Symphony No.6

Franz Schubert

Symphony No.6 in C major

D589 • “Little C major”

About this work

Franz Peter Schubert composed this work between October 1817 and February 1818. It was first performed in 1818 by Otto Hatwig and a small orchestra in the conductor's Schottenhof apartment; the public premiere wasn't until December 14, 1828, at a Gesellschaft der Muskfreunde concert in Vienna. It is scored for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings.

As Salieri's pupil Schubert composed five symphonies between 1813-1816, adding the Sixth on his own in 1817-1818 -- the musical equivalents of May wine in recycled bottles, which is to say in forms pioneered by Haydn and perfected by Mozart that Beethoven had set about shattering when Schubert was still a nursing infant.

He paid his respects to Beethoven in the opening pages of Symphony No. 6, but especially in the scherzo -- the first time Schubert adopted Beethoven's coinage in place of Minuet. The Sixth begins with a loud C major tutti that fades down, as Beethoven began his Seventh Symphony with the same instrumentation (but in A major) just a few years earlier. Yet Schubert's subsequent melodies prove no more heroic than his structures or harmonic bias. Although Robert Haven Schauffler wrote that his "approach to the recapitulation is Beethoven to the life," the materials themselves suggest dance tunes. By then Rossini had ensorcelled Vienna, and when Schubert wasn't being a genius he could be a blotter. The slow movement goes briskly, with a dactylic chief theme in the violins. And it does sound like Schubert on holiday in the Austrian countryside, a notable expressive advance for the 20-year-old composer.

Homage to Beethoven in the scherzo clearly derives from the deaf master's First Symphony -- especially the use of loud-soft dynamics -- but its E major Trio (Più lento) is closer to a Haydn Ländler than a Beethovenian jest.

Schubert introduces the rondo-like main theme of his Allegro moderato finale softly, as he'd done in the three previous movements. But structurally his Rossinian context is simpler than a rondo. Schauffler considered it "full of exuberant drive," despite his caveats about derivations and an abruptly harsh charge of "somewhat shoddy quality." The eminent Maurice J.E. Brown gave credit for "a great advance in technical matters over the previous five symphonies....The use of the orchestra is masterly, its movements are expertly organized to the point of glibness, all is crisp and competent." But he concluded -- as many have since -- that there's little or "no heart in the work; it is all externals." Even so, Schubert was learning by doing, and proved it two years later in sketches for a Seventh Symphony (E minor, D. 729), followed by two movements in 1822 that posterity has christened "the Unfinished."