Schubert / Symphony #9 (“The Great”) / Skrowaczewski

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

This Colorback Maroon Label RFR pressing (SR 90272) has wonderful orchestral sound, with both sides having Hot Stampers. Side two earned the full Two Pluses for its relatively rich strings, a quality one rarely hears on Mercury recordings from this era. The string texture is superb here, so critical to the enjoyment of a large scale romantic symphony such as this. 

  • A Superb Super Hot side two – rich strings on a Merc? Yes!
  • Nearly as good on side one – spacious and open, with a huge stage
  • Reasonably quiet vinyl for a vintage Mercury
  • One of the great symphonic works of the Romantic period

Side One

Pretty quiet vinyl! Side one is spacious and open, with a huge stage and practically no transient smear.

Like so many Mercury recordings, it’s a bit “shifted up” tonally, with the strings and brass lacking the weight one would hear in a live performance. A+ to A++ sonically, quite good.

Side Two

Even better, earning the full Two Pluses (A++). It’s relaxed and musical, with excellent string texture. The sound on this side is richer so we kicked up the grade a bit. An excellent Merc!

Numbering Issues

There continues to be some controversy over the numbering of this symphony, with German-speaking scholars sometimes numbering it as symphony No. 7, the most recent version of the Deutsch catalog (the standard catalogue of Schubert’s works, compiled by Otto Erich Deutsch) listing it as No. 8, and English-speaking scholars often listing it as No. 9. – Wikipedia

Schubert’s Style

Melody: The one element of Schubert’s style which is totally, completely distinctive and unique, is his gift for spontaneous, lyrical, charming melodic invention. His melodies include some of the most famous in all Western music, and often express tremendous joy, but can also convey dark mood swings and deep despair.

Harmony: In terms of harmonic originality, Schubert is equal, maybe even superior, to Beethoven. He often explores wildly unusual key relationships, and has a penchant for modulations into distant harmonic territory.

Form: Schubert stretched Classical sonata form to its absolute limits. His expositions usually feature a bewildering array of thematic material, presented in highly imaginative key relationships. Many works, particularly the String Quintet and the last piano sonata, anticipate Bruckner in their luxurious spaciousness of form. – ThinkQuest Entry

Wikipedia Background on The Symphony No. 9

The Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944, known as the Great (published in 1840 as “Symphony No. 7 in C Major”, is the final symphony completed by Franz Schubert. Originally called The Great C major to distinguish it from his Symphony No. 6, the Little C major, the subtitle is now usually taken as a reference to the symphony’s majesty. A typical performance takes around 55 minutes, though it can be played in 45 at a faster tempo.

Often considered Schubert’s finest piece for orchestra, this symphony is also one of the composer’s most innovative pieces. Thematic development in the style of Beethoven is still present in the work, but Schubert puts far more emphasis on melody, which one might expect from the composer of some six hundred lieder. In fact, this new style prompted Schumann to pursue his own symphonic ambitions.

The symphony is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A and C, 2 bassoons, 2 horns in C, 2 trumpets in A and C, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

For a long time, the symphony was believed to be a work of Schubert’s last year, 1828. It was true that, in the last months of his life, he did start drafting a symphony – but this was the work in D major now accepted as Symphony No. 10, which has been realized for performance by Brian Newbould. In fact, we now know that the ‘Great’ was largely composed in sketch in the summer of 1825: that, indeed it was the work to which Schubert was referring in a letter of March 1824 when he said he was preparing himself to write ‘a grand symphony’.

By the spring or summer of 1826 it was completely scored, and in October, Schubert, who was quite unable to pay for a performance, sent it to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde with a dedication. In response they made him a small payment, arranged for the copying of the orchestral parts, and at some point in the latter half of 1827 gave the work an unofficial play-through (the exact date and the conductor are unknown) – though it was considered too long and difficult for the amateur orchestra of the conservatory.

A recent hypothesis suggests that the symphony may have received its first performance on 12 March 1829 in a Concert spirituel at the Landständischer Saal in Vienna. The evidence for this hypothesis is slender, however, and it contradicts contemporary sources which prove that Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 (also in C major) was performed at this instance. In 1836 Schubert’s brother Ferdinand attempted to perform the final movement alone, yet there is no proof that it was actually played in public.

In 1838, ten years after Schubert’s death, Robert Schumann visited Vienna and was shown the manuscript of the symphony at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde by Ferdinand Schubert. He took a copy that Ferdinand had given him back to Leipzig, where the entire work was performed publicly for the first time by Felix Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 21 March 1839. Schumann celebrated the event in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik with an ecstatic article in which, in a phrase destined to become famous, he hailed the symphony for its ‘heavenly length’. Legend claims that, during a rehearsal of the first movement, one musician was reported as asking another if he had managed to hear a tune yet. On the other hand, having heard its first performance, Schumann is reported to have said he thought it the greatest instrumental work since the death of Beethoven.

Beethoven had always used the trombone as an effect, and therefore very sparingly, or, in the case of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, also to double the alto, tenor, and bass parts of the chorus as was common in sacred music and opera at the time. However, in both Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and the Ninth Symphony, trombones are liberated from these roles and have far more substantial parts.

Numbering

There continues to be some controversy over the numbering of this symphony, with German-speaking scholars sometimes numbering it as symphony No. 7, the most recent version of the Deutsch catalog (the standard catalogue of Schubert’s works, compiled by Otto Erich Deutsch) listing it as No. 8, and English-speaking scholars often listing it as No. 9.

AMG

Franz Peter Schubert was among the first of the Romantics, and the composer who, more than any other, brought the art song (lieder) to artistic maturity. During his short but prolific career, he produced masterpieces in nearly every genre, all characterized by rich harmonies, an expansive treatment of classical forms, and a seemingly endless gift for melody.

Schubert began his earliest musical training studying with his father and brothers. Having passed an audition, Schubert enrolled at the Convict school that trained young vocalists to eventually sing at the chapel of The Imperial Court. Schubert began to explore composition and wrote a song that came to the attention of the institution’s director, Antonio Salieri, who along with the school’s professor of harmony, hailed young Schubert as a genius. In 1813, after Schubert’s voice broke, he returned to live with his father, who directed him to follow in his footsteps and become a schoolteacher. Schubert begrudgingly complied and worked miserably in that capacity by day, while composing prolifically by night.

He had written more than 100 songs as well as numerous symphonic, operatic, and chamber music scores, before he reached the age of 20. Schubert finally left his teaching position to dedicate himself completely to musical pursuits. During the summer of 1818, the young composer worked as a private music teacher to the aristocratic Esterházy family. When he left that post in the fall, Schubert lived a somewhat bohemian lifestyle, composing and spending time with a group of friends that acted as his personal support system.

In 1820, Schubert was commissioned by two opera houses, the Karthnerthor Theatre and Theatre-an-der-Wein, to compose a pair of operas. He wrote Zwillingsbruden, and Zauberharfe, both of which were unenthusiastically received. Schubert failed to secure a contract with a publisher, as none were willing to take a chance on a relatively unknown composer who wrote (harmonically) untraditional music. Schubert, along with the support of his artistic friends, published his own work for a collection of roughly 100 subscribers. These efforts, however, were financially unrewarding, and Schubert struggled to sustain himself. His work garnered little attention and contemporary composers dismissed his music as presumptuous and immature.

In 1823, Schubert was elected to the Musikverein of Graz, as an honorary member. Though this brought no financial reward and was an inconsequential appointment, Schubert relished its slight recognition, and to show his gratitude, composed his famous Unfinished Symphony. Five years later, Schubert’s music was featured at a concert at Vienna’s Musikverein. His work was received quite enthusiastically, and to much critical acclaim. This marked the only time during the composer’s life that he enjoyed such success. This seemed to provide Schubert with a renewed sense of optimism, and despite illness, the composer continued to produce at an incredible rate. He began to organize a scheme to increase his artistic popularity, by continuing to evaluate his work and progress as a musician, perhaps even planning to study harmony privately. Schubert’s health did not improve, and he soon found himself at death’s door.

During the composer’s last moments, he instructed his brother Ferdinand to ensure that he would be buried alongside Ludwig van Beethoven’s grave. Schubert revered the legendary composer, and was grateful to him, as Beethoven had praised his work after hearing a selection of songs. Schubert also highly regarded the work of both Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Franz Schubert died of syphilis.

Despite his short life, Schubert produced a wealth of symphonies, operas, masses, chamber music pieces, and piano sonatas, most of which are considered standard repertoire. He is known primarily for composing hundreds of songs including Gretchen am Spinnrade, and Erlkonig. He pioneered the song cycle with such works as Die Schöne Müllerin, and Die Winterreise, and greatly affected the vocal writing of both Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler.

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