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A Classical Mystery, Two Centuries Later

Portrait of Franz Schubert by Gustave Klimt
Gustav Klimt
Wikimedia Commons
Schubert at the Piano

I have always had a special place in my heart for Schubert’s "Unfinished" Symphony. In his handwriting, it is dated October 30, 1822, my birthday (the October 30 part, not the 1822 part). That means it was 200 years ago this year that Franz Schubert began working on his "other" Symphony No. 7. Let’s back up.

He had started work on a Seventh Symphony, and in fact, sketched out all four movements, but then set it aside and never put the finishing touches on it.

In 1822, when he was just 25 years old, Schubert completed two full movements and part of a third movement of his next symphony, and then stopped again. Had he finished this one, it would have become his actual Symphony No. 7, but in order to not confuse it with the one previously started and abandoned, cataloguers, years after the composer's death, simply called the newer piece his Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished.”

The next year, in 1823, the Graz Music Society gave Schubert an honorary diploma, and it was customary for the recipient to thank the organization with a new symphony. Schubert sent as much as he had written thus far to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who was a member of the Society. Probably realizing that it wasn’t finished, Hüttenbrenner stuck it in a desk drawer. Schubert died within 5 years and Hüttenbrenner forgot about the piece for over 40 years.

In 1865, Hüttenbrenner showed the sheet music to conductor Johann von Herbeck, who was impressed enough that he premiered the work in Vienna that December. Audiences reacted enthusiastically to the two movements they heard. Those two movements weren’t published, however, until 1867, some 45 years after Schubert wrote them.

And that’s all we know for sure.

Now come all the theories as to why Schubert never finished the “Unfinished.”

One claims that Schubert, who was known for being disorganized, likely finished the symphony but just mislaid some of it, and possibly got so involved with other projects that he simply forgot about it.

Feeding off of that one, there is another theory that says Schubert wanted to go forward with new projects and didn’t want to spend any more time on pieces that were too taxing on him.

Another claims he finished the symphony, but then repurposed one part to use as some of the incidental music he was asked to write for a play called “Rosamunde.” The Entr’acte is similar in instrumentation and style to the first two movements of the “Unfinished”. (By the way, the play didn’t do well, but audiences loved Schubert’s music.)

And yet another theory posits that Schubert said all he had to say in just the first two movements and ended it there. While it wasn’t a “full-length” (i.e. four-movement) work, as symphonies were constructed at the time, the theory is that Schubert was likely pleased enough with the work’s two movements that he may have felt it didn’t need anything else.

In the years since, there have been a number of attempts to “finish the ‘Unfinished.’” For example, in 1928, to mark the 100th anniversary of Schubert’s death, Columbia Records held a competition for people to imagine Schubert’s final version. Wikipedia says there were about 100 submissions completing the symphony as well as a large number of original pieces inspired by Schubert’s work.

And finally, as recently as 2017, fragments of sheet music in Schubert’s handwriting were found in an attic in a house in Vienna, close to where Schubert had been living at the time he wrote the symphony. Schubert scholars have confirmed that the fragment showed the orchestration to that scherzo, the third “unfinished” movement, to the symphony.

Whether there will be more fragments found in the future or whether the world will never solve the mystery, we know that young Franz Schubert gave the world an extraordinary look into the music that might have been had he lived.

If you’d like to experience the “Unfinished” for yourself, there are so many great recordings out there with such legendary conductors as Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan, for example, and you can find wonderful online video performances, with legendary conductors Leonard Bernstein, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Gianandrea Noseda. My favorite video is with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

CODA:  In 1957, a 6-minute short titled “Boo Bop,” featuring the cartoon character of Casper the Friendly Ghost, found little Casper doing his best to help Franz Schubert’s ghost finish writing his “Unfinished” Symphony. If you can overlook the fact that Casper’s Schubert looks nothing like the real Schubert … it’s a fun classic.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.