In his Essays and Lectures on Music in 1927, Donald Tovey made this extraordinary observation. He had unearthed an English Dictionary of Music published in 1827, in which Beethoven, who had died that year, was heralded as the greatest composer who had ever lived – and Franz Schubert, his natural successor, and who was to die just a year later, gets not so much as a single mention, despite five other Schuberts being listed!
With the benefit of hindsight, this may not be all that surprising, since it was only several years after his death that the true extent of his output was discovered. It was vast: over 600 songs alone, amongst symphonies, operas, chamber, piano and choral music. And all by the age of just 31.
You do not have to be a discerning reader of these modest posts to know that Schubert is by far my favourite composer, for one simple reason: melody. Melody is at the heart of everything he wrote. We could all name composers and current musicians in every field who have come up with good tunes, maybe even several or many – but not as many as Schubert. Whether happy or sad, melody is the central characteristic of all his compositions; and many are the times I have caught myself just laughing at the sheer audacity of how simple that melody can be. Schubert was an unassuming, modest man, the son of a schoolteacher, in whose footsteps he followed, as did the other surviving three of his thirteen siblings. He never married, and was by all accounts something of a loner; but maybe his impecunious life and background is what gives soul to his music.
There is something about this man’s music that makes you want to sing out loud. I have written previously about his Impromptus and many of you will be familiar with some of his more overplayed works, such as the Unfinished symphony or The Trout quintet, but I have also alluded to his Great C Major symphony as being my all time favourite symphony by anyone, so that is what I want to share with you today.
By the standards of the day, it was a marathon work: although having the standard four movements, a performance will take a minimum of 45 minutes, and can last up to an hour with the repeats. Players are frequently exhausted after its performance, especially when played with the energy in this recording of its final movement. The conductor George Szell (1897-1970) was born in Hungary, but was Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra in the US for nearly 25 years. He was a hard task-master, and it comes through here: the drive is relentless, almost breathless.
Schubert never lived to hear this. It was Robert Schumann who discovered it and persuaded Mendelssohn to conduct its first performance in 1839. We are told that the strings fell about laughing when rehearsing it, but the reality is that they were anything but amused: first, they found it fiendishly difficult to play; secondly, it is clear they took great issue (especially in this movement) at having to play what they considered to be a supporting role (you might almost say ‘second fiddle’) to the woodwind and brass. Listen out at about 1:30 and you will see what I mean, but it’s far from demeaning – it’s actually quite modern and delightful.
One last thought. There is much debate about repeats. But the instinct of anyone with half an ear for a good tune who listens to Schubert for the first time will surely be “play that again!” And he doesn’t disappoint: there probably aren’t more than a handful of different melodies in the whole symphony, but they are repeated subtly, leaving you begging for more. Schumann wrote of its ‘heavenly length’. Unlike any number of works of similar scale, I am always disappointed when it’s finished – and this recording by the Cleveland frequently leaves me reaching for the replay key.
Schubert was in some agony with fatal syphilis when he wrote this, but you wouldn’t even suspect it.