The final instalment in a series of essays exploring my personal independent study of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata. This essay first appeared in The Schubertian, the journal of the Schubert Institute UK.
O thrice romantic master, wouldn’t you like to stroll under the cherry blossom with your love in the daytime and listen to Schubert in the evening?
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
In the spring of 2016, when I was in the final throes of preparation for my Fellowship performance diploma recital, I had some physiotherapy treatment on my left shoulder and arm. At one of the sessions the physiotherapist asked me if I had been doing a lot of lateral arm movement with the left arm: she had identified an area of muscle which was tight and slightly over-developed. I explained that in the finale of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, the left hand plays a repeating triplet figure, for which an almost continuous lateral arm movement (or a “polishing” motion on the keys) is required for the 13 or so minutes of the movement.
This anecdote illustrates several points about the finale of the D959: that it is a long movement of almost relentless forward motion and one which puts considerable technical and physical demands on the pianist.
The opening movement and the finale provide the bookends for this large sonata: both are a similar length (if one observes the exposition repeat in the first movement, which I do) and both have an expansiveness which takes pianist and listener on some intriguing musical highways and by-ways. By creating a finale of such length and involvement, Schubert gives us a sonata with a perfectly-balanced structure: two large outer movements surround two shorter inner movements
The finale is a Rondo whose structural scheme is modeled on the finale (also a Rondo) of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 31 no.1. In fact, the only truly imitative element is Schubert’s reworking of the slow movement theme from his Piano Sonata in A minor, D537, composed more than a decade earlier, to which he brings the lilting gentleness of ‘Im Fruhling’ (D882). Scored in sonata-rondo form (A–B–A– Development–A–B–A–Coda), this lyrical movement comprises an almost continuous triplet movement and a songful melody, replete with striking harmonic and emotional shifts.
The development section culminates in a long passage in C-sharp minor which refers back to the dramatic middle section of the Andantino. The ensuing passage leads to a false recapitulation in F-sharp major, which then modulates to begin again with the second subject in the home key. In the coda, the main theme returns fragmented, which recalls the hesitancy of the coda in the first movement. The final section of the coda is marked Presto, and here agitated and exuberant arpeggios, redolent of those from the first movement, overlay fragments from the main theme in the bass before arriving at a dramatic false cadence of sforzando chords. Now a fragment of the main theme is heard again, this time marked pianissimo, before the closing statement of sforzando chords, based on the majestic chordal theme of the opening of the Sonata. It is a glorious statement with which to close this wonderful work.
The cyclic elements, first encountered in the opening movement, are evident in the finale, most obviously the short-long “ta tah” figure which is heard in the very first notes of the movement: the first subject theme begins with a quaver followed by a quaver rest and then a minim. This same motif reappears in the tumultuous minor section (bars 146-157) and of course in the recapitulation of the first subject (bar 328). Rests and fermatas (also cyclic elements encountered in the first movement) provide dramatic pauses in the flow of the music’s narrative, the most striking coming at bar 327 and throughout the coda, reinforcing the reiteration of the first-subject theme, and reminding us of the opening movement.
The triplets, which begin in bar 17 and remain an almost-continuous feature of the Finale, provide a unifying thread and create a stream of bubbling movement. They are both lyrical (for example bars 17-24) and serve to underpin the harmony, particularly when forming the accompaniment. At other times, they suggest orchestral textures, when coupled with chords in the other hand (for example, bars 37-44 or 112-116). They must, of course, be played with evenness throughout (lots of lateral arm movement!) and should not be rushed: pushing the tempo of this movement (which is marked Allegretto) will result in a performance which sounds relentless rather than responsive and good-natured.
Despite the movement’s tight structure, it moves along with the sense of “fresh-minted inspiration carving out its own natural path as it goes.” (Newbould) and in order to convey this to the listener, I feel one should take Schiff’s advice and “follow Schubert on his journeys and recognize its various stations”. Thus, shifts in melody, harmony and rhythm should feel spontaneous and natural, and it is this seamlessness which gives the movement its character, such that it could almost be performed as a stand-alone work. It is a movement rich in varied material and texture, from the genial first subject, which is clearly drawn from string quartet writing, to a second subject (first heard in the right hand at bar 46) which suggests woodwind, with string accompaniment. There are brass fanfares (bars 41 and 43, for example) and grand dramatic orchestral gestures (bars 146-160) and even a passage deeply redolent of Beethoven (bars 179-211).
The challenge of learning this movement, in addition to the learning and upkeep of so many notes, was retaining a sense of the through-narrative of the music, while also giving it the requisite breathing space and natural contours, both within phrases and in longer sections. But it is, for me, one of the most satisfying of any movements of a sonata to play, largely because of its free-ranging flow of ideas.
Reflecting on the experience of tackling such a large sonata, perhaps the most obvious aspect I have taken from this is an enhanced ability to practise deeply and efficiently, taking note of every detail in the score and continually examining and questioning the composer’s intentions. This kind of “musical detective work” was supported by extensive reading and listening (on disc and in concert), and conversations with professional pianists who regularly perform this repertoire, all of which gave me a deeper appreciation of Schubert’s astonishing creativity and inventiveness, an appreciation which I have subsequently applied to learning or revisiting some of his shorter piano works, including the first set of Impromptus.
I also learnt that it is not possible, mentally or physically, to devote one’s entire practise regime to a single work, and by “resting” the sonata while I learnt other music allowed me to return to it with renewed interest and fresh ideas. Thus the learning process became a “musical adventure”, peeling back the layers of this extraordinary music to reveal its greater depths and intriguing mysteries. It has been deeply satisfying, occasionally frustrating, and hugely beneficial to my general development as a pianist.
I am indebted to my teacher, Graham Fitch, for his very positive support and encouragement during the long learning process, and also to concert pianists Daniel Grimwood and James Lisney (both fine Schubert players) who offered me challenging food for thought on Schubert, the man and his music.
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)
Favourite recordings of the D959
Richard Goode (Nonesuch, 1988)
Radu Lupu (Decca)
Inon Barnatan (Avie, 2013)
Krystian Zimmerman (DG, 2017)