1816: Schubert: Symphony No. 4 (TRAGIC) in C minor, age 19

Mr. Peabody Says:

This symphony was never performed in his lifetime.I find that amazing and depressing. Can you imagine creating something like this and having the world ignore it? That’s too sad and cruel for words. I think this is a great symphony for anyone, living in any time and writing at any age.

Then you find out that he wrote this at age 19, and that it was his 4th symphony. The genius of this man is just mind boggling.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

  1. 0:15 Adagio molto – Allegro vivace (C minor – C major) – 9:40
  2. 9:55 Andante (Ab major) – 9:16
  3. 19:11 Menuetto Allegro vivace – Trio (Eb major) – 11:31
  4. 22:42 Allegro (C minor – C major) – 10:18 (End 33:00)


  • 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


Schubert added the title “Tragic” to his autograph manuscript some time after the work was completed. It is not known why, although it may be because of the key of C minor, the same as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

This symphony is one of only two he wrote in a minor key. the “Unfinished” symphony is the other.

1st movement

The opening theme of the 1st movement comes from the opening theme of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 4, in the same key.

2nd movement

The first movement ended in C major, so moving to Ab major is a bit unusual is something that Schubert loved to do. 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, which I thought was unusual, but Haydn did this frequently.

The theme in the B section is not new but rather developed from the Allegro theme of the first movement and the themes of the A section.II 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. Beethoven was the one of the first to do this often and effectively.

3rd movement:

The minuet is more like a scherzo in the A section, although the trio is slower and has a very different style.

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.

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.

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 on, 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, age 19

  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.

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