Background music

7th March 2003 at 00:00

It only has two movements, and the second dies in such a questioning manner that we automatically expect the answer to come in a vigorous finale - but our labelling of Franz Schubert's majestic eighth symphony still represents a liberty. Indeed, Alfred Einstein said as much, when he referred to it as "that incomparable song of sorrow we wrong every time we call it 'unfinished'".

On the other hand, history invited this description. Schubert wrote it in 1822 without a commission and without a performance in mind; as Brian Newbould says in Schubert: The Music and the Man (Gollancz pound;14.99), it owed its existence simply to his "lifelong inner compulsion to write symphonies". It was radically new in form and content - nothing he'd previously written gave any intimation of its stunning contrasts or its Olympian tone - and like most of Schubert's output it remained unperformed when he died. Indeed, it had to wait almost 40 years for its premiere in 1865, but that finally put Schubert on the international map.

One school of thought holds that Schubert did write a finale for it, but turned it instead into an entr'acte for his ballet suite Rosamunde: sometimes that entr'acte is now added to the symphony. But Newbould offers several possible explanations for its "incompleteness". First, Schubert may simply have meant to return to it, but was prevented by a variety of pressures, including demands for other genres, and also debilitation caused by syphilis. He may, alternatively, have hit a creative block. Or he may have decided that, since musical Vienna in the 1820s did not rate symphonies as high as song cycles, it wasn't worth the bother.

At all events, the shock he created by cutting off the second theme of the first movement - and leaving time frozen in silence - remains shocking even today, provided it's played with the appropriate conviction: listen to Carlos Kleiber's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1979 (Deutsche Grammophon 415 601-2).

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