Posted by: rbbadger | September 13, 2009

Finishing the “Unfinished” Symphony

Recently, while browing at Evan Records, a CD store in the COEX Mall in that area of Seoul which is south of the river, I came across this recording of an attempted completion of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished, D. 759.  Given that it only cost 8,000 won (about $6.50), I figured I could afford to buy it.  I listened to it last night.  I must say that my feelings are somewhat mixed. 

The question of the “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8 has long been a fascinating one for musicians and music historians.  Nobody is quite sure exactly why Schubert laid this exceedingly promising manuscript aside.  He did, after all, complete his Symphony No. 9

Schubert died at the age of 31, having left behind him nearly a thousand works.  Known for his exquisitely beautiful songs, he also composed music for a play, some Mass settings, a number of sonatas, a whole bunch of work for the piano, string quartets, and some symphonies.  He left an incredible amount of music behind him in his very short life. 

In 1823, a musical society in Graz, Austria gave him a special diploma.  He felt obliged to offer them a symphony in gratitude for the honour.  He gave his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner the manuscript of what he had completed so far of the Eighth.  For some reason, Hüttenbrenner never gave the manuscript to the society.  Some theorize that he was just waiting for Schubert to finish the last two movements before presenting it to them.  Anyhow, towards the end of his life, Hüttenbrenner showed the manuscript to the conductor Johann Ritter von Herbeck, who premiered it in Vienna some 42 years after it was written.

There have been attempts to finish the “Unfinished” Symphony before.  This recording features the efforts of two different people.  Schubert made a number of sketches for the third movement.  None of them are complete.  All of them are fragmentary.  The British musicologist and Schubert scholar Brian Newbould took what Schubert had written, and by using other fragments from other Schubert sources managed to piece together a scherzo that sounds not unlike something Schubert might have written.  Mario Venzago, a Swiss conductor, pieced together a finale from the music Schubert used in his incidental music to the play Rosamunde, Fürstin von Cypern.  A number of scholars agree that the music from the Entr’acte No. 1 of Rosamunde might very well be what Schumann had ultimately intended for the finale of this work.  And so Venzago, using the Entr’acte music plus some music from the ballet scenes of the play, managed to piece together a quasi-Schubertian finish to the “Unfinished” Symphony. 

I would rather just leave it as it is, as an unfinished work, despite the best efforts of Newbould and Venzago.  The best we can hope for is that it is music that is sort of like what Schubert would have written.  And there is no better way to enjoy the scorn of critics from the generations to come than to try and complete an unfinished masterpiece.  Tibor Serly’s career wasn’t really helped by being the man who completed Bartók’s Viola Concerto.  And of course, when one comes to Mozart’s Requiem, debate over what is from Mozart and what is from his student Franz Süßmayr continues.  I once heard a new reconstruction of the Requiem.  Parts of it sounded postively Handelian.  It is probably the best to make do with what we have as such reconstructions are often no more than highly educated guesses.  No matter how erudite they are, they are guesses all the same.


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