Skip to main content

Program Notes: Schubert and the Swedish Mozart

Concert Program

Joseph Martin Kraus (1756 – 1792)
Symphony, C minor (1783)
Larghetto – Allegro
Finale – Allegro assai
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Symphony No.5 in B-flat major, D.485
I. Allegro
II. Andante con moto
III. Menuetto: Allegro molto
IV. Allegro vivace

Program Notes

Born in Miltenberg am Main, Germany, June 20, 1756; died in Stockholm, December 15, 1792
Symphony in C minor, VB 142 (1783)

Where Mozart had to travel the European courts and capitals as a child, Joseph Martin Kraus – born in the same year as Mozart, died one year later – had the good fortune to travel widely in the early years of his professional career.  On their travels, both met celebrated composers, deepened their understanding of musical history and came away armed with a practical working knowledge of the latest compositional innovations and developments in music for both concert room and theatrical stage.

Kraus was born in Germany, educated in Mannheim, where he heard and was taught by members of the renowned orchestra, before pursuing studies in philosophy in Mainz, Erfurt and Göttingen.  Literature and music eventually won the day, however, and Kraus began to focus on composition and published a collection of poems, a drama, and works of criticism.  Three years in Stockholm brought modest public recognition as a conductor, but not the position he was hoping for at the court of the Swedish King Gustav III, where the arts and creativity were famously embraced.  An opera, Proserpin, with a libretto at least in part by the King, then won Kraus a position at court in 1781.  Before long, the newly appointed assistant kapellmästare won a fully supported four-year grand tour throughout Germany, Italy, France, and England.

Its effect on the music of the 26-year-old composer is tangible.  Composed just one year into his tour, Kraus’s solid German training and broad knowledge of current musical trends give the C minor Symphony he wrote in Vienna in 1783 a cosmopolitan feel.  The three-movement work is compact, thematically unified, expressive, and expertly scored.  Even after the composer’s death, it maintained a tentative presence here and there thanks, in part, to its posthumous publication in 1797 by an international publisher, Breitkopf und Härtel.  Several recordings of it are now in the catalogue.

Scored for strings, oboes, bassoons and four horns, the shadow of Haydn and Gluck hovers over its pages.  Kraus met them both during his time in Vienna.  The introductory Larghetto with its ominous solemnity, tense suspensions, stepwise downward progressions, and dark, chromatically pierced shading derives directly from the opening pages of Gluck’s opera Iphigénie en Aulide.  Many, notably Wagner, have written how the dramatic power of Gluck’s overture foreshadows the main characters and conflicts in Gluck’s opera-tragedy.  Kraus follows a similar plan in his symphony.  From his restless, Gluck-inspired symphonic opening, the German-Swedish composer establishes motifs that will permeate the rest of the work.  The final violin phrase of this Larghetto introduction, for example, is immediately transformed into the Allegro’s driving opening theme.   This is the kind of detail that Haydn would have noticed when he expressed admiration for the piece (according to a credible 18th century source) after Kraus gave him a copy during one of his visits.  A second theme, now in the major key, is more relaxed, though its development does nothing to delay the forward drive of the music.  When it reappears towards the end of the opening movement, its shading is now in the C minor home key and its motivic connection with the two themes already mentioned becomes clear.

After the thematic unity of the opening movement, the central slow movement opens with more of the suspensions and sighs we heard in the Larghetto.  They continue to give cohesion to the movement as Kraus develops and expands its theme.  There is little in this 1783 symphony to reveal that the entire work is a revision of a first draft likely made two or three years earlier.  Then, it was in the rather impractical key of C-sharp minor and included harpsichord continuo and less winds.  Now, perhaps even with a suggestion or two from Haydn himself, Kraus brings his C minor Symphony into the Viennese classical mainstream and it is, by all accounts, a finer work for it.   A backward-looking Minuet was dropped altogether, and this attractive 1783 C minor Symphony concludes with an exuberantly bustling finale.

Born in Vienna, Austria, January 31, 1797; died in Vienna, November 19, 1828
Symphony No. 5, in B flat major, D.485 (1816)

The Fifth is the shortest and sunniest of Schubert’s symphonies.  He wrote it when he was 19, over a four- or five-week period during the early Fall of 1816.  Behind him lay an education at the Vienna Imperial and Royal Seminary which he left at 16, his formal education complete.  Orchestral music had been an important part of that brief education, with daily training in chamber music and the string orchestral repertoire.  While studying, Schubert assisted the music director, leading the orchestra from the principal violin chair when required.  Once he left the seminary, his friends were lovers of chamber music and musical amateurs rather than professionals.  Many of them had been fellow students and several played in a small amateur orchestra that met at the home of Otto Hatwig, a member of the professional orchestra at the Burgtheater.  Schubert played viola with them; his brother Ferdinand, violin.  This group of around 30 music-lovers gave the first performance of Schubert’s Fifth.  This may explain its relatively modest scoring for one flute, two oboes, bassoon, and horns, plus strings.  The first professional performance had to wait until 1841, long after Schubert’s death.

The Fifth is almost chamber-music in style and, in it, melody reigns supreme, as you might expect from a composer who had already written close to 200 songs and several short operas, together with a number of string quartets and much music for piano.  Its music builds on the wit and spirit of Haydn and the grace and sonority of Mozart.  At times, Schubert’s music can sound more ‘classical’ than the masters he sought to emulate.  But the music still recognizably belongs to Schubert, displaying a rich gift for melody together with a quirky and quite idiosyncratic side-step to the harmony.

The first movement is a model of the perfectly balanced, expertly paced classical sonata design.  Even the brief woodwind introduction we hear before the buoyantly bubbling first theme enters and takes on an important role in the central development section.  No material is ‘wasted’ and nothing is extraneous.  The slow movement is an eloquent set of variations on a rather Haydnesque theme.  But Schubert’s predilection for distant harmonic keys gives a poignant edge to its score.  The sprightly minuet, in the darker key of G minor, is close to a scherzo in spirit.  Schubert skilfully builds its contrasting middle section by inverting the main theme.  The vivacious finale, too, shows considerable skill in its concise use of contrapuntal techniques married to a carefully proportioned sonata form structure.

©2020 Keith Horner
All program notes are written by Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed: