On the Divine Art label, pianists Caroline Clemmow and Anthony Goldstone have just released what is described as a four-hand “complete performing edition”: two movements becoming four, with the addition of a third-movement Scherzo and concluding Finale.
Ever since its first performance in 1865, the Unfinished Symphony has faded towards an uncertain resolution, the second movement not so much ending as dissolving into the harmonic ether. Schubert had been dead already for nearly 40 years by the time his symphony was first heard, but had he still been around – and nearing his 70th year – what would he have advised? Would the promise of a first performance have galvanised him into completing the sketches he left for a Scherzo and conceiving a Finale? Or would he have sanctioned, preferred even, that his existing structure stand on its own two-movement feet?
Why Schubert failed to follow through on the promise of those opening movements remains a mystery. Suggestions that his delicate health scuppered completion feel dubious. Schubert had begun to suffer symptoms that would subsequently lead to a diagnosis of syphilis – but his illness did not prevent him composing his Wanderer Fantasy, his song cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise and, of course, his blockbuster Great C Major Symphony.
When I talked to [Nikolaus] Harnoncourt a few weeks ago, he brushed aside any conjecture; for him listening into the notes cracks the code: “I am convinced,” he said, “that Schubert found it impossible to continue after the second movement. Which is not to say he didn’t try. There are sketches for a few bars of a Scherzo. But after Schubert finished the first two movements, and wrote out a neat copy, there came a time where he thought this cannot be continued. The form is perfect; there is simply nothing else to say.”
Speculation about the sounds that might have resonated beyond Schubert’s double-bar line has never gone away, and Caroline Clemmow and Anthony Goldstone’s album provides an answer … of sorts.
Building on an existing four-hand transcription by Schubert’s friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, Goldstone used Schubert’s sketches to extrapolate a Scherzo – adding a waltz figuration under the great man’s existing melody then plundering melodic fingerprints from earlier in the symphony as answering material. The Finale is derived from incidental music Schubert wrote for Helima von Chézy’s play Rosamund: right key, the same instrumentation, appropriate proportions – surely Schubert, perched on the edge of a theatre deadline, simply copied and pasted music originally intended for his symphony?
But, with Harnoncourt’s words ringing in our ears, ought we to give Clemmow and Goldstone’s version credence? Goldstone fesses up in his booklet notes that nothing even Schubert might have written would have likely matched the expressive splendour of those opening movements. And there is a pragmatic musical problem too. With the first two movements both in triple time (3/4 and 3/8) would Schubert really have stuck to his plan of a third movement Scherzo also, as convention dictated, also in three?
These glimpses inside Schubert’s working mind of course prove irresistible, but the lessons of Harper Lee should not be forgotten. Goldstone’s Scherzo is as faithful to Schubert’s Unfinished as the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is to his persona in To Kill a Mockingbird: same name, different character. This is not a definitive completion, nor does it claim to be. And probably the only sound conclusion to be made is that through unique historical and musical circumstances this symphony has set its own rules of engagement. I’d like to suggest a new title: the Unfinishable.