Great and Big

Franz Schubert wrote two symphonies in C Major. Indeed he wrote two in D major and two in B-flat major as well.

The two C Major symphonies are sometimes distinguished by size. One is called “the little C Major Symphony”, the other “the Great C Major Symphony”.

What’s so great about this symphony?

I’m thinking about it through a haze of tears, having been transported miles above the traffic on a magical drive home, wanting to capture my fugitive impressions.

I had a relationship with this symphony as a child and young adult, having encountered it in the usual way: using a modern orchestra playing in what had been the usual way: which is to say, much slower than the approach that is now usually taken.

As of 2014, the movement towards historically informed performance, includes at least two groups:
• those who lead bands playing so-called “authentic” instruments
• others simply trying to lead a usual ensemble in a new –that is old—way
And so, when Harry Bicket comes to Toronto to lead the Canadian Opera Company orchestra –who use modern instruments—plus soloists in productions such as Hercules (just a few months ago) or Orfeo ed Euridice (in 2011), he can make them sound remarkably like one of those ensembles playing in the historically informed way. We’re lucky because we have it both ways, given that we get to hear Tafelmusik baroque orchestra.

But anyone encountering Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony in 1975 or earlier didn’t have those options. No, they’d hear modern strings, modern brass, modern percussion and modern woodwinds. In the late 70s I had a great job in a record store, an opportunity to encounter many wonderful performances.  I learned a great deal simply by osmosis. The early attempts to play the old instruments didn’t always work terribly well. I recall arguing with a dear friend –who shall be nameless to protect his integrity—who was permanently persuaded that those old instruments were a mistake, an unmusical alternative. There was a very amusing recording I recall of the Fireworks & Water Music suites of Handel, played very boldly on the brass, which is to say, often barely in tune. I remember laughing at the recording for its daring, but i also remember customers listening aghast.  I think we need to remember that all performance –not just musical but spoken, sung or danced—is in some respect an experiment, a speculative venture.

There are no guarantees.

Now of course, as the years went by, the skills of the players went up, their ability to be in tune improving steadily. I don’t claim to be an accurate historian of these developments, just an observer and a listener. By the end of the 1980s, the revolution is more than under way. Bach and Handel are being recorded by many performers using a new consensus about music, about vibrato, about volume, and perhaps most noticeably, concerning the pace. Historically informed performances of baroque, classical & romantic music are usually faster than the recordings to which we were accustomed in the previous generations.

And gradually the scope of this venture grew, as interpreters undertook composers one might not have expected to include.  In the 1950s and 60s, Bach was the focus. But later? I recall my excitement  (in, say 1988) hearing Beethoven & Mozart & Berlioz and Schumann and Mendelssohn also done in the new way.

I may be exaggerating, but I think that of all the pieces revisited by this movement, that there may not be even one that was better served than Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony. It had seemed to be a plodding work: at least in the von Karajan recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, a vinyl recording I listened to again and again. While Schumann spoke of its “heavenly length” that epithet seemed dubious, given the way the piece seemed to go on and on endlessly.

When I heard it conducted by Roger Norrington that all changed. I have since then obtained several other disks that all revisit the work in various ways, bringing it to vivid life. With all due respect, Herr von Karajan, you misunderstood the piece completely.

Schubert never heard this symphony. No, he’s not Beethoven, but in some respects it’s every bit as poignant as that story about Beethoven facing away from the audience, unaware of the applause behind him during the premiere of his own 9th Symphony. Schubert died young.

My imagination was inspired as a by-product of historicity, especially in the text on one of the CD jackets I read many years ago. Someone observed that the drums we were hearing had been played on the battlefields of Waterloo by combatants: that is, on whichever recording I saw this note.

It took awhile but that little observation forever changed the way I hear this piece. It may be that Schubert never stepped anywhere near a battlefield himself, but does that matter? Both he and Beethoven inhabited a world of anguish, where countries warred and young men died.  We know that they both heard bombardments.

If you listen to this great symphony you can hear it. War is not much of a factor in the first movement (although i imagine it there too), which begins with a solemn melody that segues into something faster & more dramatic. The next three movements, however?

The second movement sounds like a long march, from the point of view of the rank and file. It’s mostly tedious marching, even if we’re given an eloquent portrait of the banal work of soldiering on, and on. Is that a contradiction? Maybe it should be, but it’s not, because of the brilliant painting. There are episodes on the march, moments that are hair-raising, others more romantic, as our minds wander. But I feel Schubert is telling the story in music of his peers, young men who went to war and died.

The third movement –a scherzo with an elegant trio—may seem to have nothing to do with war. I can’t help thinking of it as a ball, soldiers home from the front. The trio is like a peaceful dream of a summer in the country, no guns anywhere nearby. It’s momentary, poignant precisely because it can’t last, and is ripped away from us even as we wish it could last.

The last movement feels most military of all. We begin with something like a trumpet call that could be an order from a sergeant to “charge!”” …except 100% in a musical language. This movement can’t work when played slowly. At von Karajan’s pace? Something with ridiculous control and elegance, like an equestrian display team showing us how they trot or gallop in formation. But when taken up a couple of notches –as Norrington, as Mackerras, as Minkowski, have all done for me—the tension in the piece changes everything. Suddenly we’re aware that the gallop of a charge is break-neck, hair-raising, part of a life and death struggle. When a few furtive phrases play something strongly reminiscent of an isolated group of horses (or a single horseman?), followed by a surge of the whole orchestra, it suggests battle, the back and forth surges of enormous forces, the exposure of individuals and the overwhelming danger. 

And just when you thought you knew where the piece was going, we surge into the development, where the composer quotes the best known theme from Beethoven’s 9th. This furtive reference begins in major then becomes suffused with darkness as if clouds covered the sun, a dream of brotherhood stolen away in the heat of battle.  Will they escape, will they survive?  find out for yourself.

Enough. I suggest you listen to some of it, and see if it moves you.  How about a complete recording? (thank you youtube!)



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