Wednesday, May 12, 2010

KSO Programme notes 10/05/2010: Schubert & Bruckner

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D.759 (Unfinished)

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante con moto

There are in fact five fragmentary symphonies by Schubert, but only one that proudly proclaims its incompleteness. What marks this Unfinished Symphony out from the others is that two of its movements exist in a performable state. The other unfinished symphonies (and the third movement of this one) exist only as fragments and sketches.

The torso was not performed until 1865, over 40 years after its semi-composition. Schubert gave the manuscript of the two completed movements and the beginnings of a third to a friend shortly before his death, and the symphony did not come to light again until the early 1860s. By then the myth of Schubert the neglected genius, fuelled by Robert Schumann's advocacy from the 1830s onwards, was fully established. The much delayed première added to this myth. The “Unfinished” Symphony seemed a reflection of Schubert's fate: Poor Schubert, the untutored genius who produced music as naturally and effortlessly as a bird, doomed to neglect and a young death before he was able to complete his destiny.

Schubert's position in Vienna was not so much that of a neglected composer as an undiscovered one. He was well known as a composer of songs and dance music and had a number of works published. The music for which he is best remembered now was largely unpublished and unperformed during his lifetime not because of a lack of interest, but because he was a young composer at the start of his career who was still hustling for a position in the Viennese artistic scene. Had he lived into the 1830s he would have benefited hugely from the support of both Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. It is worth remembering that had Beethoven died at the same age as Schubert he would be remembered as a far less significant composer, if at all.

Austria in the early nineteenth century was in many ways at the forefront of European civilisation. Steam boats and hot air balloons were two modern transports that could be experienced in Vienna as early as 1820. Yet there were as yet no sewers and disease was rife. The deathrate in Veinna had declined in the early 19th century but rose again sharply in the 1820s and 30s. Schubert's frequent concern with death in his work was not simply a personal obsession but a reflection of the conditions around him. To us 31 is a shockingly early age to die. To Schubert's contemporaries it was not.

On top of this, the society he lived in was a restricted one. Social occasions such as dances and the soirées where Schubert's songs and chamber music were heard were the closest it was possible to come to personal expression. As the art form least easily interpreted as political, music flourished as a form of covert communication of the hopes and desires of the Viennese. Fantasy, whether in the form of Schubert's “Fantasias” or less salubrious forms of entertainment, was the order of the day. This reflected not only the need for diversion but the desire to be freed from the shackles that bound society.

Schubert was such a prolific composer that it is hard to imagine that he could have suffered writer's block. However, the early 1820s appears to be such a period. This slackening of productivity came between his first great public success, the première of his setting of Goethe's poem Der Erlkönig, and his final illness. It seems that Schubert knew that he had to produce something extraordinary to achieve his ambition of recognition as an equal of Beethoven, but was unable to achieve this until the point at which he realised that time was running out. His earlier successes had been music for domestic, amateur performance. The next step was to produce large-scale instrumental music for public performance. This was no mean feat to achieve. Professional music making was an idea still in its infancy. There were no professional orchestras outside theatres, and no purpose built concert hall in Vienna until the 1830s. The fact that, unlike Beethoven, Schubert was not a virtuoso performer made gaining wider recognition still harder. When he finally organised a public concert of his own music less than a year before his death, it was overshadowed by Paganini's first appearance in Vienna three days later.

This symphony is therefore only one of many incomplete works from this period of Schubert's life. Why he failed to complete it is open to speculation. It seems likely that his poor health was a factor. He spent the latter months of the year in a sanatorium being treated for syphilis, the infection that would eventually kill him in 1828. It may also simply be that without an immediate prospect of performance there was no reason to continue work on it. He may have been stumped as to how to continue. This was after all a radical leap from his earlier symphonies. The fact that between May 1818 and August 1821 he had begun and abandoned 10 symphonic movements suggests a certain insecurity about this new direction. He would eventually bring his ambitions to fulfilment with the “Great” C major Symphony a few years later, but the “unfinished” represents a real breakthrough. Its two completed movements display an astonishingly original conception of what symphonic music can be, quite different to the Beethovenian model that was the norm at the time. In many ways its expansive paragraphs and obsessive repetitions and reiterations anticipate the symphonies of another composer who would find fame in Vienna: Anton Bruckner.


Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No.9 in D Minor (Unfinished)

1. Feierlich, misterioso (Solemn, mysterious)
2. Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft (With movement, lively)
3. Adagio: Langsam, feierlich (Slow, solemn)

Few composers have been quite so divisive and quite so misunderstood as Bruckner. To his contemporaries he was either a simpleton or an astoundingly gifted improviser, a creator of revolutionary, futuristic music or of symphonic monstrosities comically in thrall to the cult of Wagner. After his death his music was co-opted by reactionary forces in Austrian politics as a symbol of a lost Germanic Utopia, a trend that would lead eventually to the linking of Bruckner, along with his idol Wagner, to the Nazis. The published versions of his symphonies were denounced as the distortion by Liberal Jews of the master's true, and new, “untainted” editions revealed the “pure” Bruckner. Bruckner has never fully recovered from this association, which partly explains why his music remains contentious over a century after his death. Since the war a new Bruckner has emerged: the attempt by pre-war scholars to create definitive versions of the symphonies has been replaced by a new idea, that the multiple versions of certain works constitute valid alternative realisations of the same musical ideas. Thus Bruckner comes to foreshadow contemporary ideas of the artwork that is never complete but in constant flux, epitomised by Pierre Boulez's ever-evolving “Works in Progress”. To some Bruckner is a mystic, channelling profound spiritual messages; to others he is an incontinent (and possibly incompetent) bore. The music meanwhile remains, evading any easy explanation.

He cut a strange figure in late nineteenth century Vienna. He spoke with a thick upper-Austrian accent and dialect, which made him seem like a county bumpkin to Viennese sophisticates. So numerous are the stories about his eccentric behaviour and strange obsessions that it is difficult to establish which if any of them are true. The manias that gripped him, his obsession with counting and his compulsive reworking of his earlier music have been cited as evidence of mental illness (he had some kind of mental breakdown in 1867), or of an overwhelming sense of his own inadequacy as a composer. It is quite possible that today he would be diagnosed with some form of Asperger's Syndrome. Moreover his devout Catholicism was suspicious to some in a country where tensions between Catholics and Protestants often ran high. Anti-Catholic sentiments certainly contributed to some of the opposition to his music, and the stoking of the idea of a rivalry between him and the other prominent composer of symphonies of the time, Johannes Brahms.

Bruckner was conscious of the example of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and in some respects his own is modelled on it. It was intended to be a summation of his compositional life, and this sense of a final confession is heightened by its dedication to “beloved God.” He began work on it in 1887, but progress was slow. He had sent the score of his recently completed Eighth Symphony to a sympathetic conductor, Hermann Levi, who had performed his Seventh Symphony to great success. Levi rejected the Eigth, and a devastated Bruckner embarked on a wholesale reworking of it. He also revised his first four symphonies (some of them several times). The result of this was that by 1894 only the first three movements of the new symphony were ready. His last years were marked by a sharp decline in health, but he continued to work on the finale. In any event, the surviving sketches suggest that he was very close to completing the composition of the movement. The next stage would be to flesh out the structure with details of counterpoint and orchestration. It is ironic that death prevented Bruckner from completing his final declaration of faith in the promise of resurrection and the life to come.

The opening has an elemental force, as though we are witnessing Creation itself. Having brought a world into existence though, Bruckner proceeds by the end of the movement to bring it crashing down again, as though to demonstrate that all human endeavour must come to dust.
There then follows one of the most extraordinary, bizarre movements that Bruckner ever wrote. It is filled with ambiguous harmonies and unsettling switches of mood, containing extremes of violence and fleeting, spectral shadows.

The slow movement's second principle theme is a quotation of the “Miserere” from Bruckner's own Mass in D minor of 1864. This provides a clue to its character: it is as thought the composer here falls to the ground and prays for mercy as he faces death. Allusions to the slow movements of the seventh and eighth symphonies, which both have explicit death-related themes, also suggest that this is intended as a final confession and plea for God's grace. Bruckner himself described it as his “farewell to life.” And then...


“Art is never finished, only abandoned” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Nobody worries very much about the fact that the Venus de Milo has no arms. As we all have a mental image of what a whole body looks like, the absence of appendages on the statue matters little. We may not know the precise details of her original posture, but the mind can fill in the gap satisfactorily from what the eye sees.

Incomplete symphonies pose a different problem. Music exists only in performance, so if a composer leaves behind only sketches for a composition (as with Schubert’s four other unfinished symphonies) it cannot be directly experienced without the intervention of another hand to elaborate or complete what is there.

We do not know how Schubert's symphony might have ended. Bruckner on the other hand left substantial sketches for a finale. Unfortunately many of the pages were stolen in the wake of his death by devotees seeking mementos. It seems likely that Bruckner had completed the structure in his head, if not on paper: his doctor reported that he had heard Bruckner play the finale through on the piano. Performing versions have been constructed from the surviving sketches which give a glimpse of what Bruckner had in mind, although this can only be a provisional impression of an emerging work. He planned nothing less than a summation of all music, climaxing with the combining of themes from all four movements and concluding with a “song of praise to the Dear Lord.” In the event of his dying before he completed the movement he suggested that his setting of the Te Deum might function as a substitute finale. This is rarely observed in performance, but the idea of a Te Deum gives us a clue as to the nature of what Bruckner intended as his conclusion, possibly more than emotionally: the surviving sketches show that he intended to use motifs from that work.

Unlike an arm, a missing movement is unique. Any generic principle we may have in our head about how the last movement of a symphony proceeds is of little help in understanding what the finished work might be like. The argument has been made for both these works that they are somehow complete in themselves, but this is wishful thinking. Certainly neither Schubert nor Bruckner would have considered their fragment to be finished work. Attempts to complete both symphonies have been made. The elaboration of an incomplete work is something that is only sporadically accepted. Bruckner's finale is controversial, yet the completions of Mozart's Requiem or Elgar's Third Symphony enjoy wider acceptance.

The German term for works such as these, Unvollendete [“Unperfected”], carries a greater charge than the more pragmatic English term “Unfinished.” It implies a distinction between a finished (i.e. performable) work and an ideal, which is unrealisable except by the composer himself. Perhaps the best way to consider all this is as an unintended extension of the idea of Bruckner's numerous revisions as separate, equally valid realisations of the same symphony: So the Ninth may conclude with a choral song of praise; or with an elaboration of the sketches for the finale, as a completed, albeit Unvollendete structure; or with a silence to be filled by our imagination.