Stadler (1753-1812), a fellow Freemason and a virtuoso clarinetist, and for Stadler he wrote three great works that feature the clarinet: the Clarinet Trio (1786), the Clarinet Quintet (1789), and the Concerto.  Stadler played the basset clarinet, an instrument of his own invention, which could play four pitches lower than the standard clarinet of Mozart’s day.  That meant that Mozart’s concerto could not be played on the contemporary clarinet, and this produced a number of corrupt editions of Mozart’s clarinet works, which were re-written to suit the range of that clarinet.  Subsequent modifications have given the modern A clarinet those four low pitches, and today we hear these works in the key in which Mozart originally intended them.

Mozart completed the Clarinet Concerto on October 7, only fifty-nine days before his death.  It is of course tempting to make out premonitions of death in Mozart’s final instrumental work, and many have been unable to resist that temptation, but such conclusions must remain subjective.  What we can hear in the Clarinet Concerto is some of the most graceful, noble, and moving music Mozart ever wrote.  This is not a concerto that sets out to dazzle a listener’s ears with a soloist’s fiery technique (it has no cadenza) but rather music that through its endless beauty engages a listener’s heart.  Mozart’s subdued orchestration (pairs of flutes, bassoons, and horns, plus strings) produces a smooth, warm, and understated sonority, ideal to accompany the clarinet and ideal for the restraint of the music itself.  Mozart often has the first and second violins playing in unison, further purifying the sound of the orchestra.

The Clarinet Concerto may be a restrained work, but it is not short–at nearly half an hour, it is longer than almost all of Mozart’s other concertos.  But its length brings with it a spaciousness that is very much a part of this music’s character.  The opening Allegro establishes the concerto’s spirit immediately with its calm and lyrical opening idea.  Solo clarinet takes up this theme at its entrance, and the soloist also has the graceful, arching second theme, a theme that–rather than contrasting sharply with the opening–remains very much within that same character.  This may be a sonata-form movement, but it is one without conflict.  Instead, it is endlessly graceful and expressive music, beautifully written for the clarinet.

The emotional center of this concerto is the Adagio.  It is in this movement that one feels most strongly the concerto’s compelling combination of surface restraint and emotional depth; if one needs to make out premonitions of Mozart’s death, this movement’s intensity and spirit of gentle resignation offer the place to look.  The opening measures bring some of the most expressive Mozart music ever wrote, as the smooth sound of the clarinet rises and falls above the strings’ murmuring accompaniment.  Near the end the music rises to a climax, but it is an emotional rather than a dramatic climax (Mozart’s marking is only forte), and the music slips into silence.

The concluding rondo-finale dances and turns cheerfully along its 6/8 meter.  The clarinet has wide skips and long, athletic runs throughout its range here, but even more impressive are the interludes between the return of the rondo theme, many of them beautifully shaded and hauntingly expressive.


Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Opus 61


Born June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany

Died July 29, 1856, Endenich, Germany

Duration: 38 Minutes

Schumann and his wife Clara made a five-month tour of Russia in 1844.  Her piano-playing was acclaimed everywhere, but the always-vulnerable Schumann found himself somewhat in the shade, and on their return to Leipzig the composer began to show signs of acute depression: he said that even the act of listening to music “cut into my nerves like knives.”  So serious did this become that by the end of the year Schumann was unable to work at all.  He gave up his position at the Leipzig Conservatory, and the couple moved to Dresden in the hope that quieter surroundings would help his recovery.   Only gradually was he able to resume work, completing the Piano Concerto in the summer of 1845 and beginning work on the Second Symphony in the fall.  Schumann usually worked quickly, but the composition of this symphony took a very long time. Apparently Schumann had to suspend work on the symphony for extended periods while he struggled to maintain his mental energy, and it was not completed until October 1846.  The first performance took place on November 5, 1846, with Mendelssohn conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Given the conditions under which it was written, one might expect Schumann’s Second Symphony to be full of dark music, but in fact the opposite is true–this is one of Schumann’s sunniest scores, full of radiance and strength.  And, considering the protracted and difficult period of the symphony’s composition, it is surprising to find the work so tightly unified.  The symphony opens with a slow introduction–Sostenuto assai–as a trumpet fanfare rings out quietly above slowly-moving strings.  During the earliest stages of this symphony’s composition, Schumann wrote to Mendelssohn that “Drums and trumpets (trumpets in C) have been sounding in my mind for quite a while now,” so apparently this trumpet-call was one of the earliest seeds of the symphony; it recurs throughout.  The introduction gathers speed and flows directly into the Allegro ma non troppo, whose main subject is a sharply-dotted melody for violins and woodwinds.  This opening movement is in sonata form, and near the end the trumpet fanfare blazes out once again.

The second movement is a scherzo marked Allegro vivace.  In contrast to some of Schumann’s others symphonic scherzos–which can remain earthbound–this one flies.  Almost a perpetual-motion movement, it makes virtuoso demands on the violins.  Two trio sections interrupt the scherzo–the first for woodwinds in triplets, the second for strings–before the opening music returns and the movement speeds to an exciting close.  At the climax of this coda, the trumpet fanfare rings out above the racing violins.

The Adagio espressivo, one of Schumann’s most attractive slow movements, opens with a long-breathed melody for the violins.  This movement is the emotional center of the symphony, and though this music never wears its heart on its sleeve, its composition made such heavy emotional demands on the composer that he had to stop work temporarily after completing it.

In the finale–marked Allegro molto vivace–the energy of the opening movements returns as the music bursts to life with a rush up the C-major scale.  Schumann said of the composition of this movement: “In the Finale I began to feel myself, and indeed I was much better after I finished the work.  Yet . . . it recalls to me a dark period in my life.”  The symphony’s unity is further demonstrated by Schumann’s transformation of the first four notes of the main theme of the Adagio into this movement’s second theme and then–at the climax of the entire symphony–by the return of the trumpet fanfare.  It begins softly, but gradually grows to a statement of complete triumph, and–with timpani and brass ringing out–the symphony thunders to its close.

Though the Second Symphony may have been the product of a “dark period” in its creator’s often unstable life, it also appears to have been the vehicle by which he made his way back to health.

Program notes by Eric Bromberger

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