In his brief 31 years of life, Franz Schubert’s gargantuan output included operas, singspiel, cantatas, masses, requiem, part songs, choruses, lieder, symphonies, overtures, chamber music, and solo piano music. Depending on how you count, his works total between 1,000 and 1,500. Perhaps best known are his more than 600 lieder, whose lyricism, emotional range, and variety of subject matter together comprise an exemplary library of early romanticism. Yet Schubert’s music defies categorization as singularly “classical” or “romantic.” Much like the music of Beethoven – whom Schubert revered – it displays both a mastery of 18th-century compositional technique and a development of dramatic lyricism and harmonic invention that would pervade European music in the century to follow.
In addition to his completed compositions, Schubert left numerous unfinished ones, including singular movements planned for larger-scale works, un-orchestrated or partially orchestrated pieces, sketches, and fragments. Two complete movements of the “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8 in B minor are extant. A third movement scherzo also survives in a nearly complete piano score, with partial orchestration. Performers and musicologists such as Brian Newbould have sought out Schubert’s plans for a fourth movement, and reconstructions of a “complete” four-movement symphony are sometimes performed. Most often, however, orchestras will perform only the first two movements.
Schubert’s signature lyricism pervades both movements, and its range of emotional content is underscored by sudden harmonic contrasts. The first movement begins in twilight – dusky cellos and basses have the first melody, followed by a dark pairing of oboe and clarinet in b minor. The song of these two woodwinds reach towards a sunnier D major, but as soon as they arrive in that key they are interrupted by horns and bassoons, who in an instant throw us back into the darkness of b minor. This Sisyphus-esque pattern of reaching and falling continues until the gently theatrical intervention of the G major melody in the cellos. Their song is utterly care-free, weightless, and dancing. These contrasting sound worlds are set against each other throughout the movement, and while their key centers are reconciled according to 18th century conventions, the emotional discord still weighs upon the air after the final chords sound.
Such contrasts of color and feeling are also a point of tension between the first and second movements. The opening bars present a simple yet supremely elegant cadence, as a brief choral in the bassoons and horns accompanies a descending line in the cellos and basses, settling us calmly into the key of E Major. Yet the much brighter color of E Major is as sunshine upon the B minor of the first movement. Ironically, horns and bassoons are precisely the instruments that had prevented the oboe and clarinet from achieving brightness in the first movement. In the simplest of orchestrational choices, Schubert has turned instruments into characters and classical symphonic writing into romantic theater. What follows is a serene, pastoral, noble, and occasionally stormy scene that simply bursts with melody. One can only imagine how the story may have ended in the movements to come.