Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony: Haunting, Mysterious, Groundbreaking

Take a moment, hook in your best pair of headphones, maybe even close your eyes, and listen to the first haunting bars of Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Eighth Symphony. It begins with a single, hushed melodic line in the low strings which quickly gives way to shivering violins and darkly pulsating bass pizzicati. Then, a lamenting new voice enters- a strange, almost indistinguishable sonority which blends oboe and clarinet. Immediately, we’re drawn into a powerful, unfolding drama filled with mystery, perhaps even suggesting the ghostly or supernatural.

This astonishing music, written in October of 1822, is unlike anything that came before. It’s certainly worlds away from the light, charming classicism of Schubert’s first six symphonies. It takes us on a completely different kind of journey than the fiery, motive-driven symphonies of Schubert’s contemporary, Beethoven. This is music which seems to anticipate the mysticism and gradually unfolding grandeur of Bruckner’s symphonies, written over fifty years later. Perhaps this passage from the first movement’s development section forms the seeds of the distinctive “Bruckner crescendo.” While the music of Beethoven often seems to be pushing towards a far-off goal, Schubert and Bruckner are constantly arriving and celebrating a divine present.

A romantic mystique has long surrounded the story of this piece, which is sometimes renumbered as the “Seventh” Symphony. Why did Schubert stop after only two movements? We now know that he sketched this enticing fragment of a Scherzo, and music intended for a possible Finale found its way into the Entr’act for the play, Rosamunde. (In an earlier post, we heard a fragment of a string quartet movement which, similarly, trails off, abruptly). Perhaps Schubert was unable to find a suitable answer to the sheer monumentality of the opening two movements, something he would accomplish in his next symphony, the “Great” Ninth. Or perhaps he came to the conclusion that the symphony was, in fact, complete- that everything that needed to be said was wrapped up in these two movements.

Regardless, the composer never heard this symphony, or the Ninth, performed. It wasn’t until 1865, 43 years later, that the premiere took place in Vienna, with the light, effervescent final movement of the Third Symphony standing in as in inadequate finale. Schubert’s friend, Joseph Hüttenbrenner, passed a series of manuscripts on to the conductor Johann Herbeck, writing that

among them is a treasure, the B-minor Symphony, which we put on a level with the great Symphony in C, his [orchestral] swan song, and any one of the symphonies by Beethoven.

The “Unfinished” Symphony’s two movements are dominated by triple meter (3/4 and 3/8 time). But as the Allegro moderato‘s first theme takes shape, listen to the way the pizzicati suggest a conflicting feeling of “off-balance” two. Notice the prominent use of the trombones, with all of their supernatural connotations. The sunny second theme reminds us that Schubert was one of the greatest songwriters. With a sudden harmonic turn, we find ourselves in this new world. But the ghostly darkness of the opening is never far away. The exposition fades back into that opening amid a wrenching dissonance. In the development section, we’re again confronted with this opening theme. This time, it’s full-blown terror, which plays out throughout the development before subsiding back into the quiet restlessness of the recapitulation.

The second movement, Andante con moto, moves to E major, opening with a beautiful melody-countermelody duet between the cellos and violins. As the music unfolds, there are echoes of the preceding movement (the descending bass lines, for example). The second theme returns to an atmosphere of haunting restlessness. In this section, listen for the magical moment when the oboe takes the theme from the clarinet, veering, suddenly, into major. In the coda, there’s a brief, heart-stopping moment where the music seems to lose its way, harmonically. An echo of the opening theme seems suspended in mid-air as it searches for a way forward, before fading into peaceful acceptance.

Now that I’ve shared a few details that I find interesting in this piece, let’s let the music speak for itself. Here is a 1995 live performance recording, featuring Günter Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic:

Five Great Recordings

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

6 thoughts on “Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony: Haunting, Mysterious, Groundbreaking”

  1. Your superlatives seem to be a bit over the top. Personally, I’ve always found the piece to be too slow moving, bordering on dull.

    • This piece can, indeed, feel that way if it isn’t performed well. The same is true of the “Great” Ninth. The music looks deceptively simple on the page, but it takes imagination and musical maturity to bring it to life. The pulse and sense of flow must be there.

  2. I have often wondered if he wrote it as an adieu to himself knowing he would never complete all the works he envisioned. He was suffering a fatal disease was he not?
    Thank you for your review!

  3. 6 pages of the scherzo were found in an attic in Vienna near where he lived. They were discovered in April 2017. Significant is that the movement ends in D Major setting up the final movement. In all likelihood he composed one, and it ended up like some of his other music and used as scrap paper.

  4. I just heard this played by a small symphony in Oregon. I suddenly realized that I was quite familiar with the music, and then I realized that I knew the lyrics as it continued, starting with the phrase, (I think) Dark is the night, waiting for dawn to come). I can’t find any mention of this chorus on the internet, and would like to hear it or read it. I must be remembering this from the 50’s or 60’s.

    Is there any information out there?


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