Last month, Chinese tech giant Huawei announced that it had completed Franz Schubert’s Symphony no. 8, known as his ‘Unfinished Symphony’. Or to be more precise, its Mate 20 pro smartphone was ‘taught’ to analyse the two movements of the Unfinished Symphony, and came up with melodies which were then turned into two remaining movements by the minor movie composer Lucas Cantor. You can listen to the results on the Huawei website, linked above. Did it work? We shall turn to this question at the end of the post, but first, some background on Schubert–depicted in a ghostly painting above by Gustav Klimt, who was so moved by Schubert’s music that it left him ver-Klimt–and how and why he came to compose an unfinished symphony.
Schubert, born in 1797, was a native of the musical centre and capital of the Austrian Habsburg empire, Vienna. His father was a suburban schoolmaster who taught his children music. Schubert was a somewhat rebellious choir-boy (being of a not particularly pious disposition, as it turned out), and as a pleasure-loving chap clearly had an abhorrence of ‘violins’–and so learned the viola instead. He obtained a scholarship to the Imperial Seminary in 1818, and by 16 had already composed a great deal of music. In 1814, he fell in love with Therese Grob, a singer who performed in his F major Mass, but his love was unrequited: Franz had to keep his Grobby hands off her. Heartbroken, Schubert took to writing songs especially inspired by the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Throughout Schubert’s short career, his songs ‘Goethe’ better and better, or at least got Goethe and Goethe.
Schubert is also known for his stunning piano sonatas, influenced by his older contemporary Ludwig van Beethoven. Researchers at Early Modern Times’s Department of Vegetal-Musicology have recently uncovered unpublished piano pieces influenced by the roasted root vegetables sold at a food-truck owned by a local chef with an obscene hairpiece: Lewd-wig’s Van & Beet-Oven. Some of these posthumously published works are regarded as only half-baked, however. Another highlight of his opus is his ‘Trout Quintet’, which he composed after a pleasant trip to the surrounding countryside. He was clearly fishing for ideas as he went trout-and-about.
As he became a famous composer in his hometown, Schubert was at the centre of a circle of Viennese artists. These writers, poets, and students would gather at cafes, each other’s homes, or the country estate of Schubert’s uncle in the summer to play games, read poetry, and listen to music performed by the great composer himself. The gatherings were known as ‘Schubertiads’, and acquaintances may have learned about upcoming ones from newspaper notices, i.e., Schuberti-ads. If a party was particularly slow, it may have been called a Schuberti-adagio.
Schubert’s hedonistic lifestyle proved his doom, as he was suffering from syphilis in the 1820s. At the time incurable, this disease should not be confused with the peculiar Viennese ailment in which the patient suffers from an compulsive appetite for saltwater fish, known as ‘sea-fillets’–rather unsavoury compared to the famous Wiener schnitzel, which is ‘veally’ good. Relatedly, Schubert was also afflicted with depression and the strange habit of owning fruit-eating dogs known as ‘melon collie’. Eventually, he would succumb to the syphilis at his death in 1828, at the age of 31.
His physical and mental illnesses were reflected in the austere, melancholic, and intimate tone of his eighth symphony, begun in 1823, and may be have contributed to his finishing only the first two movements (though he went on to compose another, and this time complete, symphony as well as songs and piano sonatas among other works). Schubert was, according to researchers at Early Modern Times’s Department of Anti-Scandinavian Folklorism, adamant that it was not inspired by popular folk-tunes coming out of Helsinki. In other words, the Unfinished Symphony was definitely an un-Finnish symphony.
Two hundred years later, the symphony has been completed by the collaboration of artificial intelligence and a contemporary film composer–both of whom have chosen not to consult Schubert’s own sketches for the third and fourth movements (followed by earlier, wholly human, composers who have attempted to finish the symphony). How successful are the results? I was underwhelmed and unmoved, and so I agree with Goetz Richter’s assessment that ‘these movements sound only a little like Schubert and a lot like film music….The completed movements are trivial and achieve ultimately a loose and inauthentic family resemblance to Schubert.’ Failing to heed the merits of Schubert’s decision not to finish the symphony–as its beauty and mystery arguably lie in its very incompleteness–and eschewing the inner, organic structure of the music, we have an ersatz sym-phony. The moral of the story is surely that if a fake Schu-bert doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Schubert Bacharach Studies Program