The Musicians of the Utah Symphony are currently rehearsing for a performance of the Schubert Symphony No. 9, often referred to as the “Great C Major.” Here is the reprint of an article I wrote for the Boston Symphony program book a few years ago regarding the Schubert and two other “great” compositions on their platter at the time: Sibelius Symphony No. 2 and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. To my Utah Symphony colleagues, take a deep breath and have fun!
Whenever I hear someone say “Schubert’s Great C major,” my inner Pavlov barks at me
to reflexively grasp my right arm and cringe in pain.Why? The symphony is of sprawling
dimensions, and the violins saw away almost without respite, especially in the frenetically exuberant finale, which begins like a race car revving its engine and then never looks back.
I feel for all those poor 19th-century Viennese fiddlers who rehearsed and performed in
unheated concert halls, with dingy lighting and limitless overtime.With the wonders of
physical therapy (and racecars) still a century in future, this very symphony may well have the dubious distinction of having given the world its first case of repetitive motion disorder. Yet for me at least, any discomfort is more than compensated for because Schubert symphonies are just so damned beautiful! Even after playing them for decades I still marvel at how his melodies evolve, and at the miracle of his seamless modulations in and out of beguilingly remote keys.
Of the many great “Great” performances the BSO has given, Sir Colin Davis’s is
one I was involved in that stands out for achieving the fine balance between
the intimately personal and the big picture, which is so crucial with Schubert
symphonies: on one hand, nuanced lyricism; on the other, sheer grandeur. It’s my understanding that the BSO’s recording of the Great C major with Sir Colin was the first in which all of Schubert’s repeats are observed, making it over an hour long. (No wonder
my arm ached.) Yet, for the listener, the music retains its engaging freshness throughout,
and unlike many other pieces of that duration, there’s never an impulse to glance at one’s
watch, wondering whether the restaurant will hold your reservation.
Though Beethoven experimented with form throughout all nine of his symphonies, Schubert maintained a consistently traditional and standard structure with all of his. Structural surprises within or between movements are wholly absent. Each has four movements (with the one exception of the Unfinished Symphony, which aside from having only two movements is otherwise formally straightforward): the first in sonata-allegro form, usually with an introduction; a slower, often folk-like movement; a scherzando minuet with a lyrical Trio; and a spirited, hurtling finale. Schubert’s orthodoxy shouldn’t be considered a failing, however, because without that self-imposed restrictive stability, Schubert’s absolutely astonishing genius for melodic invention and visionary harmonic modulation might have been susceptible to unfettered wandering.With Beethoven, form was infinitely malleable, a tool to serve the dramatic narrative. For Schubert, form was a grand design, like the Golden Gate Bridge, and the more expansive it became the more important it was to provide the necessary structural harmonic supports upon which to overlay his creative genius.
Each composer was a supreme master of something that had proven elusive to the other:
Schubert’s innate and unexcelled melodic gift versus Beethoven’s genius for motivic
building blocks and dramatic symphonic form. Yet Schubert revered Beethoven and often visited him during his last days. And Beethoven, famous for his flinty opinions of just about everything, reserved a warm place in his heart for his younger Viennese colleague. On one occasion, when Schubert called with Anselm Huttenbrenner, Beethoven remarked, “You, Anselm have my mind, but Franz has my soul.” That Schubert was a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral, and affectionately quoted the immortal melody from Beethoven’s Ninth in the last movement of the Great C major—his last completed symphony—is testament to that veneration.
On the surface, the symphonies of Jean Sibelius, especially the later ones, seem to be a
contradictory combination of modernistic austerity and passionate romanticism. Some
listeners profess “not getting” Sibelius, preferring his more heart-on-sleeve contemporary and musical rival, Gustav Mahler.When Mahler went to Helsinki to conduct Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 in 1907, he staked out his turf: a symphony must be “like the world; it must embrace everything.” Not so for Sibelius, where a different world grew organically from within each symphony, and a “profound logic [creates] a connection between all the motifs.” “Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description,” Sibelius quipped, “I offer the public pure cold water.”
One thing about a splash of cold water on your face, it wakes you up. The Symphony No. 2 douses you with a bucketful! Though it’s his most popular and accessible symphony, with grand, sweeping melodies that could fit seamlessly in a Hollywood tear-jerker with Tyrone Power and Loretta Young, there are moments when the going is more Bergmanesque (Ingmar, not Ingrid). The fragmented opening of the symphony immediately creates a sense of unease for the listener. At the beginning of the third movement that unease is shared with the musicians as well, when, after a gentle cadence ends the previous movement, the orchestra explodes out of the silence with a machinegun-like burst; then, just as suddenly, the strings drop precipitously in volume while maintaining absolute, rapid-fire, rhythmic precision. If not executed with finely honed accuracy, the resulting mishmash can sound like the great Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich’s colorful description of a similarly treacherous passage in Brahms’s Haydn Variations. It reminded him, he said, of how “in my country, when you open closet, and escapes all the little lousies running away.”
The finale, with its sweeping main theme, brooding coda, and triumphant final brass
chorale, resolves all the symphony’s internal conflicts and is one of the most rewarding
in the entire repertoire. It’s also a pleasure to play, and I was privileged to be in the BSO
when it performed and recorded the complete Sibelius symphonies with Colin Davis,
an accomplishment still noted in the world of discography as being the foremost compilation of the cycle. Though I haven’t sworn off the cocktails, I was converted to devout Sibeli-ism during those sessions.
Arguably the greatest orchestral piece of the 20th century, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps is, to my mind, the only ballet score that stands on its own in concert performance from first note to last without reduction. I’ve played the complete versions of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat, and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé in the concert hall and, except from the standpoint of historical interest, all those masterpieces fare better as suites in which the composers deleted those sections where the musicians tread water while the dancers tread on toe. Stravinsky himself understood that even Firebird and Petrushka, his ballets that preceded Le Sacre, were more convincing as suites. To pare down Le Sacre, however, would be heresy—even for music
billed as pagan—because it’s as gripping a symphonic drama as it is a visual dance piece. The riot that took place at its premiere in 1913 may in part have been due to the intensely provocative persona and choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky, but it was the music, from its first, iconoclastic note, that stirred the savage Parisian breast.
I’m fortunate to have been involved in many riveting BSO performances of Le Sacre, including a powerfully charged one with Charles Dutoit at Tanglewood in 2013. The most memorable performance for me, however, was not with the Boston Symphony
at all, but when I was a freshman in the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestra in 1970. We
had rehearsed for weeks under the capable baton of Conservatory conductor Robert
Baustian, before the arrival of guest conductor Pierre Boulez for the final rehearsals and
performance. It had been a monumental struggle for all the young students, for whom,
like me, it was their first exposure to Le Sacre; and all the wickedly complex rhythms,
changes of meter, and dissonant harmonies threatened to make their virgin voyage a
sacrificial one. Dr. Baustian’s cautionary words of wisdom were, “When in doubt, don’t
With Boulez, a miraculous transformation took place. Everything seemed to fit together
without the slightest effort. (Well, maybe that’s overstating the case a little.) He had an
incredible ear and could point out subtle intonation inaccuracies even within the densest
harmonies. (After I joined the BSO, one of my colleagues confided that the orchestra’s
nickname for Boulez was “the French Correction.”) At a Q&A after one of the Oberlin
rehearsals, a student asked Boulez why he didn’t use a baton. “I have ten batons,” he
replied with a sardonic smile, and wiggled his fingers. The performance was the most
exhilarating orchestral experience of my college career. I was lucky enough to get a tape,
and when I listen to it from time to time my initial excitement is validated. For young
musicians, moments like that are priceless, a big reason why programs like the Tanglewood Music Center, where students work with some of the world’s great conductors, are so vital to the future of symphonic music.
One of the prized possessions in my LP collection is the 1957 Boston Symphony recording
of Le Sacre on RCA conducted by Pierre Monteux, who was not only music director
of the BSO a quarter-century earlier, but also the conductor of the (in)famous Paris premiere. I had the privilege of performing Le Sacre with some of the very musicians in that Monteux recording—who can forget Sherman Walt’s haunting bassoon solo to open the piece, or Vic Firth’s relentless, apocalyptic timpani strokes to end it?—and feel proud and grateful to have been exposed to some of that musical DNA tracing all the way back to the “big bang” of May 29, 1913, at the Champs-Élysées Theatre.
The Boston Symphony can now play Le Sacre with its eyes closed and not miss a beat,
yet such was the genius of Stravinsky that even after a century the music is ageless—it
still feels new and mysterious and dangerously unpredictable.
For musicians who play a hundred concerts a year, year after year, there are a handful of compositions in the standard repertoire that guarantee to get the adrenaline flowing.
These works by Schubert, Sibelius, and Stravinsky are among that elite group that seem
somehow larger than life, almost as if the composers themselves were announcing to
posterity, “You may have listened to other things I’ve written, but sit up and take notice,
because ‘you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!’”