Schubert’s Thirds

It’s been a quiet, rainy afternoon at Vftp Intl Headquarters.

I’ve mostly been perched at the piano going through the score of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony (in C minor, “Tragic”).

It’s a piece I’ve been wanting to do for some years since I covered it in Cincinnati in 1998 and fell in love with it. It’s rarely done, and it tends to get a bad rap. I think many commentators dismiss it as Schubert’s youthful and not-quite-successful take on Beethoven 5, but it’s a very different, and very Schubert-ian piece. Schubert loved and revered Beethoven, but unlike Brahms and Schuman, he never felt he had to answer the same questions that Beethoven did, he was unafraid to be his own man. Schubert Four rocks. It will kick you apart. It stands 18 feet tall, and bench presses Miami. The introduction to the first movement consumes over 200 pounds of raw meat every day, and hunts in a territory the size of Arkansas.

Anyway, all day long I’ve just been sitting there at the piano and thinking about all those famous chromatic third relationships we learned about in music school. This piece is full of them, sudden drops from E-flat to C-flat major and the like.

The thing is, we all know Schubert used that relationship all the time- one of my teachers even called it the “Schubert modulation,” but I’m fascinated, still, by what it meant to him. Why did this one key relationship obsess him in so many pieces and in pieces of all different moods? Was it a motto, a signature, a reference to an early song? Did he just think it sounded cool? Did his first harmony teacher tell him never to do it?

Of course, the beauty of a unique part of a composers voice is that there’s no simple answer, any more than we’ll ever understand what Shostakovich’s signature use of three rhythms as the backbone of almost all his music meant to him.

What I do know is that this relationship sits there on the page in piece after piece, context after context and dares you to riddle out its meaning. Even as you know it’s an unanswerable question, Schubert calls you back in, as if to say “come on mate, the answer is right in front of you….”  

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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3 comments on “Schubert’s Thirds”

  1. Edwin

    I think of it like this — some cadences are stairways, doors, windows, hallways …

    … but the third relation is like walking through a wall into a parallel universe. Schubert’s music is in touch with the uncanny as well as anyone’s. It seems only fitting that he uses this harmonic move so often, and so well.

  2. composerbastard

    I think it much more practically – the physical fingering of retaining Eb, while moving G and Bb in 1/2 step contrary motion – probably was built into his piano playing improv style…

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hey Edwin!

    Great to hear from you, and well said. I think your description is especially apt when he uses those third relationships in his strolling grooves- there are so many places in his music where one feels as if you’re wandering along in every day existence, then you’re suddenly shifted to a new world.

    I like John Harbison’s comment that Schubert “got closer to full metaphysical revelation than any other composer….”

    Hope all’s well there


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