Program notes: Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Mahler songs featuring Sasha Cooke

Thursday, August 10, 2023 , 6:30 PM

Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)

Gustav Mahler: Rückert Lieder

Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759, “Unfinished”

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Composed: 1822
Length: c. 25 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

Music history is replete with composers whose lives were cut tragically short, leaving us to wonder “what if?” Schubert died at 31 but left behind a treasure trove of music—he made the most of his short time. Beethoven was still putting the finishing touches on his Symphony No. 1 at the same age that Schubert had completed the last of his nine numbered symphonies.

Though revered among his friends and colleagues in Vienna, Schubert did not have the aristocratic connections that Beethoven did that allowed his compositions to be more broadly received. None of his nine symphonies were premiered publicly during his lifetime. (Schubert did hear them played, though, during intimate gatherings at private residences.) The premiere of the two-movement “Unfinished” Symphony took place in 1865, more than 40 years after Schubert’s death. Musicologists had questions. Answers were (and still are) harder to come by.

Why did it take four decades for the piece to come to light? Supposedly, Schubert sent his manuscript of the symphony to his good friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner in appreciation of an honorary diploma granted to Schubert by his Music Society. Hüttenbrenner remained in possession of the manuscript until 1865, never uttering a word of its existence, until it was offered up to Viennese conductor Johann von Herbeck for performance (in exchange for programming one of Hüttenbrenner’s overtures as well). Whether this story of acquisition is true and why the manuscript was hidden for so long remain open questions.

Why did Schubert leave the piece unfinished? Some musicologists have argued that the piece is actually complete, though evidence points to the contrary. The manuscript itself includes the sketches of the beginning of a Scherzo movement, and some speculate that material from a fourth movement had been recycled by Schubert as incidental music for the play Rosamunde. Perhaps Schubert became distracted with other projects (he did leave many works incomplete during his career), or perhaps the manuscripts for the two missing movements are collecting dust in a basement in Austria, still awaiting discovery. Meanwhile, we are left with two of the most deeply affecting movements in the Classical orchestra repertoire.

What to listen for

  • The anguished cry of the first movement is ever present, either just barely suppressed or intensely bursting out. The middle development section dramatically takes the dark potential brewing from the opening low-string introduction and builds its energy to a terrifying climax.
  • After the emotional devastation of the first movement (which ends with what could be described as a musical gut punch), the second movement lightens the mood with a bright lilt. But danger still echoes, exploding unexpectedly in the middle of the second section as a kind of contrapuntal storm.


Note: text and translations for the following work will be distributed at the concert.

Rückert Lieder

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Composed: 1901-1904
Length: c. 18 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes (first doubling oboe d’amore) and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, piano doubling celesta, and strings

Born five years before the premiere of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, Mahler developed his artistic voice in a Germanic world that had embraced the poetic, narrative approach that Schubert so innovatively expressed in his work. For the first period of his compositional career, Mahler turned to German folk poetry as his guiding inspiration. His main textual source was the collection of vivid, eclectic Germanic poems entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), which to him represented “something more like Nature and Life…than art.” Through about 1901, the folkloric imagery drove much of his work in both his songs and his symphonies (the first four of which are known as the Wunderhorn symphonies).

A shift—one that might be better described as conceptual rather than stylistic—came as Mahler’s life took on new dimensions. By the late 1890s, Mahler had relocated to Vienna, embarking on busy, tumultuous directorships of the Court Opera and Philharmonic. A brief, intense courtship led to his marriage to Alma in early 1902, followed by the birth of his first child. Concurrently, his creative energies turned toward settings of lyric poetry that included “more subjective, interior, psychological dramas,” as Mahler biographer Arved Ashby writes. Mahler found new inspiration in the poetry of German scholar Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). Over the next few years, Mahler set five of Rückert’s poems in his cycle Kindertotenlieder, and five more poems individually. Though this latter group was not written as a set, they are often performed together under the title Rückert Lieder.

What to listen for

  • “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder”: The perpetual motion figures that buzz through the clarinets and then the strings vividly depict the frenzied work of the bees (and artist) here.
  • “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft”: Notice the German pun that Mahler brings out in his setting here, with the use of the words Linde (linden tree) and linden (gentle).
  • “Um Mitternacht”: Listen for two recurrent motives in this setting—a plaintive, slowly descending scale and a quicker 3-note neighbor figure (often used with the word “Mitternacht”).
  • “Liebst du um Schönheit”: The four stanzas are set similarly with just enough variation in melody, accompaniment, and rhythm to build to an expressive climax.
  • “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”: In this emotional culmination of the set, Mahler masterfully captures the richness of artistic isolation, with special care given to the English horn and harp parts.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi