1826: Schubert: Symphony No. 8 (THE GREAT) in C major, age 29

Mr. Peabody Says:

This one of the three greatest of Schubert’s symphonies, with the Unfinished and the marvelous Mozart-like 5th. Yet Schubert could not pay for a performance, or in fact even get one. It was too difficult, Those musicians were nowhere as good as today’s musicians, and the ruined a lot of 1st performances.

Schumann later found this symphony and was floored by the genius, then worked with Mendelssohn, who conducted it in 1839, 11 years after Schubert died. This is both a triumph and a tragedy. The triumph is that it was saved for the world. The tragedy is that this monster work of genius was utterly ignored during Schubert’s lifetime.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada


  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A and C, 2 bassoons
  • 2 horns in C, 2 trumpets in A and C, 3 trombones
  • timpani
  • strings

timpani remains the only percussion instrument, but trombone becomes very important in this symphony

1st movement

The first movement begins with a horn call, and the theme is ambiguous as to whether it is in A minor or C major.  We keep hearing that same theme return, soon in all the brass. It’s hard to see where this is going because this whole symphony wanders a great deal and in fact foreshadows both Bruckner and Mahler with the much longer length. The first movement alone takes more than 16 minutes. The intro takes about three and half minutes. This to me is the beginning of the tendency of so-called German symphonic music to double in length, although we might also site Beethoven’s 9th for the same thing.

The 2nd theme section sets off a nice contrast, moving to E minor (unusual) but then moves to G major. However he actually moves to Eb, then Abm, then B, then Em before winding back to G major to finish the expo. That kind of complicated modulation is usually reserved for developments.

The expo is repeated. The intro is not. The development moves to Ab, then suddenly he’s in Dm, then Fm, dim, Gm, Eb7, Abm, B7, Em, G7, Cm, Ab, then Abm, B7, Em, G7, Cm, G7, something ambiguous between Ab and Cm, and finally back to C major, the right key. This is like the recap, but it’s not the same as the expo. It’s very light and playful, and soon he’s moving through more modulations. So what we expect to be the recap has the feel of an extended development. Very nice.

Finally the expected 2nd theme comes in as expected in the recap, this time in C minor, and now he’s headed for a faster coda to wrap it all up. The coda supposedly introduces the opening theme of the 2nd movement, which is fantastic for binding the movements together, but I don’t hear it yet.

The whole movement is extremely restless tonally, with many interesting chord changes, and this makes the greater length work for most listeners.

2nd movement

The second movement starts with an almost jaunty march in A minor. The rhythm is very regular, but soon there is something like a 2nd theme in F major before he moves other places then finally back to A minor and a few other places. Schubert’s chord structure is quite restless, tending not to settle down in one key for long. Eventually he gets back to the opening theme in A minor, again. There is a huge buildup, a sudden pause, then we get to Bb major for a bit, then A major, but we know he has to get back to A minor to finish the movement, but somehow he gets to F#m at some point before FINALLY getting back to A minor and his opening theme, and yet even now he wanders back to C major before finally ending in A minor. It’s all quite clever.

3rd movement

The scherzo is perhaps less restless harmonically, but there are still many unexpected modulations. I never know where he is going to go next, and as a listener I find that incredibly interesting. It’s sort of like knowing where he has to get back to – his original key – then marveling at how he does it. We expect whatever he does, no matter how complicated, to be repeated the same way after his trio, which we also know is coming up. For the trio he moves to A major. This is a good time to point out that Schubert’s idea of C major is just as likely to move to any other key at any moment, which is why by this time most people were playing in a tuning that was very like equal temperament, since nothing else works for music that is likely to go anywhere at any moment. A G7 chord takes us back to the repeat of the minuet. I don’t know this well enough to be sure there are no changes in the repeat, so for that I’d either have to listen so many times that I have the whole thing memorized or check a score.

4th movement

The first thing that hits me about this finale is how much it sounds like Schumann, and that is a very very strange. Schubert was born in 1797, 13 years before Schumann was born. This was written in 1826, when Schumann was only 16 years old, yet the world did not hear it until the early 1840s, and both Schumann and Mendelssohn were a huge part of that story. But the songs of Schubert were well known, and Schumann was a huge admirer of Schubert, so some how his harmonic patterns were absorbed into Schumann’s music. There is a strong connection between these two composers that I can’t explain from what I’ve read. I hear it, and it’s powerful. In every way this symphony is hugely ahead of it’s time, and unheard by the world until long after Schubert died.

What number is it?

No one seems to agree on the numbering, and for that reason I never include cataloguing numbers. They are often wrong and even when right only show order. I want to know the exact time compositions were completed, and how old the composers were when they finished music. So this symphony is listed both as No. 8 and No. 9. I just want to know when they were composed and in what order.

The name

Originally it was called “The Great C major” to distinguish it from his Symphony No. 6, the “Little C major”. The subtitle is now usually taken as a reference to the symphony’s majesty. A typical performance of “The Great”the lasts an hour when all repeats indicated in the score are taken. The symphony was not professionally performed until a decade after Schubert’s death.

Controversy over date of composition

For a long time historians thought this symphony was written in 1828, shortly before Schubert’s death. But it is now believed to have been completed earlier. By the spring or summer of 1826 it was completely scored.

Schubert could not pay for a performance

He sent his symphony to the “Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde” (Society of Friends of Music) with a dedication. In response they made him a small payment, arranged for the copying of the orchestral parts, and at some point in the latter half of 1827 gave the work an unofficial perfunctory play-through (the exact date and the conductor are unknown.)

It was too difficult

It was set aside as too long and difficult for the amateur orchestra of the conservatory. In fact, the symphony, however, was found to be very difficult for orchestras of the day because of its extremely lengthy woodwind and string parts. When Mendelssohn took the symphony to Paris in 1842 and London in 1844, orchestras flatly refused to play it; in London, the violinists are reputed to have collapsed in laughter when rehearsing the second subject of the finale.

Those musicians were nowhere as good as today’s musicians

Today top orchestras have no problems with any of this symphony, so we know from this how poor they were at that time, and how bad a lot of the music must have sounded because of their incompetence.

What Schumann thought

In 1838, ten years after Schubert’s death, Robert Schumann visited Vienna and was shown the manuscript of the symphony at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde by Ferdinand Schubert. He took a copy that Ferdinand had given him back to Leipzig, where the entire work was performed publicly for the first time by Felix Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 21 March 1839. Schumann celebrated the event in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik with an ecstatic article in which, in a phrase destined to become famous, he hailed the symphony for its ‘heavenly length’.

Mendelssohn to the rescue, again

What an amazing man he must have been! He was responsible so many times for championing the music of others, and I’m quite sure he was an amazing conductor. He must have been very frustrated by orchestral musicians of that time, who were often just plain horrible.

What number is it?

No one seems to agree on the numbering, and for that reason I never include cataloguing numbers. They are often wrong and even when right only show order. I want to know the exact time compositions were completed, and how old the composers were when they finished music. So this symphony is listed both as No. 8 and No. 9. I just want to know when they were composed and in what order.

His best work for orchestra?

I’d say it’s a toss up between this and his “Unfinished Symphony”, but this has to get 1st place because it’s complete.

Very innovative

First of all, this very new style prompted Robert Schumann to pursue his own symphonic ambitions. Beethoven had always used the trombone as an effect, and therefore very sparingly, or, in the case of his Ninth Symphony, also to double the alto, tenor, and bass parts of the chorus as was common in sacred music and opera at the time. However, in Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and the Ninth Symphony, the trombones become essential members of the orchestra playing throughout the piece, and even receive important melodic roles.

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