Monday, January 4, 2016

Schubert: the last piano sonatas, part 2

I got started on talking about the three last piano sonatas of Schubert last year. Time to continue. I only recently started listening closely to these pieces, though I have heard them individually for decades without looking too closely. There is an excellent article in Wikipedia titled "Schubert's las sonatas" that is worth reading.

I started with the wonderful and disconcerting first movement of the last sonata, in B flat, D. 960. There is no point in considering them in numerical order as they were all sketched and composed together between the spring and autumn of Schubert's last year, 1828. Today I want to take a look at the second movement of the middle sonata, D. 959 in A major. Here is the opening:

Click to enlarge
This is the opening phrase, a sixteen measure period, meaning that it is in two eight measure parts, the first ending with a half cadence and the second with a full cadence. The second part is expanded by two measures taking the melody, which ends the first cadence on the third of the chord, repeating it with the melody ending on the root. Sorry, this final measure is left out of my example. What is so remarkable here is how Schubert, with the simplest of means, creates a deeply haunting atmosphere. Like the second movement of his second piano trio, this theme is perfect to be stolen by film directors for their most emotionally-charged moments.

Taruskin in his Oxford History of Western Music talks about how Schubert somehow suspends time with harmonic and other means, but though we can certainly hear it in this opening theme, I am at a loss to explain how he does it exactly as there are no special harmonic, melodic or rhythmic devices present. It just works! Perhaps it is the very minimalist focus that makes this happen. Later on, there is a very busy and harmonically unstable development that changes key signature to C major (at the end of the first line in this example) but the notes themselves are clearly in C minor--at least for a few moments. The whole section visits a kaleidoscope of different keys:

Towards the end of the movement, right where we would expect a return of that wonderful opening theme, instead Schubert gives us a new, though similar theme, even simpler:

Notice that ominous trill from the B flat sonata--though here it appears just the once. This new theme is decorated with repeated note triplets and then the opening theme returns, very briefly, to end the movement. Here is a performance with Alfred Brendel:

Beethoven wrote a number of really astounding and profound slow movements, as did Mozart. Haydn, despite his cheery nature, wrote a few as well. But I doubt that anyone is really the superior of Schubert at moving and expressive slow movements.


Anonymous said...

What an extraordinary piece of music!

I can't hear it without tearing up as I think of that heart-rending final scene of "Au Hasard Balthasar" (one of the greatest films of all time). The donkey, abused all of his life, comes to rest and die with his "friends." (I think the donkey stands for Jesus but that's another story).

Bryan Townsend said...

Though I greatly admire French cinema, I don't know its history at all well. Thank you for mentioning Au Hasard Balthazar, which I was unaware of! As soon as I heard the Andantino I knew that it had to have been used in a soundtrack somewhere!