An Autumn Sonata – Part 3. “Heavenly Length”

It was Schumann who coined the phrase “heavenly length”, specifically in relation to Schubert’s Great C major Symphony, D944, though this tag has now become synonymous with all of Schubert’s late music.

How to approach a work of the scale of the Sonata in A, D959? In common with the other late sonatas (including the Sonata in G, D894), it is a big work, with a first movement which can last as long as an entire mid-period Beethoven Sonata, if the exposition repeat is included (and I believe it should be).

The D959 is indeed long: the entire work takes around 40 minutes to play, and for both performer and audience there is a sense of traversing an epic landscape. One’s duty as performer/interpreter is to find connections, within the individual movements, and the work as a whole, in order to lead the listener on a unique journey deep into Schubert’s musical landscape. Schubert uses motivic and structural signposts throughout the four movements to enhance this sense of a journey (for example, the opening measures of the first movement are reprised in the closing bars of the finale, and there are many other cyclic elements – of rhythm, melody, articulation, and even character/emotion – which connect the four movements ). The cyclic elements also enhance the sense of a tightly organised structure: this sonata may be long, but it is not rambling (though some performers may make it so!). The first and the final movements are almost identical in length (c.13 minutes each if one observes the exposition repeat in the first movement). These edifices bookend the middle movements which are also of an equal length – c.7 minutes each (roughly half the length of the first and final movements) if one observes all the repeats in the Scherzo. Some scholars have pointed to a “golden ratio” or “golden section” in Schubert’s structural organisation. Whether this was conscious on the part of the composer is not known, but from the performer/interpreter’s point of view an appreciation of this almost perfectly-balanced structure is important in creating the sense of a distinct structural and narrative arc that runs through the entire work.

In terms of embarking on the learning of all these notes, I decided to treat the sonata as four separate works, learning each movement as a stand-alone piece while also remaining alert to the cyclic elements within each movement and the whole work through regular study of the score away from the piano and listening to recordings of the complete sonata. From the outset, I had a clear timescale in mind: I wanted to have the entire sonata in the fingers (learnt but by no means finessed) by summer 2015, and having a clear focus enabled me to meet my target, almost to the day. What has interested me throughout the learning process is the fact that the notes themselves are not that difficult, and most of the time the writing lies comfortably under the fingers and hand. What has been far more difficult is achieving a convincing rendering of Schubert’s unique compositional voice – and maintaining this throughout c40 minutes of music. Too many interpreters treat Schubert as Beethoven’s “enfeebled twin”, but as the pianist Paul Lewis has noted “Schubert is more internally stormy than Beethoven, which perhaps make it all the more powerful…….. Schubert almost never provides the answers. There are always more questions than answers…….it’s a reflection of what we find in life“.

Schubert interpretation is riven with some doubtful traditions which developed in the nineteenth century, many of which have been subsumed into standard performance practice today. The best commentary on the music can be drawn from the autograph scores and contemporary evidence.

Schubert should never be stereotyped or over-interpreted: such treatment can straitjacket the music, reducing it to a simplistic highlighting of elements which the performer may feel are obviously “Schubertian” (beautiful melodies, nostalgia, poignancy, depression, emotional volte-faces, rage, joy etc) rather than allowing oneself the freedom to appreciate that this music is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

Here is Inon Barnatan in the final movement of the D959, a reading I particularly like for his clarity and appreciation of the articulation, coupled with a real sense of the joy inherent in this music