Schubert Centenary Competition

Finishing the Unfinished

It is well-known that Franz Schubert did not finish his eighth symphony, Number 8 in D Minor. What is less well-known that there was a competition launched in 1928 inviting composers to compose the final movements from the surviving notes.  The competition was proposed by the British arm of the Columbia Phonograph company after the bankruptcy of the American parent.  1927 was the centenary of Beethoven’s death and the company released electrical copies of all nine symphonies which were a commercial success.  What to do next?  Well 1928 was the centenary of Schubert’s death and so a competition to complete the Unfinished was proposed.  A prize of over £100,000 in today’s money was to be awarded.

Cue outrage from the musical world and cries of ‘sacrilege’.  The original theme of the competition was dropped and in its place a competition for new works where composers were required to:

[provide] compositions, apart from faultless formal structure, must be marked by the predominance of a vigorous melodic content, and the number of instruments employed must not substantially exceed the measure established by the classical orchestras of time.

Last night’s presentation about this subject was by Robin Lim who had clearly done a deal of research to unearth the background and to find some of the music composed for this competition.

The first piece was by Felix Weingartner and was his Symphony No 6 from which we heard the allegro.  This incorporated some of the known fragments but could not be considered for the competition as he was invited to sit on the judging panel.

Next we heard two movements in symphonic form by Frank Merrick from Bristol, best known in his day as a pianist.

After that was a piece called Pax Vobiscum by john St Anthony Johnson born circa 1874 and about whom little is known.

Finally before the break we heard the 3rd movement from Hans Gal’s Symphony No 1.  Gal lived in Edinburgh and was interned as an enemy alien during WWII.

The evening ended by listening to some of the prize winners.  The judging panel was extraordinary and included Ravel, Respighi, de Falla, Szymanowski and Thomas Beecham.  Third prize went to a piece by Czeslaw Marek (who’s music we have heard in an earlier evening of the Society).  We heard an extract from his symphonia.  This is a composer who we should hear more of as he only rarely appears on concert programmes.

Second prize went to Franz Schmidt and we heard the scherzo from his 3rd Symphony.  This composer does still sometimes still feature in concert programmes – indeed he was performed in the 2015 Proms – but is not well known.

The winner?  This was by the composer Kurt Atterberg and we heard the finale to his 6th Symphony.

The story did not end there though.  Ernest Newman writing in the Sunday Times that;

Atterberg may have looked down the list of judges and slyly made up his mind that he would put ins a bit of something that would appeal to each of them in turn – a bit of Scheherazade for the Russian Glazunov, a bit of Cockaigne for Mr Tovey, a bit of the New World Symphony for Mr Damrosch, and bit of Petrushka for the modernist Alfan and bit of Granados for Salazar … but I wonder if there may not be another explanation  … Atterberg is not merely a composer.  He is a musical critic … suppose he looked round with a cynical smile that was all the world knows all critics wear and decided to pull the world’s leg?

The story was picked up by other newspapers and stories with headlines such as “£2000 Symphony hoax” and “Joke of Swedish Composer” soon appeared.  Columbia sought to recoup the prize money but it was too late — Atterberg had spent it on a new Ford car.

A fascinating insight into a period of musical history which has been all but forgotten.

Peter Curbishley


I am grateful for the notes provided by Robin Lim in writing this piece.

Next meeting 16 October

 

 

 

 

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