Schubert's Finished Symphony


Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ was the first symphony I played in as an oboe student, and from the first lovely oboe entry a few bars in, I’ve felt grateful to Schubert ever since. Its two movements make an intriguing shape, a perfect little thing amidst the looming ‘masterworks’ of post-19th century culture which crowd our concert platforms. But of course, Schubert may not have felt that way when he laid the piece aside; quite possibly he was already thinking on the grand scale we know from his ninth symphony, the Great C Major. So the news that Robin Holloway was going to reveal his completion of Schubert’s 8th had me rushing to Cambridge on a dark Saturday teatime.

An unpromising sketch of a tune for the scherzo movement is all that remains of Schubert’s plans, and nothing at all about the final movement, even more unpromising for symphony finisher-uppers. The piece has been completed before of course, but surely no-one now can rival Robin Holloway’s absorption in nineteenth century style and his ability to write so naturally and fluently in it. Before a two-piano playthrough (partnered by the wonderful Huw Watkins) Robin admitted that, when imagining new music by Schubert he was thinking backwards through time ‘as if using a reverse telescope’ and with the advantage of knowing what happened to musical style in the decades after Schubert. And indeed it didn’t seem a moment before we were leaping stylistically forward into the world of Richard Strauss, Franz Schmidt et al. (Of course, “if Schubert had lived to the age of 103 like Elliott Carter”…) You might fancifully compare the propulsive energy of Robin’s huge 30-minute finale to some particularly cosmic force identified by Stephen Hawking (who by coincidence used to live next door to the building we were in).

What an exhilarating occasion for thinking about Schubert’s symphony and his work in general this proved to be. I for instance realised properly for the first time that there are beefy trombone parts already evident in the first movement, supporting Robin's argument that this was intended to be a big Bruckner-like work. I had also never fully acknowledged the looming bass motto which begins the symphony and is used as a passacaglia-like theme for Robin's finale (just about visible in my photo). The two new movements also exist in full score and ought, if there was any justice in the orchestral world, to be irresistible to professional symphony orchestras; although as Huw Watkins wryly observed, perhaps the first two movements now need rewriting in the light of this completion.

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer