In 1814, at the age of 17, Schubert took a full-time job as a teaching assistant at the school where his father worked. He still attended lessons with Antonio Salieri twice a week, played viola in a student orchestra, and managed to write new music at an astonishing rate. In the next two years, Schubert composed some 300 songs for one or more voices, plus four symphonies, three masses, five musical dramas, three string quartets, three violin sonatas and dozens of other works.
Schubert wrote his Second Symphony during the winter of 1814-15, followed soon after by his Third Symphony, composed between May and July of 1815. For all his efforts to improve his craft, nothing came of Schubert’s symphonic aspirations; neither this symphony nor any other received a public performance before he died at the tragically young age of 31.
As a student composer in Vienna, Schubert could not help but be engulfed by the towering achievements of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, who had by then debuted eight of his nine symphonies. Like Beethoven before him, Schubert used the instrumentation and general outline of Haydn’s final London symphonies as a point of entry for his symphonic style. In Schubert’s Third Symphony, the instrumentation, slow introduction and minuet (instead of a Beethovenian scherzo) all point to the influence of the London symphonies.
The Third Symphony begins with a strong, sustained attack on the keynote, spread across several octaves. This was actually a stock opening for a symphony, one that the French called le premier coup d’archet. Mozart went out of his way to include a version in his “Paris” Symphony (“These oxen here make such a to-do about it,” he wrote to his father), and similar gestures begin six out of the 12 London symphonies by Haydn. A sign of Schubert’s originality comes at a point when it seems the introduction could be finished; instead an abrupt key change extends the introduction so a clarinet can engage in song-like dialogue with other woodwinds. The fast body of the movement starts with the clarinet still in a solo role, adding to the sense of cohesion.
By crafting the second movement as an Allegretto instead of a typical Adagio or Andante, Schubert must have had in mind the equivalent movement in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which had debuted in Vienna less than two years earlier. For the third movement Menuetto, Schubert followed the model of Haydn, who brought coarse humor and rustic elements of the Austrian ländler dance to the refined French tradition of the minuet.
With its propulsive rhythms and wild emotional swings, the finale takes Haydn’s hunt-inspired model into a territory that seems distinctly Schubertian. Some details foreshadow a seminal song composed later in 1815, Erlkönig, a supernatural ballad that was published as Schubert’s long overdue Opus 1 in 1821.
Aaron Grad ©2017
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