‘Today I was blissfully happy,’ wrote Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck in December 1839. ‘At a rehearsal they played a symphony by Franz Schubert. If only you had been there. I cannot describe it to you; all the instruments are like so many human voices, it is full of ingenuity, and what instrumentation… and the length, that heavenly length, like a novel in four volumes. I was utterly enraptured and only wished that you were my wife and that I could also write such symphonies.’
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It is easy to see why Schumann was so excited. The symphony in question was Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major, a work whose original score Schumann himself had discovered lying in obscurity a year earlier. Realising its importance, he had made a point of championing it and had soon arranged for its first ever performance. When, however, that premiere took place – conducted by his friend Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig on 21 March 1839 – Schumann was still hundreds of miles away in Vienna. But now, at last, he got to hear it – a privilege that had never been enjoyed by Schubert himself.
The history behind Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major is surprisingly vague. While, for instance, Schumann wrote about Schubert’s ‘Seventh’ Symphony in his letter to Clara, convention today refers to the work as either the Eighth or the Ninth (usually the former in Germany, the latter in Britain). And while the original score is dated ‘March 1828’, analysis of the manuscript on which it was written tells us that it was almost certainly completed by the end of 1826.
One thing that is perfectly evident, however, is that orchestras at the time found it horribly difficult to play. The ‘heavenly length’ later described by Schumann also proved hellishly tricky for those tasked with trying to negotiate it. As a result, when Schubert proudly handed over the piece to Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, he received a payment in gratitude… but no commitment to perform it. And when, in December 1828, the Gesellschaft did at last agree to play a C major symphony by Schubert, it was not the ‘Great’ that the audience heard but his earlier Sixth, composed in the same key. Tragically, Schubert did not even get to attend this performance – only days earlier, he had died at the age of just 31, leaving much of his music, unpublished, in the safekeeping of his older brother Ferdinand.
And there it remained gathering dust in a trunk until the final months of 1838 when, during a stay in Vienna, Schumann decided to pay Ferdinand a visit. ‘Ferdinand let me look among the treasures of Franz Schubert’s compositions that still found themselves in his hands,’ recalled Schumann in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1840. ‘The riches that here lay piled up before me made me shudder with joy. Where to look first; where to stop?’
On discovering the score of the ‘Great’ C major among those riches, Schumann was quick to act. By early January, he had alerted the publishers Breitkopf and Härtel of his find and was speeding orchestral parts over to Leipzig. Thankfully, where the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde had been afraid to tread, Mendelssohn’s Gewandhaus forces showed no such fear, performing the symphony (albeit without the repeats stipulated by Schubert) alongside Mendelssohn’s own recently completed Ruy Blas overture.
‘Who knows how long this symphony would have lain becoming dusty in the darkness had I not come to an understanding with Ferdinand Schubert to send it to Leipzig to the direction of the Gewandhaus Concerts?’ Schumann would later enthuse in his Neue Zeitschrift article. ‘Or to the artist himself who leads them [Mendelssohn], from whose fine glimpse the shyly blossoming beauty can hardly escape, not to mention this obvious, masterful, glorious one? The symphony arrived, was heard, understood, heard again and joyfully almost universally admired.’