To generalise somewhat Schubert’s first six symphonies have certain characteristics in common:
- Each of them is of Classical length – round about half an hour.
- Each of them owes a considerable debt to Haydn, Mozart, or both.
- They were composed during the five year period between 1813 and 1818.
But these are as I say generalisations and Schubert’s Fourth symphony stands apart from its fellows in its aims, mood, and in being less jejeune. In fact to say that it stands apart from the other early symphonies is to somewhat understate the case because he never wrote anything like it again. It was Schubert himself who dubbed it "Tragic" and why he chose to do so we will never know. To me the ‘sturm und drang’ of the two outer movements so reminiscent of Haydn and his contemporaries during the late 1770s sounds not so much tragic as … petulant and i find myself shifting around impatiently in my chair every time I have to listen to them. For me it’s the slow movement which not only rescues the symphony but which lifts it into something that is very special even by Schubert’s standards.
For a start it’s rather long, or at least it’s rather long by the youthful Schubert’s standards, and it is this length that allows Schubert to expand and develop the wistfully graceful lyricism that epitomises so much of his music. Every time I listen to it I become more and more convinced that it presages the well-nigh transcendent beauty of the A-flat Impromptu of Op. 142. I greatly admire how the ostinato accompanying figure that we can hear at the start evolves into a gloriously expansive theme, and then there are those string-woodwind exchanges, who could possibly hear them and not be pleased. Or how about the Minuet with it’s curiously crisp rhythms and lilting trio section?
It’s such a shame that in common with most of his other instrumental works that the C-minor Symphony wasn’t performed during Schubert’s lifetime it’s first performance didn’t take place until 1849 twenty one years after his death. Perhaps that’s the real tragedy but it’s one I can do nothing about and choose not to dwell on. I have in any case of fish to fry having just listened to the excellent performance by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel that you can hear below I’m off to fire up my favourite recording of the Impromptu No 2 in A flat major.
Video Source: Schubert Symphony No 4 C minor ‘Tragic’ Maazel Bavarian RSO – YouTube Published on 22 Jan 2013 by HaydnHouse04Mar1887