In Vienna on 16 June 1816, Franz Schubert took part at one of many musical entertainments. We do not know any details about the circumstances of the soiree, but we do know that Mozart’s music was heard there. When the composer returned home, he wrote in his diary: “This bright, clear, beautiful day will remain in my memory all my life. I hear the magical tones of Mozart’s music as if from afar. What an incredibly powerful yet tender impression his music has left in the depths of my heart… Neither time nor any other circumstances shall erase the mark left upon my soul… It shows us bright, clear distances in the darkness of our lives.” This entry is the key to Schubert’s personality and to his artistic credo. It also largely explains the origins of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony composed soon thereafter in September and October of 1816.
In his previous Fourth Symphony, Schubert wished to express his admiration for his great contemporary Beethoven. He gave the work the rather theatrical subtitle Tragic, but despite all of his efforts, he did not achieve what he set out to do. He was simply an entirely different kind of musician and person. Schubert was able to express the tragic in a different musical genre—the Lied—to utter perfection. Perhaps by composing his Fourth Symphony, he was trying to attain a goal he had set for himself, and after having done so, he set off in a different direction. He turned his attention to Mozart, whose music was far closer to him.
Schubert was also a typical representative of the Biedermeier period, lifestyle, and artistic movement that dominated bourgeois culture of the first half of the 19th century. The word Biedermeier was first used by the German poet Joseph Victor von Scheffel for what is also sometimes called the “bourgeois Empire style”. In music, this style is characterised by melodiousness, plainness, simplicity, intimacy, naturalness, fondness for nature, and love of folk music. The lifestyle was one of balance, moderation, and friendship. The ability to manage one’s finances and affairs, honesty, and respect for hard work were important values. Had Mozart not died prematurely and survived into the Biedermeier period, many things would have seemed unfamiliar to him. His existence had always been directly dependent upon the favour of the aristocracy. However, the Napoleonic Wars had been ruinous for Austria, and the state’s bankruptcy in 1811 mostly afflicted the nobility, devaluating their vast property holdings. That was the end of generous patronage, and the bourgeoisie in the cities quickly understood this and began standing on their own feet. Vienna’s townsfolk began gathering in the evening in their own salons, lavishly equipped with ostentatious factory-made (and therefore cheaper) furnishings. There, they listened to music and poetry, performed Hausmusik and held debates about the arts. At these friendly gatherings, the aesthetics of Romanticism took shape, and there arose a generation of Romantic poets, painters, and musicians including Franz Schubert.
Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat major is a distinctive, musically brilliant tribute to Mozart. It exudes a mood of carefree gaiety, vigour, and immediacy while using compositional procedures borrowed from Mozart’s late style. Everything is taking place in a subtle spirit of intimacy and delicacy (one might say in the Biedermeier manner). The orchestra without clarinets, trumpets, trombones, or timpani seems a bit limited; Otto Hartig’s modest private orchestra played the symphony, and the composer apparently took the forces available at the moment into consideration. Schubert’s Fifth Symphony shared the fate of his other symphonies: it was given a private premiere at Schottenhof, Hartig’s home, in the autumn of 1816, but there was no real, full-fledged public premiere until 17 October 1841 at the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna, 13 years after Schubert’s death. Johannes Brahms was the editor of the first printed edition, issued in 1885.
Franz Schubert’s Fifth Symphony radiates with Mozart’s proverbial sunshine. In the opening movement, it is not until the first forte that one recognises that the music is not by Mozart, and the doubt persists almost until the end of the composition. The music is joyous, carefree, and crystal clear. The second movement is full of ardour; the slow movement of Mozart’s Prague Symphony unfailingly comes to mind. By contrast, the menuet is full of energy, while the trio section is a pastoral dance. The excitingly ferocious finale, bursting with joy and vigour, makes perfect use of imitation technique. In this symphony, Franz Schubert, “a pilgrim seeking his happiness in vain”, is giving away happiness by the handful.