In November 1817, Schubert interrupted work on his Sixth Symphony in order to write his two Overtures “in the Italian Style.” Now age twenty, he had completed five symphonies, beginning with his first effort written at age sixteen. He seems eventually to have disowned these initial efforts, as he did many of his early compositions. The Little C Major we hear today (the nickname arose to distinguish it from his last symphony, The Great C Major) is perhaps the most mature of the early ones, although it is not often performed. Schubert only finished the work in February 1818, soon after he had turned twenty-one. This was an unusually protracted period for him to spend writing a symphony (he had written some of the earlier ones in the space of just a few weeks), but his circumstances at the time were depressing—after living for awhile with friends as a “freelance artist,” he had recently moved back home and was working in his father’s school, a position he apparently detested.
The familiar Schubert mythology would have it that the composer never heard his symphonies. And while it is true that they were not presented publicly during his lifetime, he did at least hear them. All the early ones were specifically meant to be played by small private orchestras at his school or in middle-class homes. The Sixth Symphony was heard in the home of the musician Otto Hatwig in early 1818. Just over a decade later, this was the first of his symphonies officially performed in public. Unfortunately, Schubert was no longer alive, having died less than a month before the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (The Society of the Friends of Music) programmed it on a concert series.
The writer Eduard von Bauernfeld, a close friend, recalled the event in his memorial reminiscences published the next year: “A Symphony in C Major, performed soon after his death at one of the concerts of Vienna’s Society of the Friends of Music and composed as early as 1817, was counted by Schubert himself among his less successful works. Yet the work certainly justified expectations, for even though it is written almost throughout in the manner of a master highly esteemed by the young composer, yet that master himself would have had no cause to be ashamed to rank it among his own works.” That unnamed master is surely Beethoven, whose influence is most evident in the structure and tonal planning of the first movement, and in the energy of the scherzo. Yet elsewhere in the piece, especially in the final movement, Rossini’s influence is apparent, as it is in the delightful “Italian Style” overtures. The model of Beethoven would become ever more potent for Schubert, but in this work we encounter him synthesizing elements of the “twin styles” of the day, of the German symphonic master with the Italian operatic one.
Christopher Gibbs ©2011
About This Program
Artistic Partner Richard Egarr returns with a program that opens with works by British composers, including Benjamin Britten’s evocative Serenade featuring tenor David Portillo and the SPCO’s own Principal Horn, Jay Ferree. The concert bids farewell to England and continues with two beloved arias by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Finishing the program is Franz Schubert’s “Little C Major” Symphony — a deceptive nickname — it was Schubert’s first fully symphonic work with a substantial wind section.
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