1816: Schubert: Symphony No. 4 (TRAGIC) in C minor

SATURDAY, November 7, 2020 – 11:10 PM

( A couple weeks ago I found out Andrés Orozco-Estrada has recorded all of the Beethoven symphonies, but then I found out that he has recorded all of Schubert’s. I don’t know all of these Schubert symphonies. I have not even listened to all of them, and I don’t even know why. It could be that they are hard to find in anything like a complete collection, and the sound or the performances have not pleased me. But these do, so it’s another journey I’m on.)

First, my impression – we don’t hear these symphonies enough, and because they were neglected so long they don’t get the attention or respect they should even now, in 2020, and this young conductor seems to be working hard to change that. He has recorded every one of Schubert’s symphonies, and each recording is splendid. I think this is a great symphony for anyone, living in any time and writing at any age. But the fact that he wrote this at age 19, and that it was his 4th symphony, is one of the most astonishing things in all of music.

Symphony No. 4 in C minor, age 19

Schubert added the title Tragic to his autograph manuscript some time after the work was completed. It is not known why. It can be noted, however, that the symphony is one of only two he wrote in a minor key. the “Unfinished” symphony is the other.


  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B♭, 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns in A♭, C and E♭, 2 trumpets in C and E
  • timpani
  • strings

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

1st movement

The slow introduction is modeled after music that I don’t know. Supposedly there are links to Haydn’s “The Representation of Chaos Overture” in “The Creation oratorio”. I need to check that out later. Then the opening theme of the “Allegro” of the first movement comes from the opening theme of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 4 in the same key. I’ll have to check out both these other pieces later and see if I hear myself this connect.

2nd movement

The first movement ended in C major, so moving to Ab major is a bit unusual. It involves a double morph, which is just a tiny bit exotic – and to me more interesting and quite subtle. This is still Schubert at a very young age, so it’s quite striking. Also of interest to me are the very high horn parts at the end of the movement. Modern players are so good that they can handle these really high parts, so they sound unique and have a particular characteristic that works very well for me, but in the time this was written they would have been impossible to play. So keep that in mind. Most of these symphonies were never performed during Schubert’s lifetime, so if he wrote things that were awkward for players of the time, there was no chance to revise them.

Reading more, I’m told that this slow movement is in ABABA form, which is essentially a rondo form. Rondos have a main theme, then there are other theme that come in between this theme, called the “A” theme. The secondary themes are called B, C, D and so on, and you can have as many as you like. There is no rule. You can also do anything you want with these themes, so as always there are no rules, only common patterns.

What would make this unusual, or evolutionary, is that apparently the the theme in the B section is not new bu rather developed from the Allegro theme of the first movement and the themes of the A section.I don’t hear that yet because I do not yet know this symphony well, but it would be a unifying principle, and I’m always in favor of that. I believe that movements in symphonies should connect through themes. There should be a reason why this or that movement only belongs in a particularly symphony, so having themes in common with prior movements or those coming later is a powerful unifying principle that the Romantics started to use more and more. I believe Beethoven was the first to do this more often and more effectively.

3rd movement

The incisive rhythms of the Minuet hint at the air of unrest prevalent in the outside movement. The key is unusual because after putting the 2nd movement in Ab major he moves to Eb major, which has a strong link to Ab major and is also the relative major of his original key, C minor. It’s a great touch. Note that this movement is quite short, and to me it does not at all sound like a typical minuet. I’ll have to listen more to find out why.

There is something very unusual about the rhythm of the A section, unusual rhythms very common to Brahms, who would not be born until 36 years later. The trio is slower and has a very different style. Nothing in this is a minuet, so the label is very wrong. The A section is most like a scherzo.

4th movement

It returns to C minor, then eventually it moves to C major. It seems to be in sonata form, which to me is interesting because of keys. His 2nd theme is in Eb major, but there appears to be more going, because there is something very important in Ab major. It seems that youthful Schubert was very much “outside the box” in this, so I want to return to this just this movement later to explore more closely. A complicated expo often leads to an usually inventive and surprising development section, and that also happens. It’s rather delicate, more of a mood change at first, but then it heats up to a big finish, and the recap is very different because it comes back in C major. That gives him the opportunity to develop his themes differently and use more inventive modulations.

The nickname “Tragic”

This was Schubert’s name for his 4th symphony, but we don’t know why. We only know that only two of his symphonies were written in minor keys. The other was the “Unfinished Symphony”. While it is the most serious of his first six, the nickname may have more to do with youthful drama then actual tragedy

He was only 19 years old

It was completed in April 1816, a year after his 3rd symphony, when he was 19 years old. So by the time this young genius was only 19 years old he had already written four symphonies. The C-minor Symphony, in common with most of Schubert’s other instrumental works, was not performed during his lifetime. The first public presentation took place in Leipzig in 1849, 21 years after its composer’s death.

Never played during his lifetime

It was not premiered publicly, however, until November 19, 1849, in Leipzig, more than two decades after Schubert’s death.

Read more here

There is a lot more to this story. There is a link HERE and HERE about Schubert’s life at the time he composed this symphony, and how it influenced his life.

2 thoughts on “1816: Schubert: Symphony No. 4 (TRAGIC) in C minor

  1. I thought the interaction between the strings and woodwinds was interesting. One group played a section and then the other group echoed them. The energy in the last movement got my blood flowing.

  2. As usual, I listened to this while out for a walk and thought, “If this is Schubert, I think I really like Schubert’s music.” The last movement is still going on while I’m writing. I went back to check whether I’m actually listening to the “tragic” or had clicked the wrong one – doesn’t sound tragic to me. 🙂 This is one that I’d like to listen to more than once.

Leave a Reply