Mozart Fanboy: A Guide to Schubert’s Symphony No. 5

Mozart Fanboy: A Guide to Schubert’s Symphony No. 5

1816 was a busy year for Franz Schubert. He composed approximately 200 compositions, including a mass, various other sacred choral works, his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, an overture, two concertante works for violin and orchestra, at least two string quartets, three violin sonatas, various other chamber works, two piano sonatas, numerous dances and dozens of songs. He had turned 19 in January.

Franz Schubert, as depicted by Wilhelm August Rieder in 1825.
Franz Schubert, as depicted by Wilhelm August Rieder in 1825.

That Schubert found time for so much composition, however, is even more extraordinary. After dropping out of school to focus on music at age 16, his stern and patriarchal father, a school master, was not entirely supportive. His father insisted that Schubert earn his keep by teaching kindergarten-aged students at the school he ran, a task to which Schubert was ill-suited according to a number of his friends and acquaintances. Schubert’s older brother Ignaz, who also worked at the school, later painted a vivid picture of their shared vicissitudes:

“…the likes of us scholastic beasts of burden are abandoned to all the roughness of wild youngsters and exposed to a host of abuses, not to mention that we are subjected to the further humiliation of an ungrateful public and a lot of dunderheaded bigwigs.”

Schubert was not only busy with teaching, but also with socializing. Although he had dropped out of school, he maintained several of the friendships he had made there. Schubert had been able to attend the prestigious Imperial and Royal City Seminary thanks to a music scholarship he received when he was accepted as a boy soprano in the Imperial and Royal Court Chapel. Many of his friends there came from more prosperous, upper-middle class backgrounds, and would provide him with steadfast material and emotional support throughout his brief life. They treasured Schubert’s extraordinary talents, and were among the only people to hear many of Schubert’s compositions during his lifetime. Most of Schubert’s works were unveiled to them at convivial gatherings they called “Schubertiads.”

Mozart on the Brain

A Schubertiad, as sketched by Schubert's contemporary Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller in 1827. Waldmüller likely sketched the scene of Schubert playing the piano and singing with two friends as it happened.
A Schubertiad, as sketched by Schubert’s contemporary Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller in 1827. Waldmüller likely sketched the scene of Schubert playing the piano and singing with two friends as it happened.

Additionally, Schubert played viola in an amateur orchestra that was small enough to fit in the apartment of one Otto Hatwig. It was at one of this ensemble’s meetings that Schubert’s Fifth Symphony was first performed. Musically, many have noted the influence of Mozart on Schubert’s youthful symphony. Indeed, the 19-year-old Schubert confided the following to his diary a few months before completing his Fifth Symphony on October 3, 1816:

“As from afar the magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me…Thus does our soul retain these fair impressions, which no time, no circumstances can efface, and they lighten our existence. They show us in the darkness of this life a bright, clear, lovely distance, for which we hope with confidence. O Mozart, immortal Mozart, how many, oh how endlessly many such comforting perceptions of a brighter and better life hast thou brought to our souls!”

Though Mozart had been dead some 25 years, his music was more popular than ever, and for a young composer like Schubert, Mozart’s symphonies were models to emulate. Much more so than those by Beethoven, who had already composed eight of the nine revolutionary symphonies that would change the course of music history forever.

Apart from a small number of devoted imitators, most composers ignored Beethoven’s innovations, including the young Schubert. It would be several years more before Schubert would grapple with Beethoven’s legacy and find his own response to Beethoven’s musical revolution. For now, however, he was happy to follow in Mozart’s footsteps. His Fifth Symphony thus offers us a glimpse of an alternate reality, showing how music might have evolved had there been no Beethoven.

The Music

In the first movement, one clear nod to Mozart’s style is the “breath” the orchestra takes before beginning the second main melody of the movement, which itself is very Mozartian. Though the symphony displays many such touches, Schubert’s own developing personal voice also shines through. The symphony’s opening, for instance, was quite original. Instead of starting with a slow introduction or plunging right in, Schubert begins with four introductory bars that Schubert scholar Brian Newbold charmingly called a musical “curtain.” It is easy to imagine a curtain rising in a small, eighteenth-century theater to reveal the world of the stage as the symphony begins:

We then hear one of Schubert’s loveliest melodies in the violins. During his life, Schubert was primarily known as a composer of songs for voice and piano, and the vocal, singing style of his songs is often found in his instrumental compositions as well. Melody takes on an increasingly important structural role in Schubert’s music as he loosens and expands traditional classical patterns of composing. Pieces of the melody are echoed in the lower instruments as accompaniment; this technique can frequently be heard throughout the symphony.

The slow second movement is perhaps the most original. After the first graceful, elegant melody unfolds in E-flat major, the music slips into the distant and highly unusual key of C-flat major. This key change gives the duet between violins and woodwinds that follows a dreamy quality. The music then shifts to C-flat minor (written enharmonically as B minor to avoid an excessive number of flats in the key signature), but throughout there are still hints of major. This ever-shifting play of light and shadow will become one of the hallmarks of Schubert’s mature style.

The third movement minuet is surprisingly in a minor key, with a contrasting middle section in major. Although its character clearly recalls the minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, the melody was actually recycled by Schubert from a quartet he had written for an opera, Des Teufels Lustschloss (The Devil’s Pleasure Palace). The opera tells the story of the poor knight Oswald, whose love for the maiden Luitgarde is tested by seemingly supernatural apparitions in an old castle. After he bravely proves the constancy of his love, the ghosts and demons are revealed to be theatrical illusions organized by Luitgarde’s skeptical uncle, Count von Schwarzburg. The opera, which called for an elaborate set, went unperformed until the twentieth century.

The finale begins with a characteristically cheerful tune that soon gives way to all manner of harmonic surprises and developments. Its understated ending caps off a remarkable youthful work that shows Schubert’s mastery of symphonic writing and hints at the directions he would later take.

Don’t miss the Houston Symphony’s performances of Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 on October 20, 21 & 22. Get tickets and more info at houstonsymphony.org.

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