• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 45: Franz Schubert

When musicians talk about great melodists—meaning those composers with a particular gift for writing melodies—certain names always comes up: Mozart, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, Strauss…. Those are just some of the bigs ones, speaking (mostly) in terms of purely instrumental works, i.e. not opera or song. Personally, when I think of great melody, I first think of Franz Schubert.

We’ve talked before about the First Viennese School. For some reason, I have always equated remembering its “members” to remembering our vowels: A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y. Well, those Vienna-based composers are Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and sometimes Schubert.

Schubert’s “star,” like Mozart’s, burned bright and fast; both left behind a tremendous amount of music in lives/careers that were cut tragically short. When most musicians think of Schubert, they rightly think of his songs—he wrote more than 600 of them! Thankfully, this translated into his instrumental music. His gift for melody was so profound, that it was almost as if he couldn’t stop it, and many of his instrumental works ended up with more than the traditional two themes.

Conductors tend to either love or tolerate his symphonies. Admittedly, I avoided them for a long time, but have grown to love (most of) them over the last 8 years or so. The Eighth (“Unfinished”), Ninth (“Great”), and Fifth Symphonies are the most popular, in that order. This week, though, I’d like to put the spotlight on his charming Second Symphony.

The Second Symphony is perfectly Classical—four movements: a sonata with slow introduction, a theme and variations, a minuet and trio, and a fast finale. In that respect, it’s relatively unremarkable. So what makes it so enjoyable? It’s Schubert’s melodic gifts and harmonic surprises.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of recordings of this one, but one really stands out: the Staatskapelle Dresden led by Wolfgang Sawallisch. The orchestra is legendary, and Sawallisch will almost certainly make an appearance on a future edition of Underrated Conductors…he was one of the greats. But this week, it’s all about Schubert—enjoy!! :)

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