Music Director’s Message for February 16, 2019

Music Director's Message for February 16, 2019

Ever since it was first performed in 1865, 37 years after the composer’s untimely death at the age of 31, Franz Schubert’s Symphony in B minor has inspired a question: Why didn’t Schubert finish it? He lived six more years, during which he wrote hundreds of new works. I try to imagine Schubert with his friends: “Franzie, those first two movements were incredible! You can write fast — buckle down for just a few weeks, crank out that Scherzo and Finale, and send it to the publisher. You need the money, am I right?”

Not everybody felt that two more movements were needed. To many listeners, the “Unfinished” symphony had a mystical, almost religious appeal. They argued that it was not “Unfinished” at all, but its two movements were complete and perfect. The symphony was a message to us from a super-human or even divine intelligence that generations could contemplate and regard with awe. The musical equivalent of the black monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey that appears periodically to humanity. In times of trouble, Mother Mary, come to me, speaking words of wisdom, “Let it be.”

Nice story. Kind of gives you goosebumps. Problem is, Schubert actually tried to finish the symphony. An incomplete sketch of the Scherzo exists, some of it fully orchestrated. Later that year Schubert wrote incidental music to a play called Rosamunde, and reportedly told some friends that he wanted to use the first Entr’acte as the symphony’s Finale.  So close, and yet…

Why didn’t he finish it? Truth is, Schubert left a lot of music unfinished. When I was 25, I thought I was immortal and had plenty of time to do anything I wanted in my life. Maybe Schubert felt the same. Or he might have recognized how remarkable those two movements were, and felt compelled to wait for the muse to visit again.  In the end — at his end — there were only two movements, an incomplete torso, an unfinished symphony, and a legend.

The British Schubert scholar, Brian Newbould followed Schubert’s idea of using that Entr’acte as the Finale, and set about finishing what he composer had started with the Scherzo. Much of it was educated guesswork informed by Newbould’s study of Schubert’s music, but it is surprisingly satisfying. Tonight, we’ll go on this musical adventure together, as we try to imagine the majesty of a complete Eighth Symphony.


Steven Larsen