Mozart Fanboy: A Guide to Schubert’s Symphony No. 5

1816 was a busy year for Franz Schubert. He composed approximately 200 compositions, including a mass, various other sacred choral works, his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, an overture, two concertante works for violin and orchestra, at least two string quartets, three violin sonatas, various other chamber works, two piano sonatas, numerous dances and dozens of songs. He had turned 19 in January.

Franz Schubert, as depicted by Wilhelm August Rieder in 1825.

Franz Schubert, as depicted by Wilhelm August Rieder in 1825.

That Schubert found time for so much composition, however, is even more extraordinary. After dropping out of school to focus on music at age 16, his stern and patriarchal father, a school master, was not entirely supportive. His father insisted that Schubert earn his keep by teaching kindergarten-aged students at the school he ran, a task to which Schubert was ill-suited according to a number of his friends and acquaintances. Schubert’s older brother Ignaz, who also worked at the school, later painted a vivid picture of their shared vicissitudes:

“…the likes of us scholastic beasts of burden are abandoned to all the roughness of wild youngsters and exposed to a host of abuses, not to mention that we are subjected to the further humiliation of an ungrateful public and a lot of dunderheaded bigwigs.”

Schubert was not only busy with teaching, but also with socializing. Although he had dropped out of school, he maintained several of the friendships he had made there. Schubert had been able to attend the prestigious Imperial and Royal City Seminary thanks to a music scholarship he received when he was accepted as a boy soprano in the Imperial and Royal Court Chapel. Many of his friends there came from more prosperous, upper-middle class backgrounds, and would provide him with steadfast material and emotional support throughout his brief life. They treasured Schubert’s extraordinary talents, and were among the only people to hear many of Schubert’s compositions during his lifetime. Most of Schubert’s works were unveiled to them at convivial gatherings they called “Schubertiads.”

Mozart on the Brain

A Schubertiad, as sketched by Schubert's contemporary Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller in 1827. Waldmüller likely sketched the scene of Schubert playing the piano and singing with two friends as it happened.

A Schubertiad, as sketched by Schubert’s contemporary Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller in 1827. Waldmüller likely sketched the scene of Schubert playing the piano and singing with two friends as it happened.

Additionally, Schubert played viola in an amateur orchestra that was small enough to fit in the apartment of one Otto Hatwig. It was at one of this ensemble’s meetings that Schubert’s Fifth Symphony was first performed. Musically, many have noted the influence of Mozart on Schubert’s youthful symphony. Indeed, the 19-year-old Schubert confided the following to his diary a few months before completing his Fifth Symphony on October 3, 1816:

“As from afar the magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me…Thus does our soul retain these fair impressions, which no time, no circumstances can efface, and they lighten our existence. They show us in the darkness of this life a bright, clear, lovely distance, for which we hope with confidence. O Mozart, immortal Mozart, how many, oh how endlessly many such comforting perceptions of a brighter and better life hast thou brought to our souls!”

Though Mozart had been dead some 25 years, his music was more popular than ever, and for a young composer like Schubert, Mozart’s symphonies were models to emulate. Much more so than those by Beethoven, who had already composed eight of the nine revolutionary symphonies that would change the course of music history forever.

Apart from a small number of devoted imitators, most composers ignored Beethoven’s innovations, including the young Schubert. It would be several years more before Schubert would grapple with Beethoven’s legacy and find his own response to Beethoven’s musical revolution. For now, however, he was happy to follow in Mozart’s footsteps. His Fifth Symphony thus offers us a glimpse of an alternate reality, showing how music might have evolved had there been no Beethoven.

The Music

In the first movement, one clear nod to Mozart’s style is the “breath” the orchestra takes before beginning the second main melody of the movement, which itself is very Mozartian. Though the symphony displays many such touches, Schubert’s own developing personal voice also shines through. The symphony’s opening, for instance, was quite original. Instead of starting with a slow introduction or plunging right in, Schubert begins with four introductory bars that Schubert scholar Brian Newbold charmingly called a musical “curtain.” It is easy to imagine a curtain rising in a small, eighteenth-century theater to reveal the world of the stage as the symphony begins:

We then hear one of Schubert’s loveliest melodies in the violins. During his life, Schubert was primarily known as a composer of songs for voice and piano, and the vocal, singing style of his songs is often found in his instrumental compositions as well. Melody takes on an increasingly important structural role in Schubert’s music as he loosens and expands traditional classical patterns of composing. Pieces of the melody are echoed in the lower instruments as accompaniment; this technique can frequently be heard throughout the symphony.

The slow second movement is perhaps the most original. After the first graceful, elegant melody unfolds in E-flat major, the music slips into the distant and highly unusual key of C-flat major. This key change gives the duet between violins and woodwinds that follows a dreamy quality. The music then shifts to C-flat minor (written enharmonically as B minor to avoid an excessive number of flats in the key signature), but throughout there are still hints of major. This ever-shifting play of light and shadow will become one of the hallmarks of Schubert’s mature style.

The third movement minuet is surprisingly in a minor key, with a contrasting middle section in major. Although its character clearly recalls the minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, the melody was actually recycled by Schubert from a quartet he had written for an opera, Des Teufels Lustschloss (The Devil’s Pleasure Palace). The opera tells the story of the poor knight Oswald, whose love for the maiden Luitgarde is tested by seemingly supernatural apparitions in an old castle. After he bravely proves the constancy of his love, the ghosts and demons are revealed to be theatrical illusions organized by Luitgarde’s skeptical uncle, Count von Schwarzburg. The opera, which called for an elaborate set, went unperformed until the twentieth century.

The finale begins with a characteristically cheerful tune that soon gives way to all manner of harmonic surprises and developments. Its understated ending caps off a remarkable youthful work that shows Schubert’s mastery of symphonic writing and hints at the directions he would later take.

Don’t miss the Houston Symphony’s performances of Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 on October 20, 21 & 22. Get tickets and more info at

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Meet New Composer-In-Residence Jimmy López

This season, the Houston Symphony welcomes a new Composer-in-Residence, Jimmy López. Born in Peru, trained in Finland and currently living in San Francisco, López’ star has been on the rise in recent years, most notably with the high-profile world premiere of his opera Bel Canto at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Get to know the man behind the music below.

Jimmy López is awesome!

“I always say that composition is a profession that chooses you, in a way.” Photo credit: Franciel Braga

Houston Symphony: When did you first begin composing? What prompted your first compositions?

Jimmy López: I started composing when I was about 12 years old. I remember I was listening to Bach at that time. The music teacher at my school started playing some inventions by Bach, and all these different voices playfully interacting with each other lured me in. I knew around that age that I wanted to do something with music, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. During those years of discovery, I started practicing piano a lot. I would sometimes take a page of a sonata and try to get into the composer’s mind, thinking, “Well, what would I do next if I were the composer?” I found myself constantly modifying the pieces I was practicing, and that’s when I realized that perhaps performance was not my calling. Composing was what I really wanted to do. I always say that composition is a profession that chooses you, in a way.

HS: When did you decide to pursue composing as a career?

JL: So that happened, I would say, when I was about 16 and finishing high school. By then I had already told my parents that I wanted to be a composer. I really felt inside my heart that that was what I wanted to do. The Lima Philharmonic Orchestra was established around that time, and I started attending all the rehearsals, and I was assistant librarian for many years with them. So that experience helped me realize that that was the profession I wanted to pursue.

HS: How would you describe your musical style? How did you find your personal voice as a composer?

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“[Finding your voice] is a little bit like cleaning up your room.” Photo credit: Franciel Braga

JL: A composer is in constant evolution. Consider Stravinsky, for example, who varied his musical style even late into his life.  Nevertheless, I do feel that I now have an identifiable, individual voice. I would say that through my 20s I was trying to absorb different styles and incorporate what I found interesting. It’s a little bit like cleaning up your room. When you are young, you have a lot of ideas and a lot of things you want to try, but then as you mature, you start realizing that there are some things that you don’t really need, or you start becoming more economical. That’s how you start defining your style.

I would say that my style is cosmopolitan, but definitely rooted in Peru. The incorporation of Peruvian elements into my music actually started somewhat late. It didn’t happen until I moved to Finland, because when I was living in Peru, I was really fixed on European composers. Then when I went to Europe, I found that people were expecting something different from me, because I was coming from, for them, a distant country with a very rich folk music tradition. That prompted me to look back into my own musical heritage and to try to incorporate that. At first, it required a conscious effort, but now it comes to me more naturally and effortlessly. My years of training in Europe also had an important influence, at least from the technical point of view, and the fact that I now live in California has really contributed to my search for the creative freedom that I so appreciate on the West Coast of the US.

HS: The vast majority of your works have descriptive titles. What sources of inspiration do you draw on when composing?

JL: Each piece really has its own source, its own unique world. As a composer, it is good to have a guiding idea that gives you unity, whatever you’re writing about. At the same time, I also feel that a title is a great tool for communicating with the audience. For example, my cello concerto has four different episodes, which are the different stages of the flight of a condor. We have the cello as the condor and the orchestra as nature, in a way, echoing the sound.

But at some point the music has to make sense on its own as well. I think my musical thought is more abstract than the titles would suggest. When I actually dive into the musical material, I am more concerned with the actual construction of the phrases and the musical language itself. It’s hard to explain, but I would say it’s good to find a balance.

HS: What has been your proudest accomplishment as a composer so far? Why?

JL: That’s an easy answer right now, because I wrote an opera called Bel Canto. The sheer size of the project, the amount of pages in the score, the amount of people, the amount of meetings and workshops and all that—it was enormous. It was basically a journey of five years of my life. It was an enormous collective effort with Lyric Opera of Chicago that opened the doors for me to work with people such as Renee Fleming and Sir Andrew Davis. We had a full house, and it was aired on PBS on Great Performances, so I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. And I’m still really proud of it!

"The sheer size of the project, the amount of pages in the score, the amount of people, the amount of meetings and workshops and all that—it was enormous."

“The sheer size of the project, the amount of pages in the score, the amount of people, the amount of meetings and workshops and all that—it was enormous.”

HS: In addition to sharing your extraordinary music with us, as the Houston Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence you also plan to work with Houston area students. Could you tell us a little about these plans?

JL: Yes! I am not only coming to Houston to show my works; I also want to listen to what Houston has to offer, in this case in the form of music from young composers. We’re still in the early stages, but I have already met with many people at Rice University and the University of Houston, and they were very enthusiastic about having some of their composition students work on this project. It’s going to end with a chamber music concert, but the concert is just the last part of the whole process. What we want to do is mentor the composers, have a workshop and maybe even work with other kinds of artists. The concert will be underlined by a single theme that is very much rooted in what Houston is today. For me it’s really important to give younger composers the opportunity to cooperate with musicians of the highest level in Houston.

HS: Do you have any ideas for new projects with the Houston Symphony?

JL: I actually do! I wrote a symphony last year for the National Orchestra of Spain, and somehow I got bit by the symphony bug. So I want to write a second one for the Houston Symphony, but this time rooted in something that is very important to Houston—the space program. I think this wonderful gift Houston has given to the world has inspired all of us; I know I have been fascinated by space since I was a child.

Hear music by Jimmy López at the Mexican Institute of Greater Houston’s FREE Lunada concert on Saturday, October 14. Learn more here.


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Crespo Elementary Bounces Back After Hurricane Harvey

Students and teachers across Houston faced many challenges during the first weeks of the school year as they dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Late starts, damaged facilities, and the stress of uncertainty permeated campuses throughout the region. Despite the late start to the school year, Crespo Elementary students are eager to embrace a new year of the Houston Symphony in their classrooms. Excitement rang out among third, fourth and fifth graders when Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musicians invited them to be part of the “Crespo Symphony” this year!

Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musician Anthony Parce brings music back to Crespo Elementary after Hurricane Harvey.

Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musician Anthony Parce brings music back to Crespo Elementary after Hurricane Harvey.

In the third year of the Houston Symphony residency at Crespo Elementary presented by BBVA Compass, Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musicians are bringing a fresh element to the classroom. They began the first week by introducing Crespo Symphony Skills to students, including communication, giving feedback, working in an ensemble, practicing, and making a statement. These skills will not only make them successful members of the “Crespo Symphony,” but will also help them succeed in all areas of life. Students will develop these skills as they learn to analyze and appreciate orchestral music and even play some of their own melodies.

“These skills are freshly relevant for students facing a dramatic changes from Harvey and a shortened school year,” says Community-Embedded Musician Anthony Parce, “I am very excited about the trajectory we are taking. In our third year of this residency, we are hitting our stride in discovering what impressive talents these students have.”

The Houston Symphony is excited to be back at Crespo Elementary, where we will provide regular classroom lessons, in-school concerts and family engagement concerts, as well as invite students and families to Houston Symphony concerts at Jones Hall. Special thanks to presenting sponsor BBVA Compass and Houston Independent School District for making this collaboration possible.


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After the Storm: Hurricane Harvey and the Houston Symphony

Houston has weathered many storms, but Hurricane Harvey was unprecedented. Catastrophic flooding shut down our city for over a week, and many areas are still struggling to return to normal. Houston’s Theater District was not exempt; our home, Jones Hall, was fortunately spared the worst of the flooding, although it still suffered significant damage. While the stage and auditorium were fortunately untouched, underground areas including the courtyard level entrance and restrooms, administrative offices and the rehearsal room required repairs.

Musicians perform for evacuees and first responders at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Musicians perform for evacuees and first responders at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

It wasn’t just Jones Hall that sustained damage, however; 14 Houston Symphony musicians and staff were personally affected by the flooding. This didn’t stop them from jumping in to help our city cope. In the aftermath of the storm, over 25 musicians of the orchestra quickly assembled to play at shelters throughout Houston, giving 20 performances over the course of nine days. A number of these musicians were affected by the storm themselves. In the words of Principal Cellist Brinton Smith, “In many cities, such extraordinary selflessness might make them unusual. In our city, it makes them typical.”

Smith also described the experience of playing at the George R. Brown Convention Center: “As we were finishing a performance, one of the volunteers asked us to come play for an evacuee who was blind and alone, and had been unable to calm down for days since being brought to the shelter. Seeing her reaction to hearing a Mozart string quartet reminded me that music connects our hearts and minds in a way words never can.”

Eric Larson (double bass) and his wife, Melissa McCrimmon, help clean up at the home of Matthew Strauss (percussion).

Eric Larson (double bass) and his wife, Melissa McCrimmon, help clean up at the home of Matthew Strauss (percussion).

Musicians and staff were eager to help not only the community, but also each other. Joel James, the Houston Symphony’s Senior Human Resources Manager, quickly connected musicians and staff in need with others who wanted to help. “We made it through the storm just fine, so we really wanted to get out and help others,” said Melanie O’Neill, the Houston Symphony’s Publications Designer. Melanie joined other staff members at the home of Principal Trombonist Allen Barnhill, whose home was flooded. “We ripped out the dry wall and trim boards. Despite the situation, it was nice to see everyone in good spirits while working together,” Melanie said. The Symphony also started an Employee Relief Fund, which thanks to the generosity of our community will provide much needed support to those affected.

Once the waters began to subside, our musicians were eager to bring orchestral music back to Houston as soon as possible. Thanks to our friends at Rice University and the University of Houston, we were able to present four different programs at the Shepherd School of Music and the Cullen Performance Hall last month. Most of all, we have been so thankful for you, our audience. Your support has helped us through this difficult time, and without you, there would be no music. As we complete repairs to Jones Hall and to our own homes, you can be a part of our recovery by making donations to our annual fund and our Employee Relief Fund. As Brinton Smith said, “There is nothing that makes us prouder than to be Houstonians—to be your musicians, playing for you in an orchestra built by, and for, the extraordinary, generous and compassionate people of Houston. Thank you.”

To donate, visit

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Winter Daydreams: A Guide to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1

Following the success of the recently opened St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first institution of its kind in Russia, a second conservatory opened in Moscow in 1866. Among the new professors was one of the first graduates of the St. Petersburg school: a young composer named Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

"Pancake Week," by Kustodiyev Boris Mikhailovich (1916).

“Pancake Week,” by Kustodiyev Boris Mikhailovich (1916). Pancake week was a week of festivities celebrated before Lent, similar to Mardi Gras or Carnival in the West.

A large proportion of the Moscow Conservatory’s first students were young women, many of whom had no ambition to become professional musicians. Tchaikovsky wrote to his stepmother, “I confess I was terrified at the sight of such an enormous number of crinolines, chignons, etc. But I still hope that I shall manage to captivate these fays…” Captivate them he did, although not in the way he had hoped. One of his female students later remembered him as “young, with nice-looking, almost beautiful features, a deep, expressive gaze in his beautiful dark eyes, fluffy, carelessly combed hair, and a marvelous blond beard.” He had plenty of admirers, although the painfully shy, homosexual composer was frustrated by the lack of seriousness some of them displayed toward their musical studies. Imagining him as Apollo surrounded by the Graces, Tchaikovsky’s father wryly responded to his letter: “I should be very curious to see you sitting there, blushing in confusion.”

Tchaikovsky, photographed in autumn 1865, just months before he moved to Moscow.

Tchaikovsky, photographed in autumn 1865, just months before he moved to Moscow.

By March of 1866, the young professor embarked on a major project: his First Symphony, a milestone for any composer. He had composed about half-a-dozen shorter orchestral works thus far, only a couple of which had been performed, but felt ready to attempt something more ambitious. “No other work cost him such effort and suffering…Despite painstaking and arduous work, its composition was fraught with difficulty,” recalled his younger brother Modest.

Tchaikovsky became increasingly frustrated with his teaching responsibilities, which took time away from his composing. Thus, during his summer vacation, he joined his family at a small dacha outside St. Petersburg determined to make serious progress on his symphony. He worked late into the night, consuming numerous cigarettes, until he suffered a breakdown from exhaustion. He never composed after sundown again.

"The Azure of February," by Grabar (Khrabrov) Igor Emmanuilovich (1904 ).

“The Azure of February,” by Grabar (Khrabrov) Igor Emmanuilovich
(1904 ).

Before returning to Moscow, he showed his still unfinished score to some of his former professors at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, hoping they would agree to have it performed once it was finished. Unfortunately, they did not like his new work and offered many criticisms, most of which Tchaikovsky felt were unjustified. He would spend over a year more slaving over the symphony that refused to cooperate, and would make further revisions to it in 1874, some eight years after beginning it.

Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky had a special fondness for the work, regarding it as “a sin of my sweet youth.” Its charming melodies and vivid orchestration give little hint of the trouble it cost the composer, and the unmistakable Tchaikovsky sound is already in every measure.

Tchaikovsky gave the symphony the descriptive title “Winter Daydreams,” and gave atmospheric titles to the first two movements as well. The first movement, Daydreams of a Winter Journey, begins with an enchanting melody in the flute and bassoon:

The melody is developed and varied with new orchestral colors, leading to a fortissimo. A second, contrasting melody in the clarinet follows, leading to brilliant, brassy fanfares. The ensuing development becomes increasingly turbulent, until the music suddenly comes to a halt. The main melodies then reappear, and the movement ends quietly with a final reminiscence of the opening theme.

The slow second movement, Land of Gloom, Land of Mist, is one of his most inspired. After an introduction from muted strings, a dreamy melody appears in the oboe. A contrasting theme follows in the violas and flutes. The two themes alternate as Tchaikovsky creates exquisite, snowy orchestral effects around them. The main theme returns first in the cellos, then in the horns for a climactic variation. The opening string introduction then returns as the movement fades away.

The third movement is a scherzo, a fast, dance-like movement that showcases Tchaikovsky’s ingenuity as an orchestrator. The original, Italian meaning of the word scherzo is “joke,” and with a tempo marking of Allegro scherzando giocoso, or “fast and jokingly playful,” Tchaikovsky seems to have taken it literally, creating an unpredictable play of sonorities. The mischievous outer sections surround a more lyrical center, the theme of which briefly reappears just before the movement ends with a final joke.

The last movement is based on a variant of the Russian folk song “I will plant, young one,” which Tchaikovsky could have heard sung in towns throughout Russia. Here is a translation* of one version of the song:

I will plant, young one,
A few flowers,
The flowers will start blooming,
And tearing at my heart.

I gazed at the flowers,
With my heart fainting,
With my little heart fainting,
Waiting for my friend.

How is my joy coming along,
He’s not coming soon.
I see, I see, that my joy
Doesn’t want to love me.

Love, love, my joy,
Whomever you wish!
I said farewell to you,
Now you say farewell to me!

The movement’s slow introduction begins with the bassoons playing a fragment of the folk song, which gradually emerges in a lugubrious version played by the violins. The music then becomes faster and faster, leading to an exultant new theme for full orchestra. Tchaikovsky shows off his contrapuntal skill, weaving multiple melodies together in a kaleidoscopic texture. The folk song then returns in a faster, dancing version for bassoons and violas. After a contrapuntal development, the exultant theme for full orchestra reappears, but soon after the music breaks off. The slow introduction returns, but this time it builds up to a grand, regal statement of the folk song for full orchestra. Tchaikovsky then concludes with exhilarating orchestral fireworks, proving that even in his First Symphony, he was a master of the grand finale.

Don’t miss Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 at Rice University’s Stude Concert Hall September 28, 30 & October 1. Get tickets and more info here.

*Many thanks to Daniil Kabotyanski for providing this translation.

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