Schubert’s Rhythmic Genius

It’s fairly mind-boggling to ponder what Franz Schubert managed to accomplish in his scant 31 years of life. As is typically (and tragically) the case, the composer’s music was not fully recognized until years after his death, when later symphonists began to realize the sui generis force of his harmonic language. Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance, acknowledged Schubert’s profound influence on modern harmony, indicating that he was “the first composer in whom one can meet such bold and unexpected modulations” (III, 105). These sentiments are echoed heartily by RT in what is perhaps the book’s most theoretical passage yet (pages 87-113). Although the flat submediant was not new to Schubert, he utilized it to such an electrifying effect as to cement this piquant sound henceforth in the Romantic vocabulary of musical Innigkeit. Rather than simply an approach to the dominant, Schubert uses the flat 6 as a pivot chord to all sorts of far-flung harmonic regions. Further, embedded in this harmony is the interval of the MA3, the implication of which Schubert explored in such depths as to generate some of the earliest examples of blatant whole-tone usage in the Western tradition.

What RT does not discuss in this exceptionally rich passage, however, is Schubert’s brilliant, mercurial rhythmic sensibilities. There are rhythmic passages in Schubert of such a buoyant, playful, and overwhelmingly sophisticated nature as to make one forget the “music trance”-inducing harmonies and just marvel at the sheer rhythmic invention. For example, take the third movement to his 4th “Tragic” Symphony of 1816:

(You can download the score to the movement here. It helps to see what’s going on.) From the second the starting gun goes off, we’re thrown into a deeply ambiguous metric dissonance. The first note sounds like the downbeat of a measure of triple meter: phrases are arranged in symmetrical patterns that correspond to such a reading. But wait. The movement actually starts with a pickup, and for the entire exposition we have to run to catch up. The movement is “off” from the very beginning.

Playing at the edge of this hyper-chromatic unison is an implied 2 against 3; regular syncopations accentuate the underlying duple. Only at select moments does this rhythmic dissonance boil to the surface – for example, at 0:51 (7 measures before the repeat in the score). This eccentric rhythmic gambit structures the whole section. It’s a stunningly original design, and one’s jaw has to drop when we remember that the composer was a lad of 19 when he wrote it. The symphony’s title (“Tragic”), which was given to the work by Schubert himself, is all too apt a word when contemplating everything that this firefly of a composer might have accomplished had he lived as long as Richard Strauss or Stravinsky. Tragic indeed.

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