Symphony No.5

Franz Schubert

Symphony No.5 in Bb major


Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

As a 19 year old in Vienna in 1816, Franz Schubert found his life something of a bore. His employment as an assistant master at his father's school could not have provided much fulfillment to one so talented and ambitious; further, his already plentiful compositions remained virtually unknown outside his immediate circle. Still, any personal dissatisfaction Schubert might have felt apparently had little effect on his productivity, for in that year he put to paper some 125 songs and over 50 other works for chorus, orchestra, piano, and various chamber ensembles. One of the brightest spots in this virtual avalanche of music is the Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, completed on October 3.

In the Fifth Symphony, Schubert takes a step back from the dramatic affect of his "Tragic" Symphony of a few months earlier, instead producing a work that sparkles with the clarity and ease of its obvious models, the symphonies of Haydn and especially Mozart. The distance between Schubert's early instrumental music and later works like the "Great" Symphony in C major (1825-1828) or the String Quintet in C major (1828), finished just a few weeks before he died, is great; in most ways, the non-vocal works composed before 1820 are the products of an imagination still searching for the answers to questions it has posed to itself. Perhaps because it addresses a different set of challenges, the Fifth Symphony represents the composer's closest approach to complete mastery in the works of this period.

The usual four movements are all in place in the Fifth Symphony, played by an orchestra that, in keeping with the work's Classical tendencies, is rather smaller than the one called for in Schubert's previous symphony. There are no clarinets in the Fifth, no trumpets or timpani, and Schubert writes for just one flute rather than the then-customary pair. The symphony opens with an Allegro that is as lovely and streamlined a sonata-allegro as one might hope for. The first theme is preceded by a quaint, graceful four-measure introduction that reappears prominently in the development. The theme itself is a delightful notion affectionately tossed back and forth between the first violins and cellos and basses. Schubert indulges in one of his favorite sonata-form modifications in the movement: bringing the first theme back in the subdominant in the recapitulation, rather than in the expected tonic. The Andante con moto, in E flat major, grows from two contrasting (though not sharply contrasting) ideas whose back-and-forth results in a kind of rondo. The third movement is a Minuetto in G minor; its major-mode trio section is marked by an attractive lilt. The scampering main theme of the brilliant finale needs a true leggiero touch from the violins. The second theme is pure string quartet writing, a characteristic no amount of commentary from the winds can obscure.