Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Schubert - Symphony No. 4 'Tragic'

Along with Felix Mendelssohn and Wolfgang Mozart, Franz Schubert was one of the most outstanding child prodigies the musical world has ever seen. All three men lived only into their third decade, with Schubert dying the youngest at age 31. By the time of his death he had written over 1000 pieces, among them being nine symphonies, much chamber music and 600 lieder,some of the greatest art songs ever composed.  He composed his first work when he was 13 years old, and never stopped composing after that.  His output is phenomenal, considering his age at his death. 

Schubert came under the influence of Antonio Salieri who was living in Vienna at the time. Salieri recognized Schubert's immense talent and took him as a private pupil. Schubert also had a great singing voice and acquired a choir scholarship at a local seminary.  He also went to a teacher training school and taught in his father's school for a few years. He disliked the drudgery and boredom of teaching and applied for a kappelmeister's position and also tried teaching piano for a time. He soon abandoned both of those endeavors and devoted himself to composing full time, and living off the kindness and generosity of his friends.

Schubert himself subtitled his 4th Symphony 'Tragic'. although the introduction to the first movement does have the sense of gloom and tragedy about it, whether the rest of the symphony has much tragedy in it is questionable. Why did Schubert name it such if the music really isn't all that tragic? Some have conjectured he did it to try and attract a publisher, but no one really knows why. Perhaps it was on account of the introduction to the first movement, a departure from his first three symphonies. The 4th symphony is the first symphony he wrote in a minor key, and he was about 19 years old when he wrote it in the years 1815-1816. Like so much of Schubert's music, the 4th symphony had to wait a long time for its premiere, in 1849 in Leipzig.

The 4th Symphony is in the traditional 4 movements:
I  Adagio molto – Allegro vivace - The introduction to the first movement moves far afield key-wise, but Schubert is known for his modulating through distant keys before settling on one. This key-wandering is all the more remarkable as it all makes sense. It was one of Schubert's many talents, this harmonic wandering and use of distant keys.  The movement proper begins with a theme in the home key of C minor. The entire movement keeps driving forward with the second theme that adds to the momentum. The ending of the movement has another surprise in store...a coda in C major.
II Andante - One of Schubert's most attractive slow movements, it is in a major key with a few episodes in the minor to add interest and contrast.
III Menuetto. Allegro vivace - Although named as such, this is far from a 'menuetto' in the common sense of the word. Schubert's debt to Beethoven is heard as the syncopated accent on the third beat at the beginning of each phrase throws the music into a cross rhythm that stumbles its way to the trio.
The trio is a German Ländler, a peasant dance that Schubert knew very well.
IV Allegro -  The finale begins with music as nervous and forward-moving as the first movement.  After much development in various keys, the music turns to C major for the conclusion.

To say Schubert was a composer of natural ability would be an understatement. But he didn't rest on his talent. He worked hard, and his music progressed throughout his short career. Within his thirty-one years he accomplished so much. What he could have created if he had lived longer will always be a mystery. 


  1. 1000 pieces in 18 years! That is an average of composing one piece per week! I'm lucky if I get a blog post published in a week! I didn't know he died so young. Any correlation between child prodigies and early death?

  2. I don't think there's any correlation since Shostakovich was also a child prodigy. He composed his brilliant 1-st symphony at the age of 17-18.