Monday, December 21, 2015

Schubert: the last piano sonatas, part 1

Back in 2012 I did a series of posts on Franz Schubert that just scratched the surface. I talked briefly about his harmonic style, a couple of piano pieces and a symphony. Then in October of this year I did another series of posts, focusing this time on the songs. But there is so very much more of Schubert's music that I haven't even mentioned. I make no pretensions to any kind of thoroughness on this blog, of course, but I do like to talk about as much important music as I can. How do I define "important"? That's a tricky question, but music that reveals great depth, expressivity, charm and energy certainly qualifies.

Some of the most important music by Schubert is found in his late piano sonatas. Like the symphonies, his earlier works were imitative of his models--not surprising for a young composer. But in both his later symphonies and piano sonatas he touched on ground that no-one else has. If you are familiar with the Beethoven piano sonatas, as I am, the late ones by Schubert will strike you as strangely unusual. The last three sonatas were all written in the last year of his life, 1828. They were begun in March, complete by September (when he played all three in a private gathering) and by November, Schubert was dead. They did not see publication for a decade.

I am still getting to know these three great (in length as well as quality) works, but I will begin with the last of the three as I have been listening quite a lot to it lately. Here is how it begins:

Click to enlarge
A couple of things to note: it begins with one of Schubert's charming melodic ideas and the eight-measure phrase ends with a half cadence. Then there comes a deeply ominous trill in the low bass from F to G flat. This G flat is the flat submediant, a scale degree and harmony that Schubert exploited in many pieces. Indeed, it became the characteristic harmony of Romantic music. In this case, it also presages a modulation to G flat and later one to F# minor, the enharmonic equivalent. This subterranean trill returns again at the end of the exposition, returning us to the opening. The juxtaposition of it with the more conventional, but charming, melody, is one of the characteristics of the sonata. One of the principles of composition, these days at least, is to build into the bones of the music a fundamental tension. It is this that raises concert music above the merely ordinary. And the origins of this idea are in the Viennese classicists. It is not only Schubert (and Beethoven) that exploit contrasts to create tension, we also find it in Haydn and Mozart (and C. P. E. Bach as well). I suspect it was Haydn and C. P. E. Bach that actually invented it. But in Schubert, it takes on a plaintive, haunting quality. The trill returns again, introducing the recapitulation:

The first phrase of the recapitulation, of course, ends with a half cadence followed by the trill, so it comes twice in ten measures. It comes again at the very end of the movement with that same phrase, ending with a half cadence, then the trill. The movement ends with the simplest of V - I cadences:

The trill is a kind of fulcrum around which the movement turns.

There is a lot more one could talk about in this movement, not to mention the other three, but I think I will stop here for today. Let's listen to the Piano Sonata in B flat, D. 960 by Schubert. This is Andras Schiff:

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