Program Notes: Schubert + Grieg

Our most recent subscription concerts included the Symphony No. 5 by Danish composer Carl Nielsen. This weekend we continue to explore Romantic nationalism as we hear music by Finland’s Jean Sibelius and Norway’s Edvard Grieg. As with the Nielsen, we’re marking the sesquicentennial of Sibelius’s birth. Grieg’s ever-popular Piano Concerto in A minor, with soloist Jon Kimura Parker, makes up the first half of the concert.

Symphony No. 7 in B minor, D. 759, “Unfinished” (formerly known as No. 8)  

Franz Schubert
(Born 31 January 1797 in Himmelpfortgrund, Austria; Died 19 November 1828 in Vienna, Austria)

Composed: 1822

Premiere: 17 December 1865; Vienna

Last MSO Performance:  November 2012, Christopher Konig, conductor

Instrumentation:  2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration:  25 minutes

Franz Schubert is the only great Viennese composer native to the city. He produced peerless masterpieces in orchestral, piano, and chamber music as well as song. His pre-eminence in the latter genre is especially noteworthy; Schubert’s melodies and expressive harmonies portrayed the text’s true meaning in a way that music before had not known.

Schubert was only 25 when he composed the two movements of the Symphony in B minor. To this day, musicologists disagree as to why he failed to complete the symphony. Some have speculated that he stopped work in the middle of the scherzo in the fall of 1822 because he associated it with his initial outbreak of syphilis – or that he was distracted by the inspiration for his Wanderer Fantasy for solo piano, which occupied his time and energy immediately afterward. Others have theorized that Schubert may have sketched a finale that instead became the big B minor entr’acte for his incidental music to Rosamunde, but all evidence for this is circumstantial. Then again, says another, Schubert may have left the symphony incomplete because of the predominance of triple meter. The first movement is in 3/4, the second in 3/8, and the incomplete scherzo is also in 3/4. Rarely, if ever, does one find three consecutive movements in basically the same meter in symphonies, sonatas, or chamber works of the Viennese composers.

Many believe Schubert regarded the work as complete. “I am convinced,” said conductor Nicolas Harnoncourt in an interview earlier this year, “that Schubert found it impossible to continue after the second movement. Which is not to say he didn’t try. There are sketches for a few bars of a scherzo. But after Schubert finished the first two movements, and wrote out a neat copy, there came a time where he thought this cannot be continued. The form is perfect; there is simply nothing else to say.”

Nearly 120 years ago, the great Austrian conductor Felix Weingartner (1863–1942) stated the case for this view in his monograph The Symphony Since Beethoven (1898): “I feel it is fortunate that it remained unfinished. The first movement is of a tragic dimension such as was attained by no symphonist except Beethoven and by Schubert himself only in his songs. The second theme, played by the cellos, contains one of the noblest inspirations a musician was ever given to utter. That which moved us deeply as an emotional struggle in the first movement dies away transfigured in the second. This conclusion is so satisfying that a desire for additional movement can hardly arise.”

Likewise, the fate of the manuscript has been plagued by theories based on flimsy facts. A few decades ago, the disclosure of documents from the Hüttenbrenner family archives shows that Schubert gave the manuscript of the Unfinished Symphony to Josef Hüttenbrenner in 1823, to pass on to his brother Anselm as a private gift. This may have been in payment for a debt or an obligation. In any case, Anselm had a perfect right to retain the score. In 1865, it was given to the conductor of the orchestra of the Vienna Musikverein and performed for the first time in December of that year, 37 years after Schubert’s death.

Allegro moderato

The first movement, cast in sonata form, opens softly in the strings, followed by a theme shared by oboe and clarinet. Then the Unfinished brings us one of the most famous tunes in all of classical music, stated first by the cellos and then by the violins, to a gently syncopated accompaniment. No less remarkable than the tune itself is that it, too, is unfinished – broken off in extraordinary gestures of pathos and drama. It is also a rare moment of sweet lyricism in a movement otherwise dark and troubled.

Andante con moto

The second movement, set in the somewhat unexpected key of E major, is calmer in spirit but not without moments of drama. It alternates two contrasting themes in sonatina form. In this lovely movement, a few eloquent details stand out: the first theme’s lyrical dialogue between low strings/brass/winds and high strings; the serene woodwind solos that soar over shifting chords; the plaintively still passage for violins, outlining a minor chord, which introduces the second theme. It is upon this inspired moment, though with strange keys and chromatic harmonies, that Schubert later builds his gently lingering coda.

Recommended Recording: George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra (Sony)


Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105

Jean Sibelius
(Born 8 December 1865 in Hämeenlinna, Finland; Died 20 September 1957 in Järvenpää, Finland)

Composed: 1924

Premiere: 24 March 1924; Stockholm

Last MSO Performance:  May 1992; Gerard Schwarz, conductor

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration:  22 minutes

Jean Sibelius was born into a Swedish-speaking family in a hamlet in south central Finland. The man who would become the most famous Finn in history did not begin to speak the Finnish language until age eight and acquired complete proficiency in the language only as a young man. And though he was closely identified with Finnish nationalism, it wasn’t because he wrote folksy musical bonbons – or even commanding pieces like his well-known Finlandia. No, his stature rests chiefly on his accomplishment as a composer of that most serious of musical genres, the symphony.

It has been said that Sibelius never approached the symphonic challenge the same way twice. That maxim is nowhere more evident than in the Symphony No. 7, the composer’s final published symphony. Completed in 1924, it is notable for being a one-movement symphony, in contrast to the standard symphonic formula of four movements. The Seventh Symphony has been described as “completely original in form, subtle in its handling of tempi, individual in its treatment of key and wholly organic in growth” and as “Sibelius’s most remarkable compositional achievement.”

Though there are passages that display the character of, say, a scherzo or a slow movement, Sibelius’s mastery of transition and his control of simultaneous tempos is so complete that it becomes impossible to define exactly where one section ends and another begins. As Sibelius scholar Robert Layton has noted, “The Seventh Symphony came as the climax of a lifetime’s work: it has the effect of a constantly growing entity, in which the thematic metamorphosis works at such a level of sophistication that a listener is barely aware of it. In its degree of organic integration and thematic working, the piece stands at the peak of the symphonic tradition.”

At its Stockholm premiere, the work was referred to as a “Symphonic Fantasy.” Only when the piece was published a year later did Sibelius call it a symphony. The Seventh Symphony is unified by the key of C; every significant passage in the work is in C major or C minor. Variety is achieved by an almost constantly changing tempo, as well as by contrasts of mode, articulation, and texture.

Lasting about 22 minutes on average, the Seventh Symphony’s single movement is approximately the same length as the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony – and shorter than some of Bruckner’s adagio movements. In this work, three statements of its main theme, on solo trombone, are separated by four episodes – seven sections in all. In his book Sibelius: The Orchestral Works, author David Hurwitz suggests we break it down like this:

  • Introduction (nature music; hymn-like adagio)
  • Theme (trombone solo)
  • Development 1 (sounds of nature; steady increase in tension and manic energy)
  • Theme (trombone solo)
  • Development 2 (warm, sunny motives; extended songlike passage)
  • Theme (trombone solo)
  • Coda (musical material from the Introduction)

Sibelius lived another 33 years after finishing the Symphony No. 7, but composed only one more important orchestral work, his tone poem Tapiola. Despite much evidence of work on an Eighth symphony, it is believed Sibelius burned whatever he had written. He left the Seventh to stand as his final statement on symphonic form.

Recommended Recording: Osmo Vänskä, Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS)


Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16

Edvard Grieg
(Born 15 June 1843 in Bergen, Norway; Died 4 September 1907 in Bergen)

Composed: 1868

Premiere: 3 April 1869; Copenhagen

Last MSO Performance: October 2011; Edo de Waart, conductor; Simon Trpčeski, piano

Instrumentation:  2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 30 minutes

Edvard Grieg was the most important Norwegian composer during the nationalist-Romantic era. First and foremost a master melodist, his compositions show the influence of native folk idioms. To discover this, one needs to look only as far as the felicitous Lyric Pieces (ten sets) for piano and the incidental music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – particularly the poignant “Solvejg’s Song” and the poetic “Morning Mood.” Likewise, the Piano Concerto in A minor shows folk influences, as we shall see.

Numbering among Grieg’s earliest important works, the concerto was written by the 25-year-old composer in 1868 in Søllerød, Denmark, during one of his visits there to benefit from the climate. (All his life, Grieg suffered from ill-health – respiratory troubles stemming from an attack of pleurisy in 1860.) Grieg’s concerto is often compared to Robert Schumann’s – they share the same key, the opening descending flourish on the piano is similar, and the overall style is considered to be closer to Schumann than any other composer. Incidentally, in his teen years, Grieg had heard Schumann’s concerto played by Clara Schumann in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus. And he was greatly influenced by Schumann’s style in general, having studied the piano at the Leipzig Conservatory with Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel, a close friend of Schumann.

The concerto was given its triumphant premiere in Copenhagen on 3 April 1869. That autumn, Grieg received a grant from the Norwegian government that enabled him to travel to Italy for further study. While there, he met Franz Liszt, who was then living in semi-retirement in Rome. At their second meeting, Grieg showed Liszt the score of the concerto, which Liszt played a prima vista and gave Grieg the warmest encouragement. Today it is one of Grieg’s most popular works and is among the most often performed of all piano concertos. It also holds the distinction of being the first piano concerto ever recorded – by Wilhelm Backhaus in 1908, in a heavily abridged six-minute version.

Set in three movements, the piece opens with a crescendo roll from the timpani, which culminates in a crashing chord from the full orchestra. The soloist enters with a flourish based on a falling minor second followed by a falling major third, a motif that is typical of Norwegian folk music. The main theme of the movement is then introduced by the woodwinds with punctuations from the strings, and is soon taken up by the piano. After a short bridge passage, the second theme is played by the cellos against soft wind harmonies. The brief development section is based almost entirely on the main theme of the movement. The recapitulation is little more than a literal restatement of the exposition. The movement concludes with a brilliant and exciting cadenza and a brief coda.

The nostalgic Adagio begins with an extended passage for muted strings, after which the piano enters with a theme of its own. The piano and strings then engage in a melodious dialogue and are soon joined by the winds. After a loud restatement of the opening theme by the piano and orchestra, the mood grows calmer and the music quietly ebbs away.

The Finale, a loosely constructed rondo, follows without pause. Its refrain is an energetic theme with the rhythmic characteristics of the hallingdansen, a Norwegian folk dance in strongly accented duple meter. The songful middle section is ushered in by the solo flute over tremolo strings. After this material is rhapsodically developed by the piano and orchestra, the halling theme returns. In the final section of the movement, the theme is transformed into triple meter, thereby taking on the characteristics of the springdans, another Norwegian folk dance. Virtuoso scale passages in the piano lead into the broadly majestic coda, bringing the concerto to it glorious conclusion.

Recommended Recording: Stephen Kovacevich; Sir Colin Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra (Philips)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.