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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 The Music Trance
Richard Taruskin

As promised earlier, an extended look at one of Schubert's larger, more public works will confirm the influence of the private genres in which he so excelled. That influence—an influence Schubert absorbed from his environment and then transmitted to his posthumous posterity (curiously skipping a generation, as we have seen, owing to delayed publication)—is what produced the ultimate “romanticization” of the larger instrumental forms, as practiced by German composers (and others in the Germanic orbit) in the later nineteenth century. The obvious starting place is Schubert's fortuitously emblematic “Unfinished” Symphony of 1822. The following discussion should be read with score in hand.

This famous work has few precedents in the symphonic literature—not for being unfinished (for which there are precedents within every composer's legacy, including five other unfinished symphonies in Schubert's own) but for being cast in the key of B minor. Associated with the darkest, grimmest, most “pathetic” moods, the key had been pretty well avoided by earlier composers of symphonies, which fully accords with the history of a genre that had originated in theatrical and convivial milieus. The only previous B-minor symphony by a major composer was one of the set of six (for strings only) that C. P. E. Bach had written for (and dedicated to) Baron van Swieten in 1773. Haydn had written a symphony in B major in 1772, and cast its second movement, a plaintive siciliana, in the parallel minor. Both of these symphonies had partaken of the “stormy stressful” style of their decade, associated (explicitly in Bach's case) with the idea of Empfindsamkeit, “hyperexpressivity.” Schubert's symphony breathes a similarly special atmosphere, equally far from the traditional symphonic air of public celebration. It is usually referred to as number 8 because it was first published in 1866, a quarter of a century after the “Great” C-major symphony, which was actually written three years later. When another unfinished symphony (just a sketch in E major) was completed by an editor and published in piano score in 1884, it was given the number 7, and the “Great” Symphony was promoted to the magic Beethovenian number 9. The “Unfinished” retained its position as number 8, even though it was the seventh performable symphony in order of composition.

No one knows why the piece remained unfinished. The manuscript full score breaks off after two pages of the Scherzo. A more complete piano sketch showing the whole Scherzo and a melodic outline of the Trio has enabled several scholars to “finish the Unfinished,” opportunistically tacking on the B-minor entr'acte from Schubert's incidental score to Rosamunde (a play that ran for two performances in 1823) by way of finale.26 There is no real evidence that this was Schubert's intention, and the idea of a torso that consisted of two pathos-filled movements and ended with a slow movement (and in the “wrong key”) appealed powerfully to romantic sensibilities, enhancing the symphony's popularity and making it, with Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth, one of the symphonies that most haunted the memories and imaginations of later composers. Its reach extended at least until 1893, when the canonized torso may have suggested to the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky (who had already recalled the “Unfinished” Symphony in his ballet Swan Lake) the striking idea of ending his Sixth Symphony—also cast in rare B minor, and subtitled “Pathétique”—with a slow movement.

Both the impulse to emulate Beethoven and the distance that separates Schubert from his older contemporary are evident from the symphony's very outset. As early as his op. 1, a set of piano trios, Beethoven often preceded the first theme in a sonata movement with an assertive “preface theme” to take over the function of a slow introduction and command the audience's attention. Often, especially when in a minor key as in the Trio, op. 1, no. 3, or the Fifth Symphony, the preface theme achieves this objective by being played in a peremptory unison. Schubert begins the first movement of his B-minor Symphony with a patently Beethovenian preface theme all'unisono—indeed at first it almost seems a paraphrase of the one that opens the Trio—but its character is the very opposite of assertive (Ex. 2-15). For such a mysteriously ill-defined beginning in Beethoven there is only one precedent: the Ninth Symphony—no precedent at all because Schubert's symphony was composed before the Ninth was performed.

B-Minor Moods

ex. 2-15 Franz Schubert, Symphony no. 8 (“Unfinished”), mm. 1-8

On closer examination, this quintessentially romantic opening gesture turns out to be an embellished plunge from tonic to dominant—the descending-tetrachord motif that ever since the seventeenth century has functioned (in the words of Ellen Rosand) as “an emblem of lament.” We should not be surprised to find Schubert refurbishing an ancient convention; conventions, after all, are what make communications intelligible. But neither should we be surprised to find him investing it with a personal, “subjective” stamp in the form of a deliberately skewed phrase rhythm, its eight bars divided as asymmetrically as possible (2+3+3), with the last segment consisting of a single sustained tone (the equivalent of a “composed fermata”—another inverse reference to Beethoven's Fifth?). The effect is less to stun the audience than to draw it in, to allow its members to “take possession of their inwardness.”

The tremulous accompaniment figure that starts up in m. 9 to introduce the “first theme” is reminiscent—perhaps deliberately reminiscent—of the opening of Mozart's G-minor symphony, K550. The texture of the theme itself, however, in which the string section accompanies the wind section, is one we have not seen in a Mozart symphony, nor any symphony. That texture was Rossini's specialty (as we observed in the overture to The Barber of Seville Ex. 1-4), and it was Schubert's peculiar historical mission as a writer of symphonies (though one studiously ignored, unless hotly contested, by German historians) to reconcile a new brand of Italian theater music with the Austro-German concert symphony, as if refreshing the genre with a new infusion from its original historical source.

(For another example of pure Rossini in Schubert, see the rhapsodically dilated second theme in the first movement of the String Quintet in C major [mm. 58–138], scored first for the two cellos and then the two violins: it is a Rossinian operatic ensemble in every respect, even down to the chugging accompaniment, except insofar as it embodies a characteristically Schubertian mesmerizing pass into the local flat submediant, and its serenely radiant reversal. At the very end, moreover, just as in a Rossinian ensemble, the characters regroup, first cello and first violin—leading man and leading lady?—doubling at the octave [mm. 127–138] for perhaps the most soaringly Italianate melodic passage Schubert ever wrote.)

Even less like a concert symphony and more like a Rossini overture is the way the first theme in the “Unfinished” proceeds to the second. Never in the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven—not even in the piano sonatas of the Bach sons!—had a first theme made a full cadence in the tonic, as Schubert's does so demonstratively in measure 38. The whole point of a “sonata allegro,” as practiced by its pre-Schubertian masters, was to elide that cadence (dramatically in symphonies, subtly in chamber music) into a modulatory bridge, and not allow a full cadence in the tonic until the very end of the movement. Schubert not only allows the first theme to finish, but follows it with an obviously “patched-in” four-bar linkup (mm. 38–41) to an equally stable second theme, as if almost defiantly to advertise a lack of interest in “transitions.” For such a seemingly perfunctory linkage of themes we again have to look to the overture to The Barber of Seville; and even there it had taken place in the truncated “recapitulation” rather than the more exacting “exposition.”

But here the resemblance to Rossini ends, for Schubert's procedure is anything but perfunctory. Notice the peculiar structure of the four-bar link, played by the horns and bassoons. It has the same rhythmic skew as the “preface theme,” dividing not 2+2 but 3+1. And the “3” consists of the same sort of long-held unison pitch as the last three measures of the preface. It is another “composed fermata,” or time-out-of-time, and its purpose, like that of all fermatas, is to interrupt the rhythmic momentum. Whereas a Beethoven fermata either comes on a rest or is followed by a rest, thus compounding the forward thrust with suspense, Schubert's is on a quiet continuous sound that has the opposite effect. It neutralizes the thrust, replacing suspense (which quickens consciousness) with relaxation, deepening the music trance.

Neither in Mozart nor in Beethoven nor in Rossini, moreover, have we ever encountered a second theme that is more than twice the length of the first theme. It, too, comes to a full cadence (m. 104) before being replaced by another long-held unison to initiate a quickie transition. And that unison is a B, the cadence note of the first theme. The whole second theme, for all that it is the longest sustained span in the movement so far, could be snipped right out with no loss of tonal coherence. It is an island of repose, a fair and fleeting Augenblick magnified into what philosophers call a “specious present”—a considerable duration that nevertheless represents instantaneousness. It is, in short, a moment musical.

And as befits that status, it is cast not in the expected key of a second theme in the minor—that is, the mediant (III)—but in the romantically charged submediant. (Again, the only Beethovenian “precedent” comes in the as-yet-unheard Ninth Symphony.) The theme (Ex. 2-16a), as was so often the case in Schubert's impromptus and moments musicaux, is redolent of domestic music: it has even been associated with a specific Viennese popular song (Ex. 2-16b), the rhythm of which also permeates the theme of the posthumously published Impromptu in A♭ major, op. 142, no. 2 (Ex. 2-16c).

B-Minor Moods

ex. 2-16a Franz Schubert, Symphony no. 8 (“Unfinished”), I, second theme

B-Minor Moods

ex. 2-16b A possible source for the second theme of Schubert's Symphony no. 8 (“Unfinished”), I

B-Minor Moods

ex. 2-16c Franz Schubert, Impromptu, Op. 142, no. 2, beginning

The theme is even constructed a bit like an impromptu or a moment musical, in something like a miniature aba form of its own. Its middle section is approached in a radically romantic, psychologically “realistic” way: the theme trails off right before its implied cadence (m. 61) in simulation of a mental vagary, and after a measure's unsettled pause resumes in what seems a neurotically distorted form, the melody transferred to the massed winds supported by a unanticipated switch to the minor subdominant harmony in the abruptly tremolando strings and the suddenly roused trombones. The interval is wrong—a descending fifth (mistakenly recalling the first theme?) instead of a fourth; the right interval, sounded on the next try, is seemingly not recognized. A third stab brings the chord without which a romantic vagary is not complete: the flat submediant (E♭)—with respect to the original tonic the submediant's flat submediant, completing an implied cycle of major thirds, Schubert's as yet unpatented specialty.

The chord picks up its augmented sixth in m. 68, but its resolution is delayed by a whole series of feints, most strikingly (m. 71) to a diminished seventh chord that resolves two bars later according to the pattern illustrated in Ex. 2-9b, and in so doing initiates a little development section in which a motive derived from the third measure of the theme is put through a series of attempted, then frustrated, circles of fifths. The storm and stress having been dissipated by the cadence in m. 93, the theme is resumed in a stable but asymmetrically phrased (five-bar) variant, providing the closure of double return, and also providing reconciliation between the formerly opposed winds and strings.

The actual development section, famously, is based throughout on the preface theme—the one theme that had been originally presented in a harmonically open-ended form requiring closure on the tonic. (Beethoven had used the preface theme similarly, albeit less single-mindedly, in op. 1, no. 3.) Never had an augmented sixth been more evocatively employed than in the uncanny beginning of the section (mm. 114–127), and never had it been more unconventionally handled: prepared as the submediant of E minor, it proceeds as the Neapolitan (!) of the original key, leading to the original dominant, expressed in its most dissonant form replete with minor ninth and prolonged earsplittingly, it could even seem sadistically, over a span of twelve measures (mm. 134–145).

Of course the resolution of this grating dissonance is going to have to be deceptive—otherwise the development section will have achieved its harmonic purpose so prematurely as to make its continuation redundant. And so another series of feints is in the offing far more dramatic because the scale is so much greater and the stakes are so much higher. The first of these feints (mm. 145–146) will involve an even more unconventional placement and conduct of an augmented sixth, producing one of the most violent deceptive cadences Schubert ever attempted.

What makes the dominant ninth so tense is the extraordinary pressure of the ninth itself (the G in the present context) to descend to the root. And so, by moving the bass up to an A-natural (already a violent move because it creates a false relation with the A♯ in the dominant chord), and then resolving the dominant seventh thus created against the G as if it were a German sixth (in the hypothetical key of C♯), Schubert manages to force the G to resolve in measure 146 as if it were an F upward to G♯ rather than downward to the long-awaited dominant root. The resolution that had been insisted upon, or pled for, over the preceding twelve bars is not only thwarted but preempted, leaving the properly mesmerized listener, who had been programmed to identify with the G and its desires, exhausted and disoriented.

The diversionary ploy has its price: an unwanted cadence on C♯ now looms. It too must be frustrated. So Schubert preempts the arrival of its tonic with a diminished seventh chord, screamed out by the whole orchestra (m. 154), that reharmonizes the G♯ and directs it still further up, to A, presaging resolution to D. This time resolution is forestalled by precisely reversing the feint employed in measure 73, now transforming the dominant of D into a diminished seventh chord that is given an unconventional “outward” resolution of the kind more usually associated with augmented sixths. The resolution redirects the harmony back to E minor, the development's point of departure and the subdominant of the original key.

This time it takes Schubert forty-four measures to regain the dominant ninth (the only unusual harmonic effect along the way being the strangely voiced augmented Neapolitan in mm. 194–197, in the “wrong” inversion and again tinged with an augmented sixth), and its resolution finally brings closure to the preface theme, initiating a fairly placid recapitulation. Here the most noteworthy touch is the rerouting of the first theme (by means of some poignant stabs of harmony in mm. 229–231 and 238–240) so that it cadences in the dominant (where it “should” have cadenced in the exposition). But however unconventional this may appear, it is done for the sake of conformity to convention, for it enables the recapitulation of the second theme in the customary mediant key (D major). The coda (mm. 328 ff) rounds the movement off with a very demonstrative closure of the preface theme (with a few nostalgic nods at the subdominant, where the theme had spent so much time in the development).

The first movement of the “Unfinished” Symphony, then, is a virtual textbook of submediant relations—many of them unprecedented in symphonic writing and astonishing in their assured virtuosity—and how they can be used to create both mood and form. In this way the symphony becomes a study of how the intimate and domestic forms (“lower” forms in the conventional, covertly social hierarchy of genres, to which Schubert outwardly subscribed) in which Schubert chiefly made his reputation, and in which he acquired his submediant skills, could affect the “higher” forms and infect them with Innerlichkeit, assimilating them to the mood music of the urban bourgeoisie.


(26) See Gerald Abraham, “Finishing the Unfinished,” Musical Times CXII (1971): 547–8.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 The Music Trance." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 4 Jun. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-002010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 The Music Trance. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 4 Jun. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-002010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 The Music Trance." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 4 Jun. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-002010.xml