Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 10, 1957, Eduard van Beinum conducting
In 1815 the 18-year-old Schubert was working as a full-time, year-round schoolteacher, taking twice-weekly composition lessons with Antonio Salieri, and doing some private music teaching on the side. Yet he somehow managed to compose over 200 works, including four operas, two masses, two symphonies, and 145 songs, a productive explosion that has had music historians shaking their heads for generations. He began his Third Symphony on May 24 and finished it on June 19. He also wrote some songs, liturgical music, and an operetta in those 26 days.
The Third Symphony is notably concise, and shorter than Schubert’s first two symphonies. But it also foreshadows ideas that would expand the scale of the symphony. The rushing scale passage of the first movement’s slow introduction is turned into the second theme of the Allegro, contrary to the standard practice of making the Allegro contrast with the introduction by not having them share any musical elements. Schubert would revisit the idea to great dramatic effect a decade later in his “Great” C-major Symphony.
Like the Seventh and Eighth symphonies Beethoven was writing at about the same time, Schubert’s Third has no real slow movement. Instead there is a lightly scored (without trumpets and timpani) Allegretto in ABA form. It has an ambling principal section and a middle section with a jaunty little clarinet tune.
The third movement is marked “Menuetto,” but the name is rooted more in tradition than reality. The minuet had had a long life — about 150 years — but it was dying. In his late works, Haydn liked to spice his minuets with odd accents that would have flummoxed any dancer. Schubert does the same here, with rudely accented upbeats: the phrases all begin on the third beat, not the first. The middle section, scored for solo oboe and bassoon, and strings without cellos, is more a Ländler, or even a waltz, than a minuet.
The finale, in the rhythm of the tarantella, is marked “presto vivace” (quick, lively), about as clear an instruction to avoid dawdling as a composer can write. The sheer fleetness of the themes creates enormous momentum, but Schubert adds a few sly (or dramatic, depending on the performance) pauses to keep us guessing. The movement owes much to the frenetic drive of comic opera overtures.
— Howard Posner