An autumn sonata – part 5: the first movement

Several things have happened since I started this series of articles about my learning and study of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata. The first is that after a long period of reflection and time away from the piano following my disappointing Fellowship diploma result, I started playing the sonata again – and with a very different mindset from last year – and the second that I have been commissioned to write a series of articles about the sonata for ‘The Schubertian’, the journal of the Schubert Institute (UK). This allowed me spend more time analysing and studying the music away from the piano, in conjunction with some serious reading and listening, all of which has thrown new light on the music for me and enabled me to approach it differently, and (based on my teacher’s comments at my latest lesson), more successfully.

The following article on the first movement of the sonata combines simple analysis with some personal thoughts on practising, interpretation and musical narrative.

“The performer only has to follow Schubert on his journeys and recognize its various stations”

Andras Schiff

The first movement has a symphonic sweep in its generous breadth, and an appreciation of Schubert’s orchestral writing is essential in approaching this movement, in terms of its textures, implied instrumentation and narrative flow. Much is made of Schubert the spinner of beautiful lieder melodies in his piano music, as elsewhere, but in the later Piano Sonatas we find Schubert the composer of tautly textured string quartets and large-scale orchestral writing. To better appreciate and respond to these aspects of the sonata, my “further listening” on disc and in concert has included the ‘Great’ C major Symphony, D944, the String Quintet in C, D956 (which Schubert composed during the final months of his life), and the String Quartet in D minor, D810, as well as the late piano music (the Impromptus) and of course the other two sonatas which comprise the final triptych. Such listening has proved invaluable in my understanding of Schubert’s distinct soundworld and idioms, and incorporating these sounds and textures into my own interpretation of the piano sonata, alongside my personal “vision” of the work, has enabled me to create a performance which is, I feel, three-dimensional and rich in orchestral detail.

Autograph score of the first draft of the first movement in which the opening sentence is more simplified than the final version

The movement opens with a majestic six-bar sentence comprising declamatory chords in the treble which leaves us in no doubt that this music is in the key of A major: there are no less than 14 A’s in the top voice in this sequence. For me, this opening sentence has all the grandeur and poise of the introductory sequence in a Bach keyboard Partita, and its “stand alone” quality is made all the more impactful by what follows it.

Next a sequence of descending arpeggios, marked piano, which could have come straight out of an impromptu with its idiosyncratic intimacy. The contrast between this section and the opening is striking and is the first example, of many, of Schubert’s musical and emotional volte faces which pepper this work. In bar 8 another cyclic motif is introduced, the short-long “ta-tah” rhythmic gesture (here a crotchet followed by a minim) which feels like a musical intake of breath in surprise or wonder, almost an “ah ha!”. This motif will also appear in various reincarnations throughout the work. It requires precise articulation and little or no pedal so as not to blur the transition from the first note/chord to the second, to retain an element of surprise, and to ensure the upward harmonic movement in the bass is clear; this is particularly important when the motif appears again as a quaver and minim separated by a rest (for example, at bars 23 or 28/9). These apparently tiny details create remarkable breathing spaces and suspensions in the music and clarify the structural expansiveness and improvisatory character that pervade this movement (and also the finale). The suspension from bar 6 is further reiterated in bar 13 and is not fully resolved until the A major harmony of bar 16, where the opening sentence and successive arpeggiated figure interact in another new idea whose bass line reflects the opening sentence in its ascending chords.

In just 50 bars Schubert gives us so much material. Varied, dramatic and contrasting in both weight and pace, it is far more than one would expect to find in the exposition of a traditional Classical-era sonata, and here, as elsewhere throughout the sonata, we see Schubert’s rich inventiveness, his desire to explore new ideas and his use of the piano sonata form as a vehicle for vivid experimentation and wide-ranging emotional impact. The challenge is how to integrate all these ideas while also retaining the improvisatory/evolutionary character of the music. In fact, I prefer to follow Schiff’s suggestion – that one simply follows, responds to, and trusts Schubert’s wanderings, moment-by-moment: as mentioned previously, the cyclic motifs serve as unifying elements in the work, drawing these varied strands together.

The exposition’s second subject, introduced at bar 55, feels more like a traditional second subject: scored in the dominant (E major), it is a simple lyrical melody accompanied by string quartet textures. At the end of this section, one might expect a double-bar and an indication to return to the opening of the music to repeat the exposition, but instead Schubert introduces a turbulent extended chromatic passage leading to a climax of descending arpeggios which recall those from near the opening, followed by a declamatory, orchestral section (mm. 105-111). Despite the sforzando markings, I resist the temptation to give this passage a really full-bodied Beethovenian forte: this is, after all, Schubert not Beethoven, and I feel his dynamics are often psychological rather than purely physical, here suggesting an intensity of feeling rather than sheer volume. Greater emphasis in the bass helps to reinforce this. This section ends on a suspension: a whole-bar rest of complete silence before a passage based on the second subject. This pause needs to feel absolute, with a sense of “listening into silence” (Brendel), to create a magical contrast with the gentle lyricism of the passage which follows and the close of the exposition. The decision then is whether to repeat the exposition (which I do), or proceed straight to the development. Whatever the decision, there is no doubting the impact of the extraordinary modulation in the second-time bar (m 129) where the music moves into C major and the development is heralded by gentle pulsing quavers.

The development section, like the exposition, is not a development in the strict sense of the classical sonata structure: Schubert hardly develops the preceding material at all and instead a last-minute idea from the close of the exposition (mm 121-122) becomes the main motif. The section begins in C major but quickly oscillates between C and B major, which, together with the register in which it is played, creates an ethereal, almost hypnotically suspended atmosphere. The effect is further enhanced by moments of ambiguity in the modulations, where the music hovers momentarily in a minor key, as if passing, albeit fleetingly, into another realm entirely. The LH chords suggest a string accompaniment and should not be too “chugging”. Nor should this section be obscured by too much pedal. I aim for a Mozartian clarity here with little or no pedal: the overall effect should be “heavenly” and dreamlike.

A dramatic descent into the lower registers heralds the further development of this theme in the minor key. Now the atmosphere shifts again, to intimate and passionate, the pulsing quavers remaining as a unifying element. These continue as the music moves into the preparation for the recapitulation, now firmly in the dominant, as if the drama and darkness of the minor section is already long forgotten.

The recapitulation is traditional: it remains in the home key of A major, while the second subject is presented in C major. But at bar 219 the third motif from the opening is stated in A minor and an octave higher. This new variant echoes, momentarily, both musically and emotionally the minor-key sections from the dreamlike sequence of the development before the music moves into warm F major.

The coda restates the opening sentence, but in a much more hesitant manner: marked pianissimo, it is interrupted by whole-bar rests with fermatas, while the left hand imitates pizzicato strings. It feels like a nostalgic reminiscence of the opening sentence and to enhance this, I believe there is justification for broadening the tempo and lingering over certain elements, such as the appoggiaturas in bars 337 or 343, to create a wistful, hymn-like atmosphere. The movement closes with gentle ascending arpeggios, mirroring those from the opening section, the penultimate of which is in B flat major ending on an augmented sixth, which creates a sense of uncertainty, before the final gentle A major arpeggio closes the movement. The question of how to pedal these arpeggios is ambiguous. In both my Henle and Barenreiter scores, there is a pedal mark at bar 349 only. Any pedal I use here is for atmosphere: I like a slight wash of pedal, particularly with the B-flat major arpeggio, but too much will obscure the contours of this sequence. The softly-spoken, somewhat uncertain end to this expansive movement has the curious effect of setting the scene for the second movement without actually pre-empting it at all. When it comes, the Andantino seems distant and alien, so utterly different in character from what has gone before.

Such is the spell of your emotional world that it very nearly blinds us to the greatness of your craftsmanship.
Franz Liszt on Franz Peter Schubert


Select bibliography

Brendel, Alfred, ‘Schubert’s Last Sonatas’, in Music, Sense and Nonsense: Collected Essays and Lectures (London: The Robson Press, 2015)

Fisk, Charles, Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2015)

Montgomery, David, Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance. Compositional Ideals, Notational Intent, Historical Realities, Pedagogical Foundations (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2003)

Schiff, Andras, ‘Schubert’s Piano Sonatas: thoughts about interpretation and performance’, in Brian Newbould (ed.) Schubert Studies (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 1998)