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Introducing: Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 4 is pure classical form, goosed by strange key choices

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We hear Franz Schubert’s string quartets, piano trios, solo piano works and Lieder frequently. But his symphonies don’t get performed as much on this side of the Atlantic.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has a single work by Schubert on its 100-plus-concert season, and it’s a string quartet (in a very clever programme featuring Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, led by Thomas Dausgaard in January).

Clearly, Schubert isn’t big symphonic box office in Toronto, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to love in music clearly inspired by Haydn and Mozart. (I think they would lend themselves particularly well to one of Tafelmusik’s forays into the early 19th century.)

The most popular of Schubert’s symphonies are the “Unfinished” and the “Great” 9th (both subject to endless debates about the order in which they should be numbered).

I thought I’d go back to Symphony No. 4, the “Tragic” (D417). Schubert wrote it after turning 19 in 1816, while unhappily working as a schoolteacher by day. By this time Europe had heard and been shocked by the first eight of Beethoven’s symphonies.

Schubert was a huge admirer of Beethoven, but wrote his own symphonies in a less flamboyant style, filled with careful development of themes following Classical rules — but accompanied by some surprising choices of key (it starts in C minor, but doesn’t stay there long).

In the Jane Austen-era version of Kickstarter, Schubert turned to a group of subscribers to fund the publication of these his early works, because the official music publishers weren’t interested in some unknown schoolteacher, even if he was Viennese.

Here is conductor Lorin Maazel in Munich, conducting Schubert’s “Tragic” Symphony. The four movements are marked: Adagio molto — Allegro vivace; Andante; Menuetto (allegro vivace) & Trio; Allegro.

John Terauds

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