The ferment of life: Schubert’s last piano sonatas

Ignored for years, their composer regarded as Beethoven’s poor relation, Schubert’s last three piano sonatas now enjoy a special place in the piano repertoire, ranking alongside Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas, and they hold a particular fascination for pianists, audiences, critics and musicologists.

The final year of Schubert’s life was one of extraordinary productivity, marked by increasing public acclaim and declining health (he had been suffering from syphilis, and the debilitating effects of its treatment, since 1822/23). In addition to the three final piano sonatas, the last months of Schubert’s life saw the appearance of the Drei Klavierstücke D946 (Impromptus for piano in all but name), the Mass in E-flat D950, the String Quintet D956 and the posthumously published ‘Schwanengesang’ songs, amongst many other works, all of which display a high level of artistic maturity.

Drafted in the spring of 1828, Schubert completed his final three piano sonatas in September of that year, just a few months before his death at the age of 31. These were the first works of the kind he had composed following the death of Beethoven, a composer whom Schubert much admired, and his last three piano sonatas all pay tribute to Beethoven; indeed the first of the three is even cast in C minor, the key of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, and contains some distinctly “Beethovenian” idioms. Schubert numbered the three sonatas sequentially, perhaps envisioning them as a cycle. After his death, Schubert’s brother sold the manuscript to the publisher Diabelli, but the sonatas were not actually published until 1839, and were dedicated to Robert Schumann, a keen advocate of Schubert’s music. Given the popularity of these sonatas today, it is remarkable to note that their fame came late, well into the twentieth century, and due in no small part to pianist Arthur Schnabel’s championing of them during the 1928 centennial of Schubert’s death. Schnabel himself was one of the finest interpreters of Schubert’s piano sonatas and pioneered the programming of the final three as a set in concert. Today these sonatas are regarded as a core part of the pianist’s repertoire and are regularly performed.

The attraction of Schubert’s piano sonatas for performer and listener is their breadth of expression, further reinforced by a dramatic expansiveness, and the daring underlying harmonies which create contrasting and often startling musical hues and striking shifts of emotion. While Beethoven is often declamatory, Schubert speaks more quietly, more ambiguously, and even in its grander gestures, his music has a strong sense of intimacy and introspection. He takes us into his confidence, and makes us feel we are being spoken to personally and invidually.

In the final three sonatas, freed from the shadow of Beethoven, Schubert finds a new voice. Like Beethoven’s final sonatas, Schubert’s late works seem to communicate a sense of acceptance (but never resignation) combined with an “incompleteness”, as if he had much more to say, and the music’s propulsive driving force, its almost obsessive creative energy, is a transcendent refutation of disorder and death, whose overriding message is fundamentally positive.

Yet this positivity is frequently lost in the oft-repeated trope that the final sonatas are the composer’s farewell, his valediction, written when he knew he was dying, and it is rather too easy to ascribe his physical and emotional condition to the personal poignancy, melancholy and tragedy found within his music. It is remarkable how many performers, critics, broadcasters, academics and audience members take this view of the late sonatas, a view which also finds its way into programme and CD liner notes.

Remarkable circumstances surrounding death – such as suicide, murder, horrible disease, or extreme youth – typically exert an extraordinary influence on posthumous perception.

Christopher H Gibbs, “Poor Schubert” Images and Legends of the Composer, The Cambridge Companion to Schubert (Cambridge: 1997)

The romanticisation of Schubert’s illness and his premature death tend to ignore the realities of life in early nineteenth-century Vienna. In Schubert’s day, Vienna was a dirty, disease-ridden, violent and dangerous city where life was tough, and the average life-expectancy of an adult man at this time was 38 years. In this police-state city, its citizens maimed by the ravages of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, lives were lived on the edge of sorrow, and Schubert’s was not unusual in the context of the time. Schubert’s music expresses not just personal joy, sorrow, disorder….but the ferment of life itself in all its dimensions.

Like his other late works, the final three piano sonatas move between extremes, often taking performer and listener from the darkly tragic and melancholic to a golden transcendence or joyous other-worldliness, all rendered in music of incredible, almost revolutionary inventiveness.

Alfred Brendel describes Schubert as “a sleepwalker”, yet in his final three sonatas, we see Schubert’s innate sense of musical geometry and his bold treatment of traditional sonata form. These are tightly-organised works with almost perfectly-balanced structures, perhaps most obviously in the middle sonata of the triptych, the D959 in A. Here, as elsewhere, Schubert uses cyclic devices – motivic, melodic and rhythmic – to create a sense of “belonging” between the movements and as “signposts” throughout the sonata’s narrative. For example, the opening measures of the D959 are reprised at its close, and the first and final movements are almost identical in length.

Another unifying factor in these sonatas is Schubert’s use of dramatic rests and fermatas. Silences abound, suspending time and offering pause for reflection, while also clarifying the structural expansiveness of the music. In addition, Schubert’s use of dynamics is often ‘psychological’ rather than purely physical, suggesting an intensity of feeling rather than volume of sound. His generous use of pianissimo in particular creates an ethereality in the music as if hovering between different states.

The C-minor Sonata, D958, is the most Beethovenian in tone and opens with a torrential drive and strength clearly influenced by Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor. This gives way to a contrasting, hymn-like second subject, while the development section contains mysterious chromatic passages.

Elisabeth Leonskaja brings a suitably Beethoven’s drama to the opening movement of D958:

The slow movement is a songful Adagio, reminiscent of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata with its peaceful cantabile melody which returns in variation interposed with dramatic sections in contrasting keys. Despite the serene theme, the atmosphere never feels entirely settled and this agitation is carried forward into the Scherzo which opens in c minor. The finale is a frenetic, swirling tarantella with violent dramatic contrasts and the obsessive drive of Erlkonig.

The Sonata in A, D959, is joyous after the darkness of the C minor Sonata, D958, and its themes are nostalgic, springlike and lilting. In this respect it is related to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. The first movement has a dramatic symphonic sweep in its generous breadth, but closes with a softly-spoken coda, bringing a somewhat uncertain end to this long-spun movement. It 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.This music is quite unlike anything else Schubert wrote, a “composed hallucination” (Jonathan Biss, pianist), which many people – pianists, scholars, critics, listeners – believe is the clearest indication, in music, of Schubert’s emotional and mental instability, probably due to his advanced syphilis. Whatever the meaning of this movement, its position in the overall structure of the sonata creates a striking contrast between the expansive majesty of the opening movement and the quirky, playful Scherzo which follows it. A lyrical melancholy barcarolle turns, through a series of harsh modulations, into a middle section “storm” of savage, almost hysterical drama before a haunting reprise of the opening melody.

Richard Goode’s tasteful approach to the Andantino is measured and not too slow:

The finale of D959 is also a homage to Beethoven. Modelled 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. The movement has a lilting, good-natured charm reminiscent of his string quartets and quintets, and the dramatic chords at the opening of the sonata are reprised at the very close.

Inon Barnatan’s Finale is crisply articulated with a clear sense of through narrative:

Schubert’s final sonata, D960 in B-flat, is scored in the same key at Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio, and shares its regal expansiveness, felt most strongly in the opening movement whose first subject is one of hymn-like serenity, occasionally disturbed by bass trills. Harmoniously balanced, gently melancholic and imbued with a sense of acceptance, this spacious movement is almost as long as an entire Beethoven piano sonata, and it plots its course like a great river flowing inexorably towards the sea.

Here is Alexander Lonquich:

In the slow movement, a masterpiece of nostalgic lyricism, Schubert creates a sense of almost complete stasis through a recurring figure in the left hand, and this could be a movement of haunting melancholy were it not for the contrasting middle section in warm A major. The Scherzo sparkles with all the clarity and joy of a mountain stream, its effervescence only briefly interrupted by the minor-key Trio.

The finale has the same structure as the A major sonata, and shares its positive, life-affirming qualities. Far from tragic or valedictory, it closes with a robustly triumphant Presto coda.

Schubert’s final three sonatas take the listener on a rewarding, moving and highly absorbing musical and emotional journey and succeed in expressing, through music, the panorama of the human experience. If ‘Winterreise’ (completed in 1827) is heartbreak, a study in unrelieved sorrow, the final three piano sonatas reveal and revel in all of life – heroism, determination, spirituality, dancing high spirits, humility, intoxicatingly bittersweet, nostalgic, and life-affirming, never unremittingly melancholy nor heavy.

Further reading:

An Autumn Sonata – a series of essays on the Sonata in A, D959, from a learning perspective. These also appeared in consecutive issues of The Schubertian, the journals of the Schubert Institute of the UK

Luminous and Illuminating Late Schubert – Richard Goode at the Royal Festival Hall

To Repeat or Not? Thoughts on Schubert’s D960