Schubert – Symphony No. 4 in C-minor, “Tragic” D. 417

by Max Derrickson

Franz (Peter) Schubert     (b Vienna, January 31, 1797; Vienna, November 19, 1828)

Symphony No. 4 in C-minor, “Tragic” D. 417
1. Adagio molto – Allegro vivace
2. Andante
3. Menuetto (Allegro vivace)
4. Allegro

It might seem inconceivable that Schubert wrote his fourth symphony at the age of 19, or that two of his most famous art songs, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Erlkönig,” had already been written.  Perhaps even more inconceivable is that in his home of Vienna Schubert was generally unrecognized for his talent and most of his works were never published, nor publicly performed, until after his death (unfortunately at the age of 31).  Such was the case for his Symphony No. 4, the “Tragic,” and in some ways this remains so.  Most everyone has heard his “Unfinished” Symphony (No. 8), but few know the Fourth.

There is a beauty about Schubert’s Fourth connected with the young composer’s journey toward mastering the symphonic form.  The Fourth is quite modeled after the Classical symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, but sparkles of Beethoven, and of the harmonic and melodic sophistication that will later become known as Schubert’s greatest gifts.  That Schubert himself named the Symphony “Tragic” shows his intentions and explorations, even though the symphony complete is not so tragically dark.  Throughout, one finds many extraordinary moments of brilliance in an altogether charming symphony, as well as the young Schubert’s remarkable maturity for form and breadth.

Like Haydn would have done, the first movement begins with a slow introduction.  Unlike Haydn, however, the introduction teams with dark pathos and quickly moves harmonically toward a very distant key.
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The second movement Andante is a beautifully Schubertian poem – yearning, melodic, full of rays of tenderness and hope. It does, however, flirt with the shadowy side of these expressions.  The movement ends contentedly, but not without a hint of darkness.

The third movement is a marvelous example of Schubert extending his reach beyond the Classical model.
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With the last movement comes a tempestuous reminder of the Symphony’s subtitle.
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The marks of Schubert’s genius are unmistakable in this rich and completely engaging symphony.