Program Notes for November 2016

Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert
Symphony no. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (“Unfinished”)

Franz Peter Schubert was born in Vienna on January 21, 1797 and died there on November 19, 1828. He composed a wide variety of music, but his most enduring contributions were to the repertory of song for voice and piano.  As best as can be determined, Schubert composed over six hundred accompanied songs in his brief life, as well as a large number of solo piano compositions, operas, sacred vocal works, and chamber music. His gift as a lyrical composer may also be heard in his purely instrumental music, including his popular “Unfinished” Symphony of 1822, which is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

Composed in the autumn of 1822, this symphony is the best-loved of Schubert’s orchestral music.  For the record, Schubert completed two movements of this symphony and sketched a third (scherzo), nine measures of which were fully scored.  Part of the appeal of the “Unfinished” Symphony lies in the mystery that surrounds its incomplete status, and many theories have been suggested as to why Schubert abandoned it in midstream. The notion that he intended it to be a two-movement composition is disputed by the sketch for a scherzo. Another theory stating that Schubert did compose a third and fourth movement that subsequently became lost has been refuted due to lack of evidence.  It has been documented, however, that at the time Schubert was working on its composition he contracted syphilis, causing him to become very ill, not to mention the psychological effect that this must have had on him. Martin Chusid has offered a still more likely theory that Schubert did not finish this, and several other works from roughly the same period, due to a personal compositional crisis fostered largely by the composer’s desire to “confront” his imposing contemporary, Beethoven.  It should be remembered that Beethoven not only was still alive at this time, but had yet to compose his own Ninth Symphony, and that Schubert was a somewhat shy admirer of the musical giant.

One need hardly wonder how awestruck the young Schubert would have been by the model of Beethoven’s instrumental music. Schubert’s own efforts, as wonderful as many of them are, often fail to measure up to Beethoven’s in many points of detail, most notably the finales to his multi-movement works. Might this not best explain why Schubert was reluctant to finish the “Unfinished”? As fate would have it, this great composition remained largely unknown – and completely unperformed – until 1865.

Modern judgment reveals that Schubert need not have been afraid to offer what exists of the “Unfinished” Symphony to his contemporaries, since it shows that Schubert was beginning to explore new possibilities in symphonic construction and thought that were even more forward-looking than Beethoven. In terms of aesthetic and form, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony pointed toward the Romantic in its thematic and tonal elements. Perhaps this work, more than any other, marks the true beginning of Romanticism in orchestral music, even if it went unknown and unperformed until well into the second half of the nineteenth century. We can only speculate as to how influential it might have become had it been performed and published earlier. Its influence, however, was not lost on late-19th century symphonists, including Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler.

Program Note by David B. Levy, © 1996/2016

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten
Double Concerto in B Minor for Violin, Viola and Orchestra

Benjamin Britten, one of England’s leading twentieth-century musicians, was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk on November 22, 1913 and died in Aldeburgh on December 4, 1976.  Britten’s contribution to the vocal and instrumental repertory is impressive, both in quantity and quality, and is widely admired for its superb craftsmanship and expressive power. His Double Concerto was composed in the Spring months of 1932, but was left unfinished until Colin Matthews completed its scoring in the late 1990s (published 1999). Its premiere took place at Snape Maltings on June 15, 1997 with soloists Katherine Hunka and Philip Dukes accompanied by the Britten-Pears Orchestra, conducted by Kent Nagano.

The forty years that have elapsed since the death of Benjamin Britten have only served to enhance the reputation that accrued to him during his lifetime – one of the greatest composers in the history of English music. Gifted from an early age, it is not surprising that under the tutelage of Frank Bridge, several works date from his youth. One work, however—the Double Concerto for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra—remained unfinished and unknown until recent times (1997). This fact is all the more curious in that the composer almost completed it in 1932. Even though Britten received praise for the first movement from the composer John Ireland, he was unhappy with the second movement and was ready to “tear that up soon.” Fortunately for us, he changed his mind, giving us a fascinating glimpse at his youthful genius.

Britten’s Double Concerto falls into the category of the eighteenth-century sinfonia concertante, and may have been inspired by Mozart’s work with that title for violin and viola, K. 364/320d (1779), even though the two works are worlds apart in content and style. Another possible inspiration for Britten must have been William Walton’s Concerto for Viola, which the composer had heard prior to his work on the Double Concerto. Given the relative paucity of significant concertos for solo viola, the completion and revelation of Britten’s composition is an even greater gift to violists everywhere. Comprising the standard three movements, Britten’s Double Concerto is filled with youthful passion, extraordinary drama, and lyricism that forecasts the future master of opera and song that he would become.

Notes by David B. Levy © 2016

W.A. Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, “Jupiter”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born January 27, 1756 in Salzburg. He died on December 5, 1791 in Vienna. The Symphony no. 41, K. 551, composed in 1788, was the composer’s last effort in the genre. The date of its first performance is unknown. The “K” number used for Mozart’s works refers to the name Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, who first issued the Chronological-Thematic Catalogue of the Complete Works of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart in 1862. The Köchel catalogue has been updated and revised several times. The “Jupiter” Symphony, whose popular title was not given by the composer, is scored for flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

Mozart’s last three symphonies were composed over a period of six weeks during the summer of 1788—an almost unbelievable feat, even for a composer who was famed for working at a breakneck pace.  Together they represent the zenith of the 18th-century symphonic process.  Their grandeur suggests that they were composed for public performance in Vienna, as opposed to any private function, and it may be that Mozart intended to use them for a series of concerts for his own benefit.  Such concerts, however, never materialized and the great triptych remained unperformed until after the composer’s death.  The last of these at some point in the nineteenth century became identified as the “Jupiter,” although programs featuring this work often identified it as the “Symphony with the closing fugue.”  The reason for this title is readily apparent upon hearing it.

The “Jupiter” Symphony is uncommonly rich, even for the melodious Mozart, in its abundance of thematic content.  The imposing Allegro vivace first movement reveals at once that here is a symphony of great formal design and dignity.  The form of the movement itself is not especially anomalous, but Mozart’s deft manipulation of its many-faceted themes – now martial, now operatic, now lyrical (here Mozart is quoting himself—an aria, Un bacio di mano, K. 541, composed to be inserted in the opera Le gelosie fortunate by Pasquale Anfossi), now brilliant – never fails to inspire wonder.  Only a composer of great experience and surety could have penned this work.  The first movement’s expansiveness hides its remarkable economy of means.  A perfect example of this comes at the beginning of the central development section wherein Mozart effects a spectacular modulation from G Major to E-flat Major in the course of only four notes in the woodwinds.  The Andante cantible shows a lyricism derived from the world where Mozart stood without peer—Italian opera.  Even here the composer has succeeded in outdoing himself in intensity of expression.  After a superb Allegretto minuet, we arrive at the Finale, Allegro molto that stands as a beacon flashing Mozart’s supreme mastery of form.  Despite the appellation given in nineteenth-century programs, this finale is not  a formal fugue.  It does, however, make considerable use of fugal techniques within the context of classical sonata form.  A precedent and parallel for this movement can be found in Mozart’s String Quartet in G Major, K. 387, also in the finale.  In both works the composer joins, as only he could, the textures of homophony (melody and accompaniment) and imitative counterpoint into a monument never exceeded by his successors.  The coda (concluding section) of the finale combines no fewer than five independent themes simultaneously.  Mathematically speaking, that presented Mozart with no fewer than one hundred and twenty-five possibilities for contrapuntal manipulation!  The beauty of all this lies, perhaps, in the fact that none of this sounds contrived, formal, or “scientific.”  But acknowledgement of the achievement makes us stand in even greater awe of Mozart’s pure genius.

Program Note by David B. Levy, © 2006/2016

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