Spring Symphonies: 5/60 Schubert: Symphony No 2
This symphony from around 1814 was written at the same time as Beethoven was going through something of a compositional bad patch. Schubert’s second sits on the timeline between Beethoven’s 8th and 9th. Schubert and Beethoven met but the latter couldn’t have known much of the younger man’s music because so little of it had been published. Beethoven was Schubert’s hero and at the end of Schubert’s short life he was buried next to Beethoven.
I could, for this series, have written about Schubert’s two enduring masterpieces Symphonies 8 and 9 (in the new numbering system) - the Unfinished and the Great but in my view the first three symphonies Schubert wrote don’t get nearly enough prominence so I’ve plumped for No 2 - largely for its vigour and sunny outlook. Schubert died, his work little known 185 years ago - he is a giant among composers and his deeply personal and moving songs, chamber and instrumental works have dominated the repertoire for many years. It is not untypical of the composer’s luck that this symphony didn’t get it’s premiere until Sir August Manns conducted it in London in 1877 at the Crystal Palace. Poor Schubert, he deserved but never got his name up on the billboards. This note is one of many written by Schubertians to get people to listen now - not least because this is a jolly work of brevity, modesty and beautiful proportion.
Its replete with technical innovations and similarities to other works none of which really matter in this music. It really is just a matter of kicking of your shoes, maybe dancing round the living room, tapping your feet or waving a pencil in the air. It is music with virtually no disruption to it’s happy course. The first movement’s slow introduction really is a preparatory breath - introducing us to a fizzy, bouncy and hugely enjoyable movement built of nothing but glee. The slow movement is a nice little exercise in theme and variations - again Schubert plays. And it’s worth bearing in mind that his audience never really connected with him symphonically, so in a real sense he was imagining what might please us (nearly two centuries on at that). Schubert’s grip of the basics of human interaction - our hopes and fears comes out in his great works for voice was uncanny, but we can imagine that the man who’s nickname was “the mushroom” had a shrewd sense of humour too and he managed to get it in his music. Even at its most densely scored and dynamic this movement stays genial.
The Minuet has that lumpy feel of Bruckner’s later Ländler movements - Austrian dancing must have had its equivalent of the lead footed brigade. There is something quite glorious about this with it’s Trio is simplicity itself and yet over in a trice - Schubert doesn’t sit on his laurels in this work.
The Presto last movement slides in at a gallop and with wit and élan ushers in a tutti of buoyancy and a few surprises. I promise broad smiles to the unexperienced listener. There’s something so clever about Schubert’s transitions here, but much is about music continually developing, heaping idea on idea to tease and invite the listener to be caught by his tricks. To my ears he does this with a deal more panache than the same movement in his Ninth symphony.
It’s worth reporting that there are on record various approaches from the staid and stately to the brisk and rumbustious. I think the music is strong enough to take most treatments so whether you go for Böhm or Minkowski you can’t go far wrong. There’s the question of repeats but I think that’s a personal preference nowadays. Minkowski would be my pick just on the basis that his reading smiles from ear to ear.
To whet your appetite for this epitome of orchestral geniality, here’s the stylish Frans Bruggen.