In his youth, Schubert easily wrote six symphonies after the manner of Haydn and Mozart, the last of them in 1817. They are not considered among his major works. When he decided to write symphonies in the manner of Beethoven, though, he ran into trouble. During the remaining eleven years of his life, he began several symphonies, but only completed one of them. It was not performed in his lifetime.
He sketched two movements of a symphony in D major (D. 615) in 1818, began another symphony in D major (D. 708a) some time after 1820, sketched a symphony in E major in full score (D. 729) in 1821, completed two movements of a symphony in B minor and started a third (D. 759), and started yet another symphony in D major in 1825. After that, he didn’t attempt another symphony until 1828, when he composed his last completed symphony, in C major (D. 944). The E major and B minor symphonies have caused a great deal of confusion in the numbering of Schubert’s symphonies.
It is the B minor symphony that later became famous as the Unfinished. Even though he left orchestral sketches for all movements of the E major symphony, they are in such fragmentary form that it would be impossible to perform them, or even for anyone to write music to finish it. The B minor, on the other hand, exists in full score. Schubert obviously put a lot of time and thought into it before abandoning the project.
Composition and abandonment of the Unfinished Symphony
Any account of how and why Schubert composed the Unfinished Symphony must remain somewhat conjectural. Neither he nor anyone else wrote any comments about it. It appears likely, though, that he composed it for the Styrian Society of Graz. During the autumn of 1822, quite a lot of Schubert’s music was performed in Graz to enthusiastic audiences. The Styrian Society awarded him a diploma in April 1823, and he wrote a letter of thanks in September of that year promising them a new symphony in full score.
The score of the Unfinished Symphony is dated October 1822. At first glance that would make it unlikely that he intended to present it to the Syrian Society, but on the other hand, the formal proposal to admit Schubert to the society is dated four days later than the diploma he received. It seems likely that he began the work at the time his music was gaining acceptance in Graz, and that his friends started negotiating his membership with the society at about the same time.
In any case, Schubert’s instrumental music of the time flowed from two different enthusiasms: for cyclical music (that is, multi-movement works in which the different movements share thematic material), and Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, by the way, is cyclical, as a theme from the scherzo reappears in the finale.
It is well documented that when friends pointed out the similarities between the accompaniment to Schubert’s song “Die Forelle” and Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, they could barely restrain him from destroying it. He was willing and eager to use Beethoven’s music as a model, but not at all willing to risk accusations of plagiarism.
Many similarities exist between the slow movements of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Second Symphony, but not enough to cause Schubert any concern. The opening theme of Schubert’s scherzo is almost identical to the one Beethoven’s symphony. It appears that Schubert could not think of a way of constructing a scherzo theme sufficiently different from Beethoven’s without wrecking the preparations he had made for it in the first two movements. If he intended to give it a rest for a few years and come back to it, he didn’t live long enough.
Resurrection and first performance of the Unfinished Symphony
Schubert had a very close relationship with two brothers, Anselm and Josef Hüttenbrenner. Along with other Schubert manuscripts, they somehow came to possess the score of the Unfinished Symphony. The first written reference to the symphony occurred in 1842. Josef was apparently helping Aloys Fuchs compile a catalog of Schubert’s works. Anselm, who had the manuscript, wrote to tell his brother the date written on the manuscript. In 1853, Alselm arranged the two movements for piano four-hands.
In 1865, Viennese conductor Johann Herbeck borrowed the score from Anselm Hüttenbrenner, promising to perform one of his own compositions along with the Schubert. On December 17, he performed the two works as promised, adding the last movement of Schubert’s Third Symphony in the first of many attempts to finish the work. Afterward, instead of returning the score, he sent it to a publisher. The manuscript eventually made its way to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.
Critic Eduard Hanslick finished his review of that concert saying,
The beauty of sonority in both movements is bewitching. With a few horn passages, here and there a short clarinet or oboe solo on the simplest, most natural orchestral base, Schubert gains effects of sonority that no craftiness of Wagnerian instrumentation achieves. We number the newly found symphonic fragment of Schubert among his most beautiful instrumental works, and do so the more cheerfully since on more than one occasion we have allowed ourselves a word of warning against an overly zealous Schubert idolatry.
From the day of its premiere to the present, the Unfinished Symphony remains the most beloved of all of Schubert’s orchestral works. It takes is place among the most frequently performed and frequently recorded works in the entire orchestral repertoire.
Photo credit: Detail from a watercolor portrait (1825) by Wilhelm August Rieder. Public domain.