How Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Masterpiece Met Its Tragic Fate at the Hands of a Bitter Rival

ByQuyen Anne

Jul 20, 2023

New research suggests crucial pages of the Austrian composer’s Symphony No 8 were mutilated by a vengeful assistant

Franz Schubert
Franz Schubert’s Symphony No 8 was completed according to a major new biography of the 19th Century composer CREDIT: Imagno/Getty Images

Franz Schubert did not leave his ‘Unfinished’ Symphony unfinished before his death in 1828, aged just 31, according to new research.

Instead, its missing pages may have been among manuscripts that were destroyed by a vengeful assistant with whom he had fallen out, a leading musicologist has concluded.

Symphony No 8 is one of the best-known incomplete pieces of work in musical history. Although all that survives of the masterpiece are the first two sublime movements and some fragments.

Why he never finished it has been one of music’s great unanswered questions and there have been various attempts by other composers to complete or adapt it.

Now Lorraine Bodley, professor of musicology at Maynooth University in Ireland and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Schubert, argues that the surviving manuscript is in fact a fair copy and that Schubert only produced such copies for finished compositions.

Noting that it has a cover sheet bearing the city in which it was composed and a date – Vienna, 30 October 1822 – as well as Schubert’s signature, she said: “Schubert only wrote title pages for complete works. What we have is not an unfinished symphony but a fair copy which was once complete, but whose last two movements became separated and lost.”

For a forthcoming major new biography, titled “Schubert: A Musical Wayfarer”, she analysed extensive evidence suggesting that the manuscript came to harm while in the hands of Schubert’s former secretary Josef Hüttenbrenner and his composer-brother, Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who both acted suspiciously.

Prof Bodley said that Josef had worked hard for Schubert over a couple of years, but that the composer came to despise him as dishonest and “almost repugnant”, as he told an associate. The precise reasons are unclear, but professional ties ended.

When Josef sent two bills for services rendered, Schubert was in failing health – having contracted syphilis – and in such dire financial straits, that he apparently handed over his Symphony No 8 manuscript in lieu of payment.

Franz Schubert at the piano during a Schubert Evening in a Vienna salon. Oil on canvas. 1897.
Franz Schubert at the piano during a Schubert Evening in a Vienna salon. Oil on canvas. 1897. CREDIT: Hulton Fine Art Collection

Prof Bodley, who is on the board of the Schubert Research Centre in Vienna, said that the Hüttenbrenners kept it for 40 years – among more than 100 Schubert manuscripts that they had somehow obtained – and they mutilated the autograph scores of two operas which were originally complete: “Josef’s claim that his servants used Act 2 of Des Teufels Lustschloss [The Devil’s Pleasure Palace] and Acts 2 and 3 of Claudine Von Villa Bella as tinder has been accepted uncritically because, until recently, no one really cared about Schubert’s operas.

“The possibility that Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony was also once complete cannot be ruled out It is entirely characteristic of Hüttenbrenners’s mishandling of Schubert’s manuscripts.”

She added: “The first record of Anselm having the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony is in [an 1842] letter to his brother in which he assures Josef that he had burnt the diary which he kept for 20 years because Schubert had appeared in it over 100 times.”

Prof Bodley also believes that Josef forged a letter claiming that Schubert had given the two completed movements of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony to Anselm in return for helping him to obtain honorary membership of a music society. She said that, while another individual had enabled that membership, Schubert’s signature is an exact copy of the example on the title page of the manuscript.

She writes that 37 years after Schubert’s death, the brothers released the unfinished manuscript and the premiere took place in 1865, causing an absolute sensation: “It was not only the extraordinary beauty but the added scandal of ‘hidden’ treasure that piqued audience interest.”

Referring to Josef as a “villain”, she noted that he never showed any remorse, only criticising his brother for handing over the original manuscript for its first performance without securing an assurance that his own music would be played more: “Only then should he have handed over Schubert’s symphony.”

Prof Bodley writes: “But loved or hated, self-interested or self-sacrificing, the Hüttenbrenner brothers’ carelessness had serious consequences: it not only delayed the premiere but the work’s influence on music history.”

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