Schubert's 8th Symphony (Unfinished): Coherence in Contrast


Schubert's famously 'unfinished' symphony in B minor remains popular even though it is 'missing' a third and fourth movement. Scholars have inevitably attempted to complete the symphony based on existing sketches and knowledge of the composer's works (indeed, a concert I played in yesterday included a completion of the work), however the two movements that we have today can definitely be viewed as a complete work in itself. It's not as if Schubert died mid-composition, he went on to write a ninth symphony! So perhaps it might be argued that he decided that in the two movements we have, everything that needs to be said has been.

One thing that has really struck me about this music while rehearsing and performing it is the subtlety. Essentially, this music can initially sound like a conventional symphony, however on examination of each instrumental part and the intricacies of the way in which it was composed, such as looking at the use of harmony, reveal some very clear, unashamed emotions. Schubert was so clever at manipulating harmony in unconventional ways that it almost seems undetectable (see my earlier post on the song-cycle Winterreise), and the subtleties of beauty in the instrumental writing can often require a listening approach similar to that I might adopt for listening to Brahms (see my earlier post on Brahms' Second Symphony).

Having said all this, however, it is clear that there is something greater than convention going on in this symphony. The darkness of the opening cello and bass motif signifies something perhaps much more intense than you might be expecting, and the following second-subject theme acts as quite a surprising change of mood and perspective on the music. This idea continues throughout the first movement, with subtle build ups to seemingly sudden changes in musical direction whilst still somehow remaining coherent. In the second movement, this compositional approach remains yet somehow the music portrays an entirely different mood. If the first movement portrays darkness bookending lighter moments, perhaps the second movement is the opposite. And perhaps, by the final chord, this is why the symphony ends there, with two contrasting yet coherent musical movements beautifully complementing each other.

Benjamin Jackson