On December 17, 1865 – 153 years ago today – the two complete movements that make up Franz Schubert’s so-called “Unfinished Symphony” received their premiere in Vienna, in a performance conducted by Johann von Herbeck (1831-1877). Schubert had completed those two movements in 1822, 43 years prior to that premiere performance. At the time of the premiere, Schubert had been dead for 37 years.
Buried treasure. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “buried treasure” my mind – conditioned by having read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as a kid – immediately conjures images up a huge chest filled with gold and silver coins and jewels: specie and precious stones, hard stuff of value.
But there are soft treasures – meaning stuff made out of paper – that are of equal or even greater value than the hard stuff. Should you find a complete copy of a Gutenberg Bible in your Aunt Edith’s library, you’re looking at a value of between 25-35 million USD; that complete Shakespeare First Folio you found at the bottom of a box at a garage sale is valued at between 8 and 12 million dollars; that 1909 Honus Wagner Sweet Caporal T206 Series baseball card in PSA 5 condition you found stuck between the pages of an old Farmer’s Almanac will fetch around $2.8 million; those 100 shares of Berkshire-Hathaway secreted away in grandpa’s sock-drawer are currently worth – at $310,340 per share – a cool $31 million.
Let us add to this list of buried-and-later-discovered paper treasures the hand-written manuscripts of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”; his Symphony in C Major, nicknamed “The Great”; and the incidental music from Rosamunde. The value of these and other forgotten and then later discovered Schubertian manuscripts? Priceless.
No small bit of the blame for the posthumous obscurity of Schubert’s music lies with Schubert himself.
The man was a compose-aholic; he was entirely devoted to actual act of composition: a music-writing machine. According to the musicologist Donald Grout:
“Without wide public recognition, sustained only by the love of friends and family, Schubert composed ceaselessly.”
According to his friend, the composer and conductor, Ferdinand Hiller:
“It was clear that he really did nothing but music – and lived by the way [incidentally], as it were.”
According to Schubert himself:
“I work every morning. When I have finished one piece I begin another.”
And another and another and another. But as brilliant as was Schubert the composer, so incompetent was Schubert the businessperson. He was shockingly inept when dealing with publishers and concert producers, which precluded much (if not most!) of his work from being published and/or performed. For Schubert, composing the next piece was much more important than having the last one performed or published. So his music – especially his larger works – languished in obscurity for years after his death.
The “Unfinished Symphony”
Schubert began composing a Symphony in the key of B Minor on October 30, 1822. Having completed its first two movements he began the third movement Scherzo. He sketched the opening 128 measures, orchestrated the first 20 measures, and then – sometime in late November or early December of 1822 – just stopped and left the symphony “unfinished”, never to be completed.
The answer was Schubert health.
Sometime in the late summer of 1822 – a couple of months before beginning his ultimately unfinished symphony in B Minor – the 25 year-old Schubert contracted syphilis. The first symptoms of the disease manifested themselves in the late fall of 1822 and became pronounced by January of 1823. Well, no wonder Schubert stopped working on his B Minor Symphony: he was 25 years old, he discovered he had syphilis, and he knew it was a likely death sentence. The B Minor Symphony represented “before”: a time of his life that ended abruptly with his diagnosis. (And let us make no mistake about it: in those days, syphilis was 99% of the time a fatal diagnosis. The question wasn’t “will” the disease kill but when.)
The two movements that today represent Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” were discovered in 1865 in the Austrian city of Graz. Back in 1823, Schubert had given the manuscripts to his friend Josef Hüttenbrenner to deliver to the Styrian Musical Society in Graz. Hüttenbrenner, a real Schubert groupie, had no intention of turning such a treasure over to the Society, so – without Schubert’s knowledge – he kept the scores.
At some point, Joseph Hüttenbrenner turned the handwritten manuscripts over to his brother Anselm for safekeeping. (And thank God he did. In 1848, Josef Hüttenbrenner’s maid used Schubert’s manuscript of the second and third acts of his opera Claudine von Villa Bella as kindling. It was the only extant copy of the opera, and the second and third acts were lost forever up Josef Hüttenbrenner’s chimney in Graz.)
So it was that in 1865, in a chest of drawers in Anselm Hüttenbrenner’s house, the manuscript for the first two movements of a symphony in the key of B minor was found and liberated by the Viennese conductor Johann von Herbeck. Herbeck premiered the “Symphony” (or “symphonic torso”, as it were) in Vienna on a concert sponsored by the “Society for the Friends of Music” on December 17, 1865, as we have noted, 37 years after Schubert’s death.
Johann von Herbeck’s discovery of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” was not the first such symphonic rescue to have taken place.
On October 3, 1838, the 28 year-old composer, pianist, and music journalist Robert Schumann arrived in Vienna, there to explore a possible relocation to that storied city. And while Schumann decided – after a number of disappointments – not to relocate to Vienna, no one could say that his trip had been a bust. That’s because while in Vienna, Schumann connected with Ferdinand Schubert, Franz’ beloved older brother (it was in Ferdinand’s flat that Franz had died on November 19, 1828).
During a visit to Ferdinand Schubert on January 6, 1839, Schumann was shown –Schumann discovered – a buried treasure: a trove of virtually unknown musical manuscripts by Schubert, which included, according to Schumann:
“Operas, four grand Masses, four or five symphonies, and much else.”
Among the unknown works was a Symphony in C Major, now known as Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, “the Great”. Schumann read the manuscript score at a piano and was completely blown away by it. He immediately contacted his friend Felix Mendelssohn, conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, told him about the symphony and arranged for it’s premiere – which took place under Mendelssohn’s baton at Leipzig’s Gewandhaus on March 21, 1839 – and its publication. To top it off, Schumann wrote a long and glowing article about the Symphony in his highly respected journal the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik. It is not an overstatement to assert that we owe the survival of Schubert’s C Major Symphony – one of the great mainstays of the symphonic repertoire – to Robert Schumann.
As the nineteenth century progressed, the search for “lost” Schubert works intensified. One such “Schubert treasure hunter” was the conductor George Grove, who had presented the first English performance of Schubert’s Symphony in C Major, “the Great”, after its discovery by Schumann in 1838. Inspired by Schumann’s discovery, Grove (who is most famous today for having created the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians) and his partner-in-musical-sleuthing Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) went to Vienna in 1867 in search of “lost” Schubert manuscripts. Incredibly, they struck gold as well, finding several symphonies and reams of smaller works. But their biggest discovery was their final one. Grove described it this way:
“I found, at the bottom of the cupboard, and in its farthest corner, a bundle of music-books two feet high, carefully tied round, and black with the undisturbed dust of nearly half-a-century. These were the part-books of the whole of the [incidental] music in Rosamunde, tied up after the second performance in December 1823, and probably never disturbed since. Dr. Schneider [Schubert’s nephew] must have been amused at our excitement; at any rate, he kindly overlooked it, and gave us permission to take away with us and copy what we wanted.”
Whoa. Honus Wagner baseball cards be darned, that’s what I call finding buried treasure!
For lots more on Schubert and his “Unfinished Symphony”, I would direct your attention to my Great Courses survey, The Symphony.