The Mystery of the Unfinished Symphony

Unfinished Symphony

Even the best artists leave their work unfinished sometimes.

In 1822, Franz Schubert wrote his Symphony No. 8 – rather, two movements of it, and an incomplete scherzo. While the rest of the scherzo was found in a separate manuscript in short score that was preserved along with his other manuscripts by his brother Ferdinand, there is no trace of the fourth movement or even any evidence that Schubert had started work on it. However, it has since been surmised that the missing fourth movement is actually the extended Entr’acte from Schubert’s incidental music, Rosamunde, as the piece is written in the home key of B minor, and with the same orchestration.

The Unfinished Symphony was only discovered more than three decades after the composer’s death, when an old man claimed that he had a work Schubert sent him 42 years earlier. He gave the work to Johann von Herbeck, his friend and the conductor of the Vienna Music Association.

In 1823, Schubert had sent the two completed movements of the Unfinished Symphony, as well as at least the first two pages of the scherzo to Anselm Hüttenbrenner in return for an honorary diploma he had received from the Graz Music Society. Hüttenbrenner was part of the society and Schubert’s friend, which is why he was the one to receive the score.

Hüttenbrenner never had the work performed nor told anyone of its existence, which may be odd, or he may simply have been waiting for the completion of the piece – but it never came when Schubert died young five years later. However, even after Schubert passed away, Hüttenbrenner still never told anyone about the score until 42 years after Schubert gave it to him. In fact, Hüttenbrenner himself would live for only three more years after he gave the score to the Vienna Music Association in 1865. That year in Vienna, the Unfinished Symphony was performed for the first time. The orchestra added the last movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 in D major as a finale to the Unfinished, although it was not even in the correct key and the lighthearted characteristic did not exactly fit. Nevertheless, the performance was received very well by the audience. The score of the first two movements was later published in 1867.


Why is the Symphony Unfinished?

Of course, this would immediately cause one to ask such a question. In the following years, there were numerous reasons why Schubert had never finished his symphony. It did seem as if he had intended to write a proper four-movement symphony, but for some mysterious reason, was only able to complete the first two movements and a sketch of the third movement before he died six years after starting it.

Some people thought that Schubert may not have wanted to finish the entire symphony in triple time. It was unusual for the first two movements to both be in triple time (3/4 for the first movement and 3/8 for the second). By characteristic, the third movement would also be in triple time since it was a scherzo, and Schubert may have tired of it and not wanted to finish it as well as writing an additional fourth movement.

Others believed that because Schubert contracted syphilis – the illness that would eventually claim his life – in 1822, around the same time he began writing the Unfinished Symphony, he may have had bad associations with the piece. As he found himself in worsening health over the years, he may have decided to put aside the symphony that reminded him of the time when he first fell ill.

There is another theory that Schubert found the first two movements original and outstanding, while the third was seemingly lackluster and poor quality. Perhaps he had decided that the first two movements were good enough, and nothing he could write would be able to match them.

Schubert may also have been preoccupied with other works and decided to spend his time on those instead of revisiting older pieces. In 1822, he was also working on what he considered his most complicated work in terms of performance, Fantasie in C major, Op. 15 (D.760), also known as the Wanderer Fantasy. It was a solo piano composition consisting of four movements.

Another reason is that Schubert may simply have forgotten about the Unfinished Symphony. He sent what he had written to Hüttenbrenner just a year after he had started working on it, and then perhaps forgot about it. In his later correspondence with friends and associates, Schubert regularly discusses his other works, but he never once mentions the Unfinished.


The Legacy of the Unfinished Symphony

Sometimes, the Unfinished Symphony is called the No. 7 instead of No. 8, because the other work that would be called Schubert’s Symphony No. 7 in E major was also left unfinished and completed by Felix Weingartner, although there existed fragments of all four movements written in Schubert’s hand.

Regardless of its unfinished state, people still regard this work of Schubert’s as one of the greatest romantic symphonies. Schubert was not the only one to leave his symphony unfinished – symphonies tend to be long, complicated pieces with multiple parts, and it can anywhere from weeks to years to finish one. Some other unfinished symphonies by other composers include Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 10.

Usually only the first two movements of the Unfinished Symphony are performed in concerts nowadays. The unfinished state of the symphony has not stopped other people from attempting to complete the missing parts.

In 1928, on the 100th anniversary of Schubert’s death, Columbia Records held a worldwide contest for the best composition that finished the symphony.

In January 2019, the Chinese electronics company Huawei set out to complete the Unfinished Symphony, using artificial intelligence with the Mate 20 Pro smartphone and the Kirin 980’s Dual-Neural Processing Unit (NPU). Hypothetical melodies were created for the third and fourth movements, and Emmy Award-winning composer Lucas Cantor then arranged an orchestral score. This version was performed live at Cadogan Hall in London on 4 February 2019. However, this rendition of the Unfinished Symphony was not very well-received, with critics stating that the resulting composition was far from Schubert’s style.

However, the most astounding news yet may be that in 2017, a six-page fragment of a musical score was found in the attic of a house. The house is near the Schubert Museum in Vienna, where Schubert’s final home resides. The manuscript is written in Schubert’s hand and is an orchestration of the third movement, which ends in D major – the relative major of the symphony’s home key of B minor.

We may not know if there is a fourth movement existing yet, but as it turns outUnfinished Symphony, the Unfinished Symphony may not be all that unfinished. 

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Dec 30, 2019

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