1815 has been called Franz Schubert’s “miracle year.”
In those twelve months, while working as a full-time schoolteacher, the 18-year-old composer wrote more than 20,000 bars of music. Among other works, he completed two symphonies (Nos. 2 and 3), two masses, a string quartet, two piano sonatas, and 145 songs (including the famous Erlkönig). Schubert’s biweekly composition lessons with Antonio Salieri during this period remind us that, even for the most intuitive and divinely inspired composers, technical foundation is essential.
In Symphony No. 3 in D major, composed between May 24 and July 19 of 1815, the crystalline effortlessness of Schubert’s writing is on display. As with so much of Schubert’s music, the Symphony received a small private performance, and was not published or heard again until many years after the composer’s death. Concise and rooted in melody, it constituted a sparkling gift to posterity. In the last years of the nineteenth century, Antonín Dvořák spoke reverently of Schubert’s symphonies saying, “the more I study them, the more I marvel.”
Schubert’s Third Symphony unfolds as an exuberant drama of conversing voices. In the slow introduction which opens the first movement (Adagio maestoso – Allegro con brio), this magical interplay involves ebullient, ascending scale figures which move from one instrument to another. We become intimately acquainted with each “character,” especially the woodwind voices with their distinct personas. The exposition arrives amid hushed excitement. A melody in the clarinet dances over syncopated rhythmic lines in the strings. In the second theme, the introduction’s ascending scales become celebratory flourishes. With unexpected modulations and interjections, this music is pure fun.
Originally, Schubert intended the second movement to be an adagio. Instead, it is a cheerful and fleeting Allegretto. The tiptoeing first theme takes a sudden, adventurous turn which drifts off briefly into serene contemplation (9:33). The second theme, initiated by the clarinet, suggests a sunny, bucolic folksong. It culminates in an ecstatic wind “choir.”
The minuet, originally a seventeenth century French dance, was already an archaic form by 1815. Schubert’s Menuetto is marked Vivace and is filled with the kinds of quirky rhythmic surprises that we encounter in similar movements by Haydn. The trio section suggests the graceful Austrian folk dance of the Ländler.
The final movement (Presto vivace) is a frolicking tarantella. Schubert seems to be paying homage to the sparkling comic opera overtures of Rossini. There are boisterous interruptions and sudden harmonic turns. The coda anticipates the celebratory conclusion of Schubert’s “Great” Ninth Symphony.
This performance from December of 2017 features the Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber and the SWR Symphonieorchester (Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra):
Five Great Recordings
- Schubert: Symphony No. 3 in D Major, D. 200, Staatskapelle Dresden, Herbert Blomstedt Amazon
- Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
- Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic
- Günter Wand and the NDR Sinfonieorchester
- Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic