Great Symphony in C Major
Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: 55–60 Minutes
Time of Creation: Probably 1825–1826
World Premiere: Probably Posthumously on March 12, 1829 (Vienna)
Table of Contents
Schubert's Great Symphony in C Major in 5 Sentences
The Great C Major Symphony is Franz Schubert’s last symphony. It was given the epithet “the Great” firstly because, with its playing time of about an hour, it was for a long time the longest instrumental work ever, and secondly to distinguish it from the shorter Symphony No. 6 in C major in the context of the confusing numbering of Schubert’s symphonies. Schubert, after all, did not have it easy, for he was actually overshadowed by his contemporary Beethoven his entire life. The genesis of the Great Symphony in C Major is also marked by this, since Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9 had been premiered on May 7, 1824, and Schubert had to compete with it willy-nilly. Schubert’s Great Symphony in C Major, however, did not become as popular as Beethoven’s ninth, although it contains many amazing things (see the “Highlights” below).
4 Highlights from Schubert's Great C Major Symphony
Highlight 1: asymmetrical beginning
Symmetry and powers of two (i.e., phrases that are 2, 4, or 8 measures long) have long been a high commodity in classical music. Although there are examples of asymmetrical phrases even before Schubert (for example, in Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet), Schubert took asymmetry to the extreme with the opening theme of his Great C Major Symphony. The “large form” is preserved (the theme is 8 measures long), but the internal division is truly strange. Listen for yourself – how would you divide the theme that the horn plays at the very beginning? The echo effects (of different lengths) really don’t make this easy (a common division is 3(2+1)+3(2+1)+2):
Highlight 2: operatic end of the first movement
Schubert is known to have contributed to the emancipation of the trombones (this is particularly evident in his “Unfinished”). This is also clearly perceptible at the end of the first movement of the Great C Major Symphony. There is also a great final climax in which the asymmetrical introductory theme (see “Highlight 1”) is taken up again, and which is almost reminiscent of an operatic aria in its drama:
Highlight 3: a song without words
After the power of sound in the first movement, the melody takes center stage in the second movement – Schubert writes a song without words. Remarkable: the dance-like, but somehow “gloomy” rhythm that “nestles” under the melody:
Highlight 4: an opera finale?
I can’t help but think that the finale of Schubert’s Great Symphony in C major would also fit well in an opera house. Schubert prefaces the movement with two signals, and then it’s off to the brilliant final music:
3 Questions and Answers about Schubert's Great Symphony in C Major
Question 1: Where did Schubert write his Great C Major Symphony?
The Great C Major Symphony was probably written mainly in the Austrian spas of Gmunden and Bad Gastein.
Question 2: How did Schubert's Great C Major Symphony become successful after all?
Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony almost gathered dust in the archives of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. That would have been quite sad. But fortunately, Schubert’s brother Ferdinand succeeded in inspiring the composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy for the work. The latter performed it (like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion) in the Leipzig Gewandhaus to great acclaim, thus beginning the success story of the Great C Major Symphony.
Question 3: How many complete symphonies did Franz Schubert write?
Franz Schubert wrote seven complete symphonies. Another five symphonies remained unfinished (the most famous of which is the Symphony in B minor, nicknamed the “Unfinished”).
2 Recommended Recordings of Schubert's Great Symphony in C major
Recording 1: Konzerthausorchester Berlin, Joana Mallwitz (live, 2020)
Recording 2: NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Herbert Blomstedt (livestream, 2020)
Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony is also a specialty of conductor Herbert Blomstedt: