Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Franz Schubert: An Unfinished Symphony; An Unfinished Life

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) in 1824
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) in 1824

We mark October 30, 1822 – 201 years ago today – as being the day on which Franz Schubert began what is now known as his Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the “Unfinished Symphony.”  Lost just months after Schubert completed the two movements that make up the “Unfinished,” the symphony was heard for the first time in 1865, 43 years after its composition and 37 years after Schubert’s death.  

A Fable Agreed Upon

One of the many clever statements (or in this case, a question) credited to Napoleon Bonaparte is:

“What is history but a fable agreed upon?”

A good question for a despot who was intent on creating his own version of history.

Beethoven portrait in oils (detail) by Joseph Carl Stieler, 1820
Beethoven (1770-1827), portrait in oils (detail) by Joseph Carl Stieler, 1820

However, it is a question that applies as well to our contemporary view of Ludwig van Beethoven, and how we have come to believe his music was perceived in his own time.  Today, Beethoven’s mature symphonies (nos. 3 through 9) are rightly perceived as representing his own, personal struggles and revolutionary times.  Our mistake – the “fable agreed upon” – occurs when we assume that Beethoven’s contemporaries believed the same thing about his mature symphonies.  

They did not.  

For Beethoven’s symphonic contemporaries, the first two decades of the nineteenth century were about the discovery and study of Haydn’s and Mozart’s late symphonies.  The musical style of such well-known, even famous (at the time) symphonic composers as Carl Friedrich Zelter, Jean-Paul Richter, Carl Maria von Weber, Ludwig Spohr, Adalbert Gyrowetz, Ferdinand Ries, Andrea Romberg, and Peter Winter was firmly based on the classical models of Haydn and Mozart.  According to musicologist Nicholas Temperley, these composers and others like them:

“reached a [classical] musical ideal to which Beethoven’s mature art seemed an intrusive irrelevance.” 

Posterity has been unkind to the symphonies of the aforementioned composers, symphonies that in their time were performed much more frequently than Beethoven’s.  It was only once that Beethoven’s symphonies came to be understood and appreciated for the masterworks that they are – and that process took a generation – that those of his more conservative, more classically oriented contemporaries were relegated to almost total obscurity.  Today, they are the stuff of Ph.D. dissertations and scholarly papers, the surest indicators of utter irrelevance.  

With one exception: the symphonies of Franz Schubert.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Franz Peter Schubert was born in Vienna on January 31, 1797.  It was in Vienna that he died, on November 19, 1828, aged 31 years, 9 months, and 20 days.  

Franz was one of four surviving Schubert children.  Our Franz was the beloved “pet” of the family; from every account that has come down to us he was a small, plump, and endearingly sweet child.  His growth-spurt hardly kicked in; the fully-grown Schubert was 1.57 meters in height (about 5’1”) and as his portraits attest, he never lost his cherubic appearance.  …

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