New Music Friday: Symphony No. 4 “Tragische” – 1st Movement

Franz Schubert was born in Vienna in 1797. He was taught music on the violin and viola by his father, an amateur musician and schoolmaster. Schubert’s musical gifts appeared early in his life, and by age 10, he was selected as a member of the Imperial Chapel choir. He began the study of composition at the chorister school with Antonio Salieri who took note of his talents and took him in as a student. By the time Schubert completed his studies (only 7 years later) he had already completed a long list of rather prized musical compositions. Symphony No. 4, which Schubert subtitled ‘the Tragic’, was completed in 1816, when he was a mere 19 years of age!

For a couple of years, Franz taught at his father’s school, but it was composing music that constantly occupied his attention. In addition to instrumental compositions, he was a prolific writer of songs, completing more than 600 songs for solo voice. When you add in sacred and instrumental works, a total of well more than 1000 compositions during his lifetime.

It was toward the end of Schubert’s stint as a teacher that he completed his “Tragische” Symphony. Of note, Symphony No. 4 is one of only two symphonies he composed in a minor key. The first and last movements, interestingly, are notably triumphant and the last, fairly jubilant by the end. The symphony, as a whole, is full of unusual harmonic twists and turns, and travels through some notably uncommon harmonic content for the historical time period. The first movement begins with a slow and dark presence, moving unexpectedly into some quite distant tonalities. The Allegro that follows is a highly spirited ‘ride’, a joy to play, and displays a charming yet mature compositional craft. Symphony No. 4, Movement 1, is a relatively unknown work, yet an effusive movement and all in all, one of Schubert’s “best kept secrets”!

About Symphony No. 4 "Tragische" - 1st Movement

This symphony opens with a dark, somber – even brooding, emotional and musical Adagio. It’s important to understand that Schubert was in a somewhat difficult and depressed state in life, and so it’s critical that this opening section reflects his hopelessness. It is better for the tempo be ‘drawn out’, molto legato, rather than move too quickly. In addition, it’s critical to ‘play up’ the twists and turns of the harmonic modulations, especially those with added flats. Note that Schubert intentionally ‘chose’ the key of E♭ for a reason (as did Mozart and Beethoven for darker, more somber works).

The Allegro Vivace must be performed in a light-hearted and lively style. Even though some of the harmonic and melodic aspects remain on the shadowy side, this section of the first movement and then the last movement, were Schubert’s attempt to ‘revive’ himself – to pull himself from the flames of despair. Spiccato technique in the accompanying passages needs to be bowed in a very dry and vertical manner, and articulations of all note lengths (quarter notes in particular) need to be observed and carefully executed. The style should be emphasized over tempo – so don’t attempt to push the tempo of the Vivace too fast.

About Robert D. McCashin

In addition to an extensive list of publications, Dr. Robert McCashin is a Professor Emeritus, having completed 43 years teaching at the university level. His former position was as Director of Orchestras and Professor of Conducting and Violin at James Madison University. During Dr. McCashin’s final 24 years (at JMU), he served as the music director and conductor for the Symphony, Opera Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra and Camerata Strings. In addition, he taught Graduate Applied Conducting, MM and DMA academic courses for conductors as well as applied violin & viola. Dr. McCashin is a string educator and an active writer/arranger in the string education field. He maintained a busy conference presentation schedule throughout his career, making presentations on conducting technique, string pedagogy and the math-science-physics & physiology of string playing. His works can be found through FJH Music Co. in Fort Lauderdale, FL, Tempo Press/Luck’s Music in Madison Heights, MI and Wingert-Jones/JW Pepper in PA. He is the Founder of, and Past President for the International College Orchestra Directors Association.

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