Quadrant Music

The Mystery of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony

I have felt a profound love and deep connection with the music of Franz Schubert for nearly forty years, having first heard his intensely moving Symphony No 8 in B minor, D. 759—better known, simply, as the Unfinishedas a teenager. I have been equally fascinated by Schubert, the man, and his remarkable life story. Today, Schubert is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Western musical tradition. The New York Times chief classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini, recently rated him as the fourth-greatest composer; that is, just trailing the big three: Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Yet at the time of his death in 1828, aged only thirty-one, it seemed unlikely that Schubert would be remembered much at all.

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Schubert had achieved a degree of fame in Vienna, but this was almost entirely due to his songs, as well as his light piano music, primarily composed for dancing. Those of his more serious works that had received public performances, including several operas, had all been failures, and even the closest of Schubert’s friends and admirers did not fully grasp the scope and depth of his compositional genius. Neither of his two sublime orchestral masterpieces, his Eighth and Ninth, were performed during his lifetime. In fact, none of his symphonies had even been published. Robert Schumann, foremost among the succeeding generation of composers who recognised Schubert’s genius, and who scoured Vienna in the hope of finding more of his manuscripts, lamented, “Most people barely even know his name.” The Symphony No 9, in C Major D. 944, or the Great, was not performed until more than ten years after Schubert’s death, while the Unfinished, composed in 1822, lay forgotten in a Viennese drawer until it was discovered and performed in 1865.

Of the Unfinished, Jan Swafford, a composer, and acclaimed biographer of Brahms and Beethoven, has written:

The work has a unique coloration, beyond the Schubertian melodic and harmonic style. It begins, probably not for the first time in history, with a bass line in octaves, but the ominous and sorrowful effect is revolutionary: from the first notes the new Romantic expressiveness is heard … when the main theme enters … it is not heard in a single part but rather in a doubling of oboe and clarinet. Such a doubling would hardly have occurred to Mozart: Why not oboe or clarinet? Why both? Because the doubling gives a particular yearning coloration to the line—clarinet lending oboe smoothness, oboe lending clarinet poignancy … The Unfinished is not only the first and one of the greatest of the period’s orchestral works, it is among the most personal and least derivative of Beethoven.

As a young listener I was awestruck by the symphony’s drama and power, as well as Schubert’s depiction of what seemed to be a violent but stunningly beautiful clash between the ineffable extremes of emotion, between pure light and abject darkness. This duality is characteristic of Schubert’s mature work. He once perceptively observed, “Whenever I attempted to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love.”

Generally, however, the duality manifests itself in more subtle ways. A richly beautiful melody may bear a trace of wistfulness, or hint of gentle melancholy; or a sorrowful melody has a beauty or tenderness that lends our sadness a certain sweetness. There is nothing subtle about the scale or emotional contrast evoked by the Unfinished. There is, however, subtle ingenuity and deep thoughtfulness in the way Schubert renders this epic conflict. The transitions between moods are natural and organic developments, never jarring or contrived. There is a logic to the flow of the work, and a beautiful melodicism underlies both its dark and light themes.

Historians have long debated why Schubert left his Eighth unfinished. How could he create something of such startling beauty and originality, and then abandon it? It was as if Michelangelo, having given life to David’s magnificent head, torso and arms, abruptly stopped, leaving the lower half of the body hidden within an unshaped marble block. In fact, there is evidence that Schubert did draft an outline of what was intended to be symphony’s third movement, a traditional scherzo, and that he even began work on a fourth movement. But he never completed either. Moreover, he never mentioned the existence of the Unfinished to any of his friends or supporters. Although his next symphony would also remain unpublished and unperformed during his lifetime, Schubert’s correspondence is full of enthusiastic discussion of the work. Incredibly, there is not a single extant reference to D. 759.

Some have speculated that work on the symphony ceased when Schubert became, for the first time, seriously ill from syphilis. Psychologically, they argue, the symphony became inextricably entwined with his illness and was thus too painful to complete. There is some plausibility to this theory, but it is nonetheless no more than conjecture. Others have suggested, somewhat implausibly, that the ever-impoverished Schubert simply forgot the symphony, having pushed it aside to concentrate on other, commissioned work. Some scholars contend that he was simply unable to come up with concluding movements of comparable quality to the first two, while others have claimed that he was intimidated into silence by Beethoven’s greatness. The fact that he proceeded to produce his magnificent and monumental Ninth seems sufficient proof to discount these latter two contentions.

I tend to think about the mystery of the Unfinished in two quite different ways. My first instinct is to say that Schubert, on some level, recognised that the work was, in fact, finished, as it stood. Rather than writing contrasting movements that demanded resolution, he wrote a second movement that acted as an exact counterpart to the first. Each complements the other so precisely that together they form a perfect and complete union. Any movement following is not only likely to be anti-climactic, but utterly superfluous. Perhaps Schubert abandoned additional movements simply because the first two had already said all they needed to say? This would represent a dramatic break from convention. But for a composer who accepted the Romantic paradigm, even implicitly, the quality of music’s expressiveness was paramount. I am not suggesting that Schubert’s original intention was to compose a two-movement symphony; the evidence does not support that and, besides, Schubert was not a self-consciously radical composer. But it remains plausible that he came to believe that additional movements would not enhance what he had already, so perfectly, composed.

The second way I think about the mystery is to turn it around, asking, “What business did Schubert have in writing even a half symphony?” To answer this question, we must know more about Schubert the man. He was only twenty-five when he worked on the Unfinished in September and October of 1822. By comparison, Beethoven did not complete his First until he was thirty, and Brahms, who many consider Beethoven’s successor, did not publish his First until he was well into his forties—and after he had laboured on it for some fifteen years.  

While it is not true that Schubert remained unknown in his lifetime—his immediate failures were not as crippling as Van Gogh’s were—it is clear that the success he did enjoy was derived from the popularity of his lieder. At the time he worked on the Unfinished, not a single one of his symphonies had ever been performed by a professional orchestra. The world knows and shares the pain of Beethoven raging against the onset of deafness. But what of Schubert, the genius who produced two of the greatest symphonies ever written, and yet never heard them played?

The lieder published in his lifetime were performed at private parties, Schubert often accompanying on the piano. He gave only one public concert of his compositional work; it was judged a success but came too late in his life to capitalise on. Certainly, some of his operas were produced, but each run proved forgettable, and Vienna deferred instead, and always, to the prowess of Rossini.

Schubert was, unlike some of the great composers, affable and good-natured—at least, while not afflicted by illness. He was nicknamed Schwammerl (“little mushroom”) by his adoring circle of friends, in reference to his diminutive and tubby stature. He was a shy, modest man, but he loved the company of his close friends. He was socially awkward and possessed neither the skills nor the inclination to promote his music and advance his career. He was from a humble family and had to work as a teacher in the early phase of his compositional career. When he was able to compose full-time, it was largely because of the support of his friends. Schubert was entirely devoted to—and often lost in—his world of creation. Swafford draws an illuminating portrait:

Whereas Beethoven struggled with his material as if he were wrestling with the gods, and Mozart composed in his head, picking up the pen usually at the last minute, Schubert spent most of his time merely sitting and writing. “I work every morning,” he said. “When I complete one piece, I begin another.” Sometimes he finished several songs in a day. He seemed to live in, and through music.

The last six years of his life were plagued by serious illness. It is now considered probable that he suffered from cyclical depression. It is said that by the time Schubert reached his late twenties he already sensed that he had very little time left. The major romantic love of his life was unrequited; some have argued that his life was further complicated by homosexuality, though the evidence for this is not strong. It was commonly reported that he drank to excess.

Schubert composed some 600 songs, and a very high proportion of these are judged to be of very high quality. By 1911, the Encyclopedia Britannica reported, “He was the greatest songwriter who ever lived”; more than a hundred years later, few musicologists would disagree. His friends viewed him as a prince of song but doubted that his compositional gifts went further than that.

It is confounding that a city as rich in musical heritage as Vienna should fail to apprehend Schubert’s manifold brilliance. For Schubert excelled not only as a writer of songs and symphonies. He produced some of the most exquisitely beautiful chamber music ever composed. His Trout quintet, for instance, is one of the most beloved of the repertoire, and his late string quartets, as well as the brilliant Cello Quintet, are sublime masterpieces. His music for solo piano would eventually be considered every bit as ground-breaking as Beethoven’s. Franz Liszt, who did much to promote Schubert’s legacy to future generations, considered him “the most poetic musician who ever was”.

Schubert always regarded himself as a student of composition; not long before his death, he arranged to receive instruction in counterpoint from Simon Schecter. Given the volume of masterpieces he produced in his final years, it is tantalising to consider what might have been possible for Schubert had he been granted a longer life. It is little wonder that one of his devoted friends struck his epitaph in the following wistful terms: “Here music has interred a precious treasure, but yet far fairer hopes”.

And so, I return to my question: what business did Schubert have in writing the Unfinished at all? What drove this often unwell, lonely, frequently impoverished and largely unrecognised young man to construct mighty symphonies, symphonies that would ultimately echo through the ages, but symphonies that, from his own perspective, might never have been heard? This is the real mystery of Schubert: not that he failed to complete his Eighth, but that he wrote it at all. It seems clear enough to me that, in his own modest way, he must have been fully cognisant of his own peerless abilities. And more than this, he must have dearly loved the act of creation itself. Nothing short of a profound and sacred love for his work can possibly account for Schubert’s unwavering devotion to his art. About one hundred of Schubert’s works were published during his lifetime. This represented but a small portion—less than one tenth, in fact—of his total musical output. To have composed so many works of such a high quality in so brief a life was a feat of compositional achievement without precedent. That Schubert produced this body of work against all the odds—his repeated failures, the inexplicable indifference of the public towards his best works, and the cruel physical and mental illnesses he battled—must elevate his life’s creativity even higher in our esteem.

Our natural inclination is to mourn Schubert’s all too fleeting life, and the “far fairer hopes” that were lost. And yet, Schubert’s unfinished life, much like the Unfinished, was in a creative sense more complete than any single lifetime can reasonably expect to be. His life, defined by his singular and resolute sense of purpose, provides an extraordinary illustration of the indomitable strength of the human spirit. Schubert’s art is a testament to the unbounded potential of a mind that refused to surrender its devotion to the sublime and never doubted its ability to create music of exquisite beauty.

Rare is the day that passes without me pausing to give thanks for those priceless gifts Schubert bestowed upon us all. But my gratitude goes beyond his music. In 2024, it is easy to believe that truth and beauty are values whose dying embers are soon destined to dim, and then vanish altogether, from our culture. Schubert’s life implores us never to let our devotion to our values falter; never to let our enthusiasm for the sublime vanish. Schubert fought to the very end and so must we. He succeeded, ultimately, and so can we. Success, like life itself, is a process, not an end state. Success is the very act of creating and defending our values. Our values live only in the striving. And from this perspective we may see that to surrender is the only way in which one can ever truly fail.

Jason Monaghan is a publisher and writer living in Sydney.


4 thoughts on “The Mystery of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony

  • Watchman Williams says:

    You’re quite right. The Unfinished WAS finished. I am sure that Schubert would have thought that it was folly to add a third or fourth movement to a perfect work just to conform to doctrines of musical form.
    Schubert is unsurpassed as a composer in my view. His most amazing attribute as a composer was the versatility of his work that not only covered a range of musical expression and tastes but unique combinations of instruments. And he died a pauper.
    Alas, were he living in Australia now, I doubt that he would be able to gain any grants from the Government’s Arts bureaucracy. Mind you, he would probably find a place for a didgeridoo in some composition, so inventive was he.
    In my view, the music of Schubert is eternal, like that of Bach. It will always be played and Franz Peter will always be loved.

  • Daffy says:

    But, he could’ve finished it if he’d spent less time with those pesky violins.

  • leabrae says:

    I seem to recall a record review from some time in the past which suggested that the Eighth Symphony of Schubert had its structural origins in the the final piano sonata (op 111) of Beethoven. Regardless, it is a great work and hugely enjoyable music.

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