About this Recording
8.572051 - SCHUBERT, F.: Symphony, "Death and the Maiden" (arr. A. Stein) / Symphony No. 8, "Unfinished" (completed by B. Newbould and M. Venzago)
English  German 

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor (completed by Brian Newbould and Mario Venzago)
String Quartet in D minor, ‘Death and the Maiden’ (adapted for orchestra by Andy Stein)


Few citizens of Vienna were poorer than Franz Schubert, but neither kings nor queens had greater wealth to share. His fortune was melody, and like a true fountain of youth, masterpieces in song poured from his pen while he was yet a teenager. Then came a sunshower of chamber music, eight symphonies, overtures, operas and ballets, in sum more than six hundred exquisite songs and a trove of sacred works as if borrowed from beyond. Beethoven said it best: “Truly, Schubert has a divine spark”. By the time of his tragic demise at the age of 31 the list of compositions by Franz Schubert included more than a thousand works. Astonishing.

With regard to Symphony No. 8 of 1822, a perennial question remains: why was the symphony left with just two completed movements instead of the usual four? In fact Schubert had sketched a few bars for a third movement Scherzo. Moreover, he continued to write on a large scale for orchestra, and in 1828 completed his celebrated symphony known as The Great C Major.

Historians believe that something specific distracted Schubert from the so-called ‘Unfinished’. It is known only that he gave the two-movement score to a prominent Viennese family in 1823, perhaps in payment for a debt. The work was held in estate for 42 years before it was discovered and given its first performance in 1865. Biographers presume the composer had become seriously ill and simply abandoned the project. Credibility for this view derives in part from Schubert’s own presentiments of a short life. At the time, he wrote:

Take my life, my flesh and blood, let them fall into
Lethe’s waters, to a purer, stronger state. Deign me,
Great One, to transform. (In Greek mythology,
drinking from the river Lethe brings sweet

While Symphony No. 8 is widely performed and recorded as an ‘Unfinished’ masterpiece, for well over a century various completed versions have been offered by sincere Schubert devotees. The four-movement composite presented here is based on meticulous research.

Following Schubert’s original first two movements, the music continues with a Scherzo, derived by the English historian, Brian Newbould, who for many years served as president of The Schubert Institute. Newbould accounts that his realisation is based on fragments from Schubert’s notebooks (piano sketches and twenty measures in full score).

For the last movement, the source is again Schubert; that is the Entr’acte segment from his incidental music for a play titled Rosamunde, Princess of Cypress, by Wilhelmina von Chézy. For reference, the music for Rosamunde (originally for orchestra, soprano and chorus) was written shortly after Schubert set aside his unfinished score. From this, scholars infer that the Entr’acte music (also in B minor) which occurs between Act I and Act II had probably been intended as the finale for the symphony. Rosamunde also includes a pair of ballet scenes (Allegro moderato; Andantino), segments of which are likewise included in the version performed here, assembled by the Swiss conductor, Mario Venzago.

As for the music of this revered masterpiece, it is as perfectly formed as an antique vase of the Hellenic Age—lithe, lyrical, ever more lovely at every turn. Melodic jewels and evocative phrases are everywhere, set over darkly intoned harmonies. A story is at hand: one can feel its drama, sense its urgent appeal - serious, noble and serene, as if resonant with the ideals once expressed in 1819 by another young artist of the same era:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, John Keats (1795–1821)

Among Schubert’s most often-performed chamber works is Death and the Maiden, a string quartet he scored in 1824, based on the poetry and themes of a song he had composed in 1817 (Op. 7, No. 3).

Following a verse by the German Romantic poet Matthias Claudius (1740–1815), the lyrics recount an old European myth, where a sovereign (in this case, Death) demands a pre-nuptial night with a bride-to-be. If she declines, Death will take her betrothed on their wedding day. The Maiden sings: Leave me, terrible specter, I am so young, go away and let me be. To which Death replies: Give me your hand, beautiful and sweet creature, I am your friend, and have not come to punish you. Have courage! You will sleep sweetly in my arms.

While Death and the Maiden is a classic quartet in every respect, it qualifies no less as a tone poem in the Romantic manner. Throughout the work, Schubert’s melodic palette renders a tone-painting of the dramatic scenarios at hand. Furthermore, the composer’s choice of key is significant, highlighted by historian Brigitte Massin, who notes that, particularly in his many songs, Schubert favoured D minor for poignant expressions of death, penitence, shadowy dreams, and shrouded moonlight.

At once heralding and severe, the opening Allegro conveys the terror of Death’s proposition, crafted in sonata form although clearly rhapsodic in flow. In G minor, the second movement Andante con moto offers the haunting pulse and phrase of the chant of Death, followed by five variations of which only the fourth converts to G major before dark reality returns.

Relatively brief, the Scherzo-Allegro again reflects the spectre of the macabre visitor, blending into major at the trio, feigning solace to the Maiden. The brilliant Rondo- Finale takes to the wind as a classic tarantella. Built on preceding elements and cryptic souvenirs, the movement whirls in variations before the closing flourish.

About his adaptation of Death and the Maiden for full orchestra, American composer and arranger Andy Stein writes:

“This arrangement is radically different from the well-known Mahler rendition, in that it employs not just the string section, but the also customary woodwind octet, with four horns, two trumpets and timpani. The piece is arguably Schubert’s greatest composition in a large form, and suffers from a limited audience because it is a string quartet.

“In short, I have tried to create a late classical / early Romantic symphony out of this great chamber work, so that it perhaps would sound as if Schubert himself had conceived it in this form. As I began to get specific with the tone colors for each theme or section, the project took on a life of its own, and it fell-in together like a beautiful giant jigsaw puzzle. Yet I was aware of the danger of doing something like taking an original pen and ink by Leonardo and coloring-in with acrylic paint.

“More of a dilemma was for me the question of whether to use two French horns and three trombones, or four horns in two keys. Schubert used the latter for his ‘Tragic’ Symphony No. 4 in C minor, and the former in his ‘Great’ C major and ‘Unfinished’ B minor symphonies. I have found the more traditional array of four horns especially exciting and appropriate for this particular work, in which ‘tragedy’ is certainly a pertinent concept.”


Edward Yadzinski

Close the window