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Schubert > Berio

programme notes

12.10.2022 THE UNFINISHED: SCHUBERT > BERIO


written by Aurélie Walschaert*

*the section on Rendering by Luciano Berio has been reworked on the basis of a text by Kathleen Snyers

[see all programme notes]

When Franz Schubert (1797-1828) died (in 1828), he left behind not only an enormous repertoire, but also countless sketches and notes for works left incomplete. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death, in 1978, these sketches were compared and organized once again. In particular, the unfinished Symphony No. 7 in B Minor, D.759 drew people’s attention: countless composers and music theorists have tried since then to finish the symphony. The most remarkable endeavour to do so was by made the Chinese IT firm Huawei in 2019. Based on an analysis of the tone, colour and melodic material of the first two movements, and with the aid of the artificial intelligence in one of its smartphones, the company simulated a continuation of the symphony. The result was, in turn, revised and further developed by the film music composer Lucas Cantor. Whether the end result truly brings Schubert back to life may be called into question, but the experiment does point to the timelessness and quality of the original work.

What the Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003) did with Schubert’s – likewise incomplete – Tenth Symphony in D Major is of an entirely different order. Berio is known among other things for his distinctive orchestrations and transformations of both his own music and that of other composers, ranging from Monteverdi to Mahler. His aim was not to reconstruct the Tenth Symphony as Schubert himself might have written it. Instead, in his Rendering for Orchestra, he created a unique fresco in which newly composed music serves as the plaster to bind together the surviving fragments of Schubert’s music.

An open end

The Austrian composer Franz Schubert was born in Vienna, a city where music was flourishing under composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. And although during his short life, he gained little renown, Schubert can certainly be considered just as ground-breaking. By the time Beethoven had published his First Symphony at the age of thirty, Schubert had already completed nearly his entire oeuvre. He had the reputation of being a hard worker and to write a lot in a short period of time; this, by the age of twenty, he had already composed six operas, five symphonies, around ten string quartets and several hundred songs (Lieder).

Schubert earned his reputation chiefly with his Lieder – in the course of his lifetime he wrote some six hundred in all. The introverted Schubert found inspiration and an example in the sensitive verses of poets like Goethe, Schiller and Heine; he was a master in translating the emotional content of their poems into music. In addition to the Lied genre, Schubert also focused on instrumental music, especially towards the end of his life. He composed thirteen symphonies in all, of which about half remained unfinished. None of those symphonies was performed in his lifetime, and it was only many years after his death that they were published. This has made for a complicated chronology and numbering.

Thus, Schubert’s Symphony in C Major (D.944), known as "the Great", was assigned number 9 at the end of the 19th century, because it was presumed that a seventh symphony had been lost. When it appeared that this was not the case, and that Schubert had thus left only eight completed symphonies, this numbering was nevertheless maintained.

The seventh – or eighth in the traditional numbering – symphony was dubbed “the Unfinished”, since Schubert had only completed two of its movements. Of the third, only a few sketches survive, which are clearly of lesser quality than the first two. This is seen as an indication that Schubert was planning to make it a symphony of four movements. Why he abandoned that plan may never be known. What is evident is that the symphony, even unfinished, is a unique masterpiece. In addition to its three-four time signature of both movements, and the unusual key of B minor, the symphony is also unusual for the gripping opening: from the quiet lower strings rises a plaintive theme, which is then slowly built up. The second movement is also enveloped in a similarly mournful and consoling mood.

Unique masterpiece

“During the last several years, I have been asked time and again to do ‘something’ with Schubert, but I always declined this kind but cumbersome invitation.”

The Unfinished Symphony is no isolated case. Schubert spent those years fully immersed in experimentation with new forms of expression, which regularly presented him with problems regarding the symphonic form. Only in 1825-1826 did he find a solution, when writing his Ninth Symphony. He had also started working on a tenth, but if that work we have only a few sketches. Berio went to work with those fragmentary remnants in 1989: “During the last several years, I have been asked time and again to do ‘something’ with Schubert, but I always declined this kind but cumbersome invitation. Until I received a copy of the sketches that the 31-year-old Franz had been accumulating during the final weeks of his life in preparation for a Tenth Symphony in D Major. These sketches are fairly complex and of great beauty: they shed new light on the new paths that were taking Schubert away from Beethoven’s influence. Seduced by those sketches, I decided to restore them; restore, not complete nor reconstruct.”

Berio left the surviving fragments of an orchestral work of three movements almost entirely intact – at most, he restored them. The gaps he filled with new music that bind the existing fragments to each other as a sort of musical plaster. He described the process as follows: “In the empty spaces, between one sketch and the next, I composed a kind of connective tissue which is always different and changing, always pianissimo and ‘distant’, intermingled with reminiscences of late Schubert (the Piano Sonata in B-Flat, etc.), and crossed by material based on fragments of the same sketches.”

Rendering sounds both ‘Schubertian’ and yet incontrovertibly from Berio’s hand, with colour effects in the form of grace notes, glissandi, tremolos and countless modern sound effects. The complex polyrhythms and passages with a full chromatic scale in the brass section – that would have been impossible to play on the natural trumpets and horns of Schubert’s day – give an indication of Berio’s personal contribution. Berio was aware of these anachronisms, and therefore placed the original piano sketches underneath the orchestral score by way of justification. This way, Schubert remains present in every layer of the work.