As a singer, I have always loved Schubert’s melodies. When I was a student, I chose German art songs as a focus, and I dedicated one of my recitals entirely to the music of this composer. In his short life, just shy of 32 years, Schubert composed more than six hundred songs and proved himself a skillful musical interpreter of poetry. He wrote many solo piano pieces and scores of chamber works including his famous “Trout” quintet and numerous string quartets and piano trios. He was not quite as prolific in larger genres, although he did expend some energy trying to expand his horizons. One would imagine that given his talent in writing dramatic material for the voice that he would have been a star in the world of opera. That, unfortunately, did not happen, but that’s a topic for another blog.
For the orchestra, Schubert composed eight overtures and eight symphonies, although that last number comes with an asterisk. Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 is known as the “Unfinished” Symphony, and it comes with a fascinating story. Now one might be forgiven for thinking that this symphony was written at the very end of Schubert’s life, and remains tragically unfinished because of his untimely death. But that is not what happened. In fact, Schubert had six years to complete what he started, but instead moved on to other things. He never went back to it, even though he had plenty of time to do so.
Schubert began writing Symphony No. 8 in the winter of 1822. In the manuscript, there were two complete movements and sketches for a third. Why did he not finish the piece? Well, theories abound. One theory holds that Schubert’s physical health was to blame. Another theory blames depression (perhaps exacerbated by physical illness). Yet another theory suggests that Schubert was just feeling insecure about his symphony-writing abilities. His contemporary, Ludwig van Beethoven was already casting a large shadow in the musical world. Whatever the reason, Schubert’s two movements and the sketches were put away, destined to stay hidden until 1860 (more than three decades after Schubert’s death), when those pieces were found in the study of Schubert’s friend, Anselm Hüttenbrenner. Five years later, the work (with a third movement from one of Schubert’s other pieces tacked on to the end) was finally premiered. At some point, folks stopped adding a third movement on to the end, figuring out that the two movements worked well alone.
What does shine through, especially in the first movement is Schubert’s gift for melody. The second tune presented in the symphony is actually one of his better known instrumental melodies. Like his Lieder, the symphony explores light and dark, and innovative ways to switch between the two. In the second movement, Schubert uses the timbre of the clarinet to show off a lovely solo melodic line. For a symphony, which does not seem to be referencing any dramatic narrative or non-musical topic, there is plenty of drama and emotion. Symphony No. 8 definitely shows off the gifts that I admire most in Schubert’s work.m
The Schubert piece is one of three that LACO will present in its 2015-2016 opening concert. The concert itself will open with a brand new work. Derrick Spiva’s Prisms, Cycles, Leaps will receive its world premiere. Meshing western and non-western musical influences, Prisms, Cycles, Leaps is may very well be unlike anything you’re used to hearing. Spiva is LACO’s composer in residence for this season, and we will look forward to hearing more examples of his unique creative style.
The finale of the evening will be Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D from 1806. The turn of the century, and the years immediately following were among the most challenging for Beethoven. The main cause of the trouble was Beethoven’s worsening deafness, but he would eventually figure out how to live and carve out a career in composition despite this issue. In the midst of this and other things, Beethoven composed this concerto for violinist and conductor, Franz Clement. It’s not a ground-breaking piece in terms of its form; it stays within the boundaries that one would expect from any late Classical or early Romantic concerto. However, Beethoven rarely wrote anything ordinary. What jumps out at me is the tendency toward emotional surprises, the stormy mood swings that seem to pervade some of Beethoven’s music after 1800. Both Schubert and Beethoven, who died a year apart, were quite skilled at changing emotions on a dime.
Our soloist for the Beethoven is the extraordinary Michael Barenboim. He is a skilled interpreter of modern music, but even at the age of thirty he has mastered many of the established gems of the repertoire. He’s played all over the world, and he brings his unique talent to our stage. With Schubert, Beethoven, Spivak, Barenboim, our own Jeffrey Kahane, and the musicians of LACO, it’s going to be an amazing evening and a great way to open the season.