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Myths distort what's fascinating about great composers | GUEST COLUMN
BY WESLEY SCHULZ
Myths in music abound: Beethoven’s birth date, somebody poisoned Mozart, Brahms fear of Beethoven’s symphonic shadow when he composed his First Symphony, Stravinsky revising his own life story, and so forth.
While fascinating, these myths distort the truth and conceal what is truly interesting about composers and their works.
On Feb. 22 and Feb. 23, the Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra will present “Pines of Rome,” named for Ottorino Respighi’s monumental tone poem that will conclude the concert. Before that, however, we will begin with Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8 in B minor, a work with no small history of urban legend.
The myth surrounding Schubert’s B minor symphony stems from the notion that the work is incomplete. During Schubert’s time symphonies most often contained four movements and infrequently three. The B minor symphony comprises two fully-fashioned movements, but their form, length and scope suggest that more was to follow.
Indeed Schubert left behind sketches for a scherzo that was to be the third movement (and thus suggesting a finale would conclude the symphony and provide the fourth and final movement). But the work ends here; Schubert never returned to the symphony although he lived six more years after the completion of the first two movements.
It is at this time that rumors and myths took hold. The B minor symphony was unearthed decades after Schubert’s death and people believed that it was unfinished because he had died before completing it. Other legends suggested supernatural forces and superstitions prevented him from finishing.
These ideas, however, are bunk, and what is truly more fascinating is what scholars believe today: Schubert’s B minor symphony was ahead of its time.
The first movement, for example, opens with a subtle and mysterious theme in the cellos and double basses. Although simple on the surface, this opening is groundbreaking: the rhythm of the melody suggests an ambiguous tempo, a symphony up until this time has never started directly from the theme (usually some sort of introduction proceeded the presentation of the main theme) and the melody is presented in the softest whisper that forces the listener to lean in to hear.
These opening eight measures are just one of many innovations Schubert birthed with this symphony. Putting legend to rest, the music itself suggests the symphony was unfinished because it was such new territory for Schubert; he just didn’t know how to proceed past the second movement.
The remainder of the February program is just as spectacular as Schubert’s work. Christopher Son Richardson, the winner of the BSO’s 2014 Young Artist Competition, will perform the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.
This concert will also feature the world premiere of a new work by Erich Stem, commissioned by the Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra. His work, “Bainbridge,” draws from his inspiration when he visited Bainbridge Island and spoke with members of the orchestra and community.
Concluding the program is Respighi’s remarkable “Pines of Rome.” Expect to feel the music as well as hear it as the orchestra brings the house down in the final movement, Pines of the Appian Way.
The orchestra will bring tremendous energy and passion to all of the music on the program and we hope you will share with us in this stunning performance.
Wesley Schulz is the music director and conductor for the Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra.