Beethoven in 1815 portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler
Enhanced Program Notes – Changing Perspectives
Watercolour of Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder (1825)
Robert Schumann in an 1850, daguerreotype
Portrait of Mendelssohn by the English miniaturist James Warren Childe, 1839
Because Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828) both lived in Vienna and died within a year of each other, it seems all too easy to compare the two composers. In many of these comparisons, Schubert is viewed as the lesser of the two. The larger-than-life image of Beethoven dwarfs the younger composer who reportedly once asked his friend what could really be written after Beethoven.
Undaunted by that sentiment, Schubert came to terms with the symphonies of Beethoven even as the latter did with the music of his predecessors. In this process Schubert produced his own contributions to the symphony, including the magnificent Symphony in C major, D 944, commonly called the Great C major.
Once cast in Beethoven’s shadow, Schubert is now recognized as one of the major figures not only in lieder (art song), but also in instrumental music. Recognition of the Symphony in C major, however, came 11 years after Schubert’s death when Robert Schumann,
who wrote that in order to know Schubert one needed to know his Symphony in C major, arranged for Felix Mendelssohn to premiere the work with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on March 12, 1839. At this premiere, there was applause after every movement and soon the symphony was heard repeatedly in Leipzig and other German cities. Beyond this area, Schubert’s Great C major was less successful until later in the 19th century.
Originally believed to have been composed in 1828, Schubert’s Symphony in C major is now known to be from 1825. This discrepancy and the decision by 19th-century publishers not to number another, unfinished symphony, has led to confusion over the number of the Symphony in C major, which today is generally listed as Schubert’s ninth in order to acknowledge that it was composed after the Unfinished Symphony.
Schubert scores the opening line of the first movement, a microcosm of what will unfold over the symphony as a whole, for two horns in unison.
Both declamatory and nostalgic, Schubert uses this line to mark the main sections of the first movement; he also fragments it and distributes it to other instruments. Especially striking is when the trombones take up this idea. Their initial entrance is quiet, but soon the mood becomes more serious.
Schubert’s use of the trombone as a fundamental color in this symphony is groundbreaking, taking this instrument from one used on occasion, such as the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, to a standard sound color of the expanded orchestral palette.
In the Andante con moto, Schubert presents two themes with unique rhythmic identities: the first is a jaunty tune heard in the oboe
and the second a more lyrical melody. The horns, on a single pitch, mark a gradual intensification of sound. Reaching a crisis point, which feels as if the orchestra suddenly realizes how far afield it has gone,
the cello leads the return to the music with which the movement began.
The third movement Scherzo hits the ground running, with two related motives, one light-hearted, yet slightly heavy, for unison strings and the other a more lyrical idea.
The horns announce the transition to Trio section. With stunning writing for the winds, the Trio feels like a point of arrival.
With another transition in the horns, the Scherzo returns with the same music, but conveying a different sentiment because of the intervening Trio.
The fanfare motive and triplet rhythms that open the fourth movement
are soon joined by a flowing melody in the winds. In the second half of the movement, the winds take up a folk-like melody, which has been related to the “Ode to Joy” theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Still, not everything about this movement is folk-like or celebratory as Schubert builds tension through repetition and moving to unexpected places harmonically. Once again, the horns are the harbinger of change, this time marking the beginning of a return to more familiar sounds.
Schubert’s early musical training was quite different from Beethoven’s. After studying with the organist at his parish, Schubert auditioned for Antonio Salieri, who accepted him as a singer for the Hofkapelle (imperial chapel) in Vienna, a position that included free tuition to the Imperial and Royal College, the most prestigious school for non-aristocratic families. Unlike many other composers of this time Schubert did not receive financial offers from wealthy patrons, supporting himself as a teacher until he established his career as a composer.
After coming to Vienna Beethoven did not hold a position at a court, but he did have the support of the nobility. For a short time he even received a yearly salary from three patrons, including Archduke Rudolph, the dedicatee of the Fifth Piano Concerto. In return for this stipend Beethoven had only to promise to remain in Vienna.
An audience in Beethoven’s time expected to hear a certain order of events when listening to a concerto. In the first movement, the orchestra generally introduced the musical material before the soloist entered. With the opening of the Piano Concerto in E-flat major, op. 73, “Emperor,” Beethoven redefined that expectation much in the same way his previous concerto had done. In this concerto the cadenza-like passage for piano is brilliant and encompasses the full range of the instrument; however, the series of chords played in the orchestra follow a cadential pattern (musical conclusion);
Beethoven transforms that closing into an opening, the launching point for a spirited theme.
As the movement continues, we remember this opening as an introduction, at least until the last part of the movement when Beethoven, after developing the themes and moving through a variety of harmonies, begins the process of returning. And what better way to establish a return than by going back to the extraordinary passage that began the entire movement?
Beethoven continues to reinterpret the roles of the soloist and orchestra towards the end of the movement when, in the place of the usual notations for a solo cadenza (extended solo passage), Beethoven writes: “Non si fa una Cadenza, ma s’attacca subito it seguente” (Do not play a cadenza, but immediately go on to the following). What follows is a short passage for solo piano composed by Beethoven.
The piano is then joined by horns, winds, and strings as both soloist and orchestra conclude the movement.
The conversation between the piano and individual instruments of the orchestra lends an intimate and endearing quality to the second movement. Here Beethoven equalizes the ensemble; no one element is extraneous. As each instrument, line, or rhythm comes to the foreground, others recede by gradations much in the same way threads of an idea coalesce into a whole by degrees. The magic of this movement comes at the end. Beethoven distills everything to a single chord—B major—before simply shifting down to B-flat¬—signaled by the horns, bassoons, and strings—in order to elide the close of the second and the beginning of the third movements.
As in the first movement, the combined forces of the orchestra and piano introduce the main theme of the third movement, in which soloist and orchestra share in the musical material in a new way. Unlike the first movement in which the piano continually expounded on, expanded, and varied the material first heard in the orchestra, in the Rondo the musical phrases themselves become an integral part of an exuberant exchange.
Equally special and unexpected is the closing of this movement. Instead of a cadenza, Beethoven writes a passage for soloist and timpani that dwindles to a whisper before closing with a burst of energy from the full ensemble.
Both Schubert and Beethoven felt the imperative of innovation, the need to create their own compositional voice. In that process, both absorbed the music of their day and made it their own. In Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 and Schubert’s Great C major Symphony—the last completed work for each composer in those genres—we can hear each composer’s debt to their predecessors. But these works do not just pay homage to the past; each composer transforms traditional ideas and inspires new forms of expression.
Teresa M. Neff