Franz Schubert

Symphony in B minor ("Unfinished")

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: Approx. 35 Minutes
Genre: Symphony (only two movements complete)
Time of Creation: 1822/possibly 1824
World Premiere: posthumously on December 17, 1865 (Vienna)

Table of Contents

Schubert's Unfinished Symphony in 5 Sentences

Only two complete movements of the Symphony in B minor by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert exist, which has earned the work the nickname “The Unfinished.” Franz Schubert, who was completely penniless, worked on this symphony several years before his death, the completion of which would presumably have improved his economic situation; it is still unclear why he did not finish the symphony. The symphony also has numerous “oddities” in its content: This concerns, for example, the key of B minor, which in the doctrine of keys always stands for the “otherworldly” and was completely unusual for a symphony at that time, as well as the striking similarity between the two completed movements (both are in the same time signature and at a similar tempo, instead of differing formally as usual). After its posthumous (and extremely acclaimed) premiere, thanks to Viennese court Kapellmeister and tireless Schubert scholar Johann von Herbeck, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony acted as a formative model for subsequent composers such as Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler, particularly with regard to the emancipation of the trombones.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Schubert's Unfinished Symphony

Highlight 1: Ominous beginning

I know of no other symphony that begins so somberly. Violoncellos and double basses play a unison line that recurs several times throughout the movement:

Highlight 2: Restless swaying

The movement continues just as somberly: the violins enter with restless movements, while the low strings transition into a plucked “thumping” (associations with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony? Who knows). And then – hovering above – the oboe and clarinet enter with a sweetish melody:

Highlight 3: Between Idyll and Shock

Then comes a side theme that seems totally innocent, almost folksong-like, which is followed by something quite unusual: the music simply stops. A completely unexpected general pause – that was Schubert’s specialty. After that, the entire orchestra plays loud chords, resulting in a shock effect that actually didn’t exist again until about 70 years later in Gustav Mahler’s symphonies:

Highlight 4: The warm 2nd movement

The 2nd movement should not be neglected here either. Above I have already indicated that there are astonishing similarities to the 1st movement. However, this does not concern the general mood. If the 1st movement was threatening and gloomy, the 2nd movement radiates warmth and happiness:

3 Questions and Answers about Schubert's Unfinished Symphony

Question 1: Was Schubert's Unfinished completed at some point?

There are countless completions of Schubert’s Unfinished by musicologists, conductors and many others. This began in 1928 with the completion by the English pianist Frank Merrick; new versions continue to be made to this day.

Question 2: On what occasion did Schubert write his Symphony in B minor?

This, too, has not been clarified to this day. For a long time it was assumed that Schubert wrote the Symphony in B minor for the Steiermärkischer Musikverein in Graz, which had appointed him an honorary member. A corresponding letter of thanks exists – but is probably a forgery.

Question 3: How was Schubert's Unfinished Symphony received at its premiere?

Schubert’s Unfinished was premiered posthumously with great success. For example, there is a review by the music critic Eduard Hanslick that speaks of “extraordinary enthusiasm” among the premiere audience.

2 Recommended Recordings of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony

Recording 1: Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (Live, 2014)

Schubert’s Unfinished requires many, many small-scale decisions from the conductor. This starts right at the beginning: do you want the opening of the low strings to be sonorous, menacing (and thus a bit brisker in tempo)? Or do you just let the basses “murmur”, as if you are not yet sure what will follow? Ivàn Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra chose the first solution:

Recording 2: hr Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach

Christoph Eschenbach does it quite differently: he takes the opening as a “motto” that shapes everything that follows. Accordingly, he takes the opening passage of the low strings entirely out of tempo and sets it clearly apart from the violins that come in later:

1 Quote about Schubert's Unfinished Symphony

Schubert's B minor Symphony, a faithful reflection of its creator's artistic individuality, has unfortunately remained a fragment. In its form, it resembles the outer course of the master's life, who was snatched away by death in the prime of his life, in the full power of his creative work. Schubert lived only half a lifetime, both as a man and as an artist. His life was just enough to write two symphonic movements that were complete in content and form. He is as complete in the symphony as he is in his songs, in which, of course, he achieved the highest.

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