Symphony No.4

Franz Schubert

Symphony No.4 in C minor

D417 • “Tragic”

About this work

That Franz Schubert, as a young man still learning his craft, was more influenced by the music of Haydn and Mozart than by the symphonies of Beethoven (just then reaching their stride) is readily apparent in his early orchestral works; the Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D. 417 (the "Tragic" Symphony, as Schubert called it), composed during the spring of 1816, is no exception. Despite the frequent comparisons made between this work and Beethoven's famous symphony in the same key, it is difficult to think of another symphonic work from the 1810s that more completely ignores Beethoven's special contributions to dramatic orchestral writing. The "Tragic" Symphony is the work of a teenage schoolteacher whose debt to the Viennese masters of the previous century was perhaps greater than even he realized it to be; that this journeyman work is so gripping and effective in its own right is a testimonial to Schubert's extraordinary inventive gifts -- gifts that found a voice with or without the aid of structural and formal innovation.

The slow introduction to the opening movement (Adagio molto-Allegro vivace) is quite Haydnesque, with its bare fortissimo octave beginning and its almost painfully slow, searching dialogue between the upper and lower voices. However, the slippery descending sequence that lands us, to both our surprise and delight, on a G flat major harmony before ten bars have gone by is all Schubert. The Allegro vivace body of the movement takes us past all the usual sonata-allegro landmarks, but again these are given expression in a voice that is entirely Schubert's: the main theme seems more propulsive and frantic than anything Haydn might have put his name to, and even Mozart could not have written a more spirited C major close.

The keys of the two central movements -- A flat major and E flat major -- make clear references to the keys in which the first movement's second theme appears (A flat in the exposition, E flat in the recapitulation). The opening melody of the lovely Andante, like so many of Schubert's gentler orchestral treasures, might easily have been conceived for string quartet; a passage of considerable fury interrupts twice, but each time it is absorbed back into a loving reprise of the opening tune. The scherzo is famous for its shifty, chromatic main idea.

The finale begins with a four-bar introduction that seems to dissolve before our very eyes (or ears). After initially serving as just a background to the restless main theme, the running eighth notes begin to shape themselves into the form that will support the second theme, which is at first crafted into a duet for the first violins and clarinet. The whole of the recapitulation is recast into C major, and at the very end the C octaves that began the first movement are brought back to affirm the happy ending.