A personal journey through Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (read previous posts here)

With a good deal of reading, of both the score and books and articles on this sonata and Schubert’s piano music in general, and listening, and thinking, by late November 2014, it was time to embark on some serious note learning……

As noted in an earlier post, Schubert’s late piano sonatas are large-scale works: their first movements alone, with exposition repeats intact, can last as long as an entire sonata by Beethoven, and this “heavenly length” can pose problems for the performer in terms of stamina (it takes me around 43 minutes to perform the D959 in its entirety, with repeats), retaining a clear sense of the cyclic elements which recur throughout the work, and appreciating the overall narrative of the work. From my reading of the score, and other materials, I had concluded that the second movement, the infamous Andantino was the most “difficult” (though this is all relative when considering such a large piece of music!). This is the movement which provokes the most discussion and theorising amongst pianists, musicologists, critics and audience members, many of whom believe this movement is the clearest indication we have of Schubert’s emotional and mental instability, probably due to his advanced syphilis. Musically, it feels like an aberration in the overall scheme of the D959, which is generally warm-hearted and nostalgic in its character and prevailing moods, and it is unlike anything else Schubert wrote. “Its modernity is incredible even today” (Andras Schiff, Schubert Studies). It has a “desolate grace behind which madness lies” (Alfred Brendel), the lyricism of the outer sections providing a dramatic foil to the savage intensity of the middle section. Its position in the overall structure of the sonata creates a striking contrast between the majesty and expansiveness of the opening movement and the quirky, playful Scherzo which follows it. In my own practical approach to this movement, I decided to ignore much of the psychobabble and work with what is given in the text.

The movement is in straightforward ABA (ternary) form, the A section reprised with a more intricate left-hand accompaniment and a haunting triplet figure in the treble.

The middle, B, section unfolds initially like a Baroque fantasia (bars 73-86), with descending diminished seventh arpeggios which take the music into C-minor. Gradually all the elements speed up (Schubert indicates this through note sub-divisions, striking modulations and volume of sound) and the music continues to build with increasing savagery via extreme registers and the use of trills to sustain tension, eventually arriving at C-sharp minor and culminating in dramatic fortissimo chords (bars 120/121). A short recitative-like section follows, interrupted by dramatic chords, before a serene passage reminiscent of the G-flat major Impromptu (D899/3). The A material returns at bar 159.

The opening A section combines a barcarolle bass line with a right-hand melody redolent of several of the Heine songs and ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise, while its expressive qualities and character relate to the song ‘Pilgerweise’, also in F-sharp minor. Some pianists like to treat this movement as a barcarolle with a storm in the lagoon (the middle section). Daniel Barenboim has called A section “a melancholy folksong”, a description which I particularly like: the lilting style of a folksong is implied by the recurring bass figure and the simple melody from which is unleashed the turbulent and chaotic middle section.

A rather chilly, tread-like quality in the bass is created through the use of staccato on the first note and the slur on the second and third notes, with the third note lighter (although this is not indicated specifically after bar 2, we can safely assume that this is what Schubert intended throughout). I found it helpful to think of this in terms of a cello or bass pizzicato figure: it needs resonance but should also be balanced with the right-hand melody. I don’t sustain the staccato note with the pedal here, and indeed the pedal is used sparingly throughout this section. The repeated use of falling seconds and a limited range, together with largely understated dynamics, create a feeling of stasis and melancholy contemplation. With so many repetitive elements in this section, it is necessary to create contrasting musical colour (for example between bars 1-8 and 9-12). At bar 19 the music moves into A Major, one of those magical Schubert moments where the mood seems at once warmer and yet even more poignant because it is expressed pianissimo. I like to use the una corda pedal for this pianissimo passage, and the corresponding passage at bars 51-54 to create a sense of other-worldliness.

Page 3 of the Andantino with my annotations
Other details worth noting throughout this section (bars 1-32) are the inner voices in bars 7, 15, 16, 25, 29 and 31 (and then at bars 39 and 57), and the ornaments which should be played on the beat (though many celebrity pianists prefer to do otherwise, admittedly to beautiful effect). For example, in bar 15, the A sounds with the E sharp on the beat and the turn at bar 23 begins on the note above, but need not be pedantically with the bass C sharp. (See David Montgomery Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance for more on ornaments.)

At this point I feel it’s important to mention the overall tempo of the movement. It is marked Andantino, and needs a sense of forward propulsion. Despite this, some pianists tend more towards Adagio, and at this speed there is, in my opinion, a very fine line between the music sounding meditative or funereal, or even boring, which I do not feel is appropriate. I have aimed towards a metronome mark of quaver = c90 bpm. A quick browse through Spotify reveals quite a broad range of tempi, with some versions of the Andantino coming in at well over 8 minutes (Schnabel, Pollini, Uchida, Perahia) and others at around or under 7 minutes (Lupu, Schiff, Goode).

Here is Uchida

And Lupu


And so on to the B section, which leads to the most passionately and extraordinary part of the movement and indeed the whole sonata. It is typical of Schubert to create sections in the music which are vividly contrasting yet also complementary: the A sections are reflective in their lyrical subject while the middle section completely destroys this frame of reference, only for it to return at the reprise of the A section. It is the strong contrast between the A and B sections which makes this movement so arresting and so powerful.

The bridging passage begins at bar 69, and is preceded by three bars whose dark, descending chords mirror in their reverse movement the chords which form the opening sentence of the sonata (and a figure which recurs elsewhere). I like to create a sense of mystery in bars 69-72 with a wetter pedal effect and a little rubato to suggest improvisation as the music unfolds. The main difficulty I encountered in the entire B section was maintaining a sense of the underlying 3-in-a-bar pulse and clarifying the different note hierarchies, while also continuing the improvisatory/fantasia feel. In order to achieve this, I drilled the section strictly with the metronome for several weeks, a tedious but necessary task for once the note hierarchies and subdivisions were well learnt, I could let the music break free, particularly in bars 102-122, to create a rising sense of hysteria. 

A clear sense of pulse is required through bars 124-146, as the recitative section takes over. After all the “busyness” of the previous page, I like to create a sense of the music being restrained once again, with the contrasting disruption of the FFz chords. At bar 147 the music arrives in C-sharp major in a passage which seems directly drawn from the G-flat Impromptu. At bar 159 the A section returns, this time with the more elaborate LH figure and the triplet figure in the RH, which should have the quality of a separate, “other” voice. Throughout this section, it is important to retain a sense of the opening melody and a similar lightness in the LH to that in the opening bass figure (note the demi-semiquaver rests at the end of each bar). Bars 177-182 the RH accented E’s sound as tolling bells above the melody, and once again I like to use the una corda pedal here to give a more ethereal quality and to create contrast with the forte chords in bars 185/66 and the descending figure in bar 187. The movement closes with dark, arpeggiated chords which echo those at bars 65-68, and which are transformed into sparklingly joyful spread chords in the Scherzo which follows. I try to keep these in tempo until bars 198/9 at which I introduce a rit. to signal the close of the movement. The dynamic landscape here is very quiet and muted, and I feel una corda is perfectly acceptable in these closing statements.

It took me three months of fairly consistent work to bring the movement to a point where I felt confident enough to perform it for others (for friends at home). I then “rested” it for some weeks while I turned my attention to the first movement, the subject of the next article.

by Dr Charles Tebbs


My slightly unusual recording of this famous nocturne was inspired after the discovery of a remarkable book over the summer of 2014:  Neal Peres da Costa’s Off the Record: Performing Practices in Romantic Piano Playing.  The basic premise of the book, argued painstakingly and meticulously throughout, is that early recordings (those by pianists born in the nineteenth century) provide a vital and often overlooked window onto 19th-century piano playing.  Far from being the mannerist distortions that later schools of pianism dismissed in favour of so-called fidelity to the score, Peres Da Costa argues that these recordings embody a performance tradition that is quite probably quite close to the playing of Schumann, Brahms and Chopin.  He also charts some of the changes in playing style that occurred during the course of the twentieth century, during which some of the older expressive approaches were deliberately derided and discarded. He refers to a wealth of recordings, pedagogical texts and contemporary accounts of piano playing in support of his argument, and focuses on Chopin’s D flat Nocturne amongst other works.

The musician who spends time listening to the many audio examples Peres Da Costa provides (via an associated website) as well as to full length recordings available elsewhere (see discography below), will be at the very least intrigued by this remarkably different pianistic universe, though to begin with the sound quality and some of the expressive habits of particular pianists can be annoying or puzzling.  Above all it is an emotional, improvisatory, sometimes wildly spontaneous world, though perhaps for that very reason unsuited to the definitive act of recording in the modern sense, in which a masterpiece is perhaps interpreted in an idealised way that will stand the test of being listened to many times.

Read the full article on Charles’s website

Dr Charles Tebbs is a pianist, accompanist and piano teacher based in Nottingham, with a wealth of experience and a diverse range of musical expertise.  He gives regular concerts and recitals and has made a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  His doctorate is in musicology (concerning musical endings) and he has also written prize-winning compositions and music for TV.

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing the legendary Romanian pianist, Radu Lupu. The concert took place in Reading, the place of my birth, and it felt strange to be returning, for the first time, to the city I left in 1969.

Radu Lupu (© Photo: Ivan Maly)

Because the train journey took over an hour, and I was meeting some friends at the concert venue, I decided to attend the pre-concert talk which was given by Chris de Souza, broadcaster, composer, music director and opera producer. Mr de Souza introduced Radu Lupu’s programme, which included Schubert’s G Major Piano Sonata D894, the piece which would occupy the entire second half of the concert. Mr de Souza talked about the scale of the first movement (sometimes made, seemingly, more epic and expansive by the choice of tempo – Sviatoslav Richter’s being perhaps the most extreme, almost hypnotically slow) and how Schubert seemed to be exploring ideas about to present the piano sonata in a new way, perhaps in an attempt to free himself from the strong influence of composers such as Mozart and Haydn, and especially Beethoven. In a way, this Sonata, in particular its long opening movement, became the blueprint for the three final Sonatas (D958, 959 and 960) – and by the time Schubert came to write them he had come to a compositional conclusion about how to organise his material to create a long and compelling narrative which runs through all four movements of each Sonata and indeed connects all three Sonatas. The scale of these sonatas is extraordinary: the first movement of the D960 can take 20-25 minutes to play, around the length of an entire Beethoven sonata, and each work displays a huge variety of music and emotion.

In discussing the late Sonatas, Chris de Souza also mentioned the Impromptus, and described playing them as being akin to “driving across Canada”. This metaphor really resonated with me, and I found myself thinking about it more and more while I listened to Radu Lupu’s exquisitely beautiful playing. In Lupu’s hands, with the opening movement of the D894 taken at a leisurely but never plodding moderato, one had the sense of traversing a vast landscape, but the journey was never tedious nor flat.

(Photograph: Alamy/The Guardian)

I have been working on the F minor Impromptu, the first of the D935 for some months now, in preparation for several concerts I am giving. Returning to practise the piece the day after the concert, the idea that this music was like “driving through Canada” kept returning and as I played I thought more and more about the journeys on which Schubert takes us in his music. The most obvious example, of course, is Winterreise, his turbulent song cycle completed just before he wrote the Impromptus and the late Sonatas. But in the Impromptus too there is a sense of a journey, from the chilly, bare G at the opening of the first of the D899 to the consoling warmth of the closing cadence of the A-flat Impromptu. In the D935, the sense of a narrative which runs through all four is even stronger –  Schumann suggested that Schubert had a sonata in mind when he wrote this set. The musical landscapes are highly varied, sometimes difficult to scale, with rapid shifts of mood and colour, sometimes within the space of a bar or two. As a performer, one has to be extra alert to these shifting landscapes, with an ability to carry the narrative flow from the opening bars to the final closing cadence. The word “impromptu” suggests a short, improvisatory salon piece, yet Schubert’s pieces are anything but. Tightly constructed and lengthy (the big F minor Impromptu lasts over 10 minutes), these are complex works which encompass the broad sweep of human emotion and experience. They are certainly not drawing room sweetmeats. It is worth noting that by the time Schubert wrote these works, and the final piano sonatas, he would have known he was dying, from syphilis, compounded by mercury poisoning (ironically, as the consequence of the “cure”). In early nineteenth-century Vienna, this illness would have made Schubert a social pariah. This sense of isolation and social taboo is very apparent in the music: without wishing to sound fanciful, it is as if Schubert is pouring every ounce of his personal angst, tinged with moments of pure joy and tender poignancy, into his music.

I have recently started work on the penultimate piano sonata, the D959 in A major. Here, the sense of traversing an epic landscape is even stronger than in the Impromptus, and 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). In the Andantino (second movement) we return to the fremdling of Winterreise, the lonely traveler groping his way through a strange and confusing landscape, a sense of confusion which becomes even more apparent in the middle section, a psychotic fantasy which tells us a great deal about Schubert’s mental and physical health at the time of writing this extraordinary music. In the opening movement there are passages of great consolation, Schubert the songsmith coming to the fore, but these are offset by moments of almost schizophrenic hysteria. 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. It is some of the hardest music to interpret and play convincingly – yet also some of the most beautiful and rewarding.

Richter plays Schubert G Major Sonata, D894

Franz Peter Schubert
Franz Peter Schubert

Schubert wrote two sets of Impromptus (D899 and D935). Composed in 1827, his post-‘Winterreise’ annus mirabilis, a year of fervent creativity, the Impromptus remain some of his most popular piano works, particularly the first set and the third of the D935 (a set of variations based on the ‘Rosamunde’ theme from his opera of the same name). The first set tend to be performed more frequently and I have occasionally heard both sets in the same concert, with a selection of the Moments Musicaux slotted in between them.

The word “Impromptu” is misleading, suggesting a small-scale extemporaneous salon piece. In fact, all of Schubert’s Impromptus are tightly-knit and highly cohesive works, and the longest lasts over ten minutes. Schubert did not invent the term “impromptu”: Jan Vorisek, the Bohemian composer living in Vienna, published the first impromptus in 1822, and the term was assigned to Schubert’s works by his Viennese publisher. When he sent out his second set of Impromptus, Schubert numbered them five through to eight. Schumann posited that Schubert may have had something much larger in mind when he composed the D935 set, and even suggested that the key sequence of the four pieces formed a piano sonata in all but name. Certainly the F minor Impromptu (the first of the D935 – the set ends with another F minor impromptu) has the grandeur and scale one expects from a piano sonata from this period but all four works also stand alone, each distinct in their own right.

I have lived with Schubert’s Impromptus since my teens, and have muddled through all of them and learnt two of them properly (the E flat Impromptu from the D899 formed part of my first Diploma programme). For me, the works are continually interesting for their range, depth, variety, individual characters and specific musical challenges. They each display in microcosm many aspects and distinctive characteristics of Schubert’s large-scale piano music (sonatas and fantasies for example) and are extremely rewarding to play. They work well in concert programmes, performed either as a complete set, or as separate pieces, and remain perennially popular with artists and audiences alike.

The entire D935 is a much more substantial set of pieces than the first set, and this is especially true of the first F minor Impromptu. Organised in sonata-rondo form, the tone of this impromptu moves between an almost-Beethovenian drama and assertiveness in its opening section and the more flowing, melodic duet of the central sections.

In terms of learning and playing this Impromptu, I would suggest the following based on my current study of the work:

  • The piece is organised in distinct sections (and one will tend to learn it sectionally). Keep in mind the overall structure and narrative of the piece to produce a cohesive whole and be alert to the bridges between each section
  • Be careful not to over-emphasise the forte, fortissimo and fz markings: remember this is Schubert not Beethoven. I feel the dynamic contrasts are not as black and white as one would expect in Beethoven.
  • Bars 13-19 (and also 126-133): here you want to try to recreate a sense of the underlying chords and chord changes. This section must not sound too dry. Aim for a “shimmering” touch with a sense of string articulation. (Extract 1)
  • Bars 30-38 (and also 144-152): don’t begin this section with too much power or heaviness (remember – it’s not Beethoven!). Hold back to allow for a real climax into bars 30/31. Keep the touch light and the RH semiquaver arpeggios delicate.
  • Bars 44-64 (and also 159-177): after some discussion and experimentation with my teacher, I try to keep this section light and rhythmic (there is a danger of making the textures too thick here because of the chords). Although Schubert marks it sempre legato, the staccato markings suggest that one should continue in this vein throughout this section. This gives the chords a wonderful dancing lightness. But be sure to observe all the legato markings very diligently. The RH semiquavers at bar 56+ should just shimmer over the LH chords. (Extract 2)
  • Bars 69-112 (and also 182-225): this is the emotional heart of the piece – plaintive duetting fragments in treble and bass, accompanied by gently rippling semiquavers in the RH. The accompaniment must not intrude, but it is also important to retain a sense of the underlying harmonies and chord changes. Keep the hand soft and the wrist flexible: some of these broken chords are awkward (in particular, bar 204) and at no point must these semiquavers sound “notey” or dry, especially in the forte sections. Meanwhile the duet (played by the LH only) should sing, with careful shaping in the fragments. (Extract 3)
Extract 1
Extract 1
Extract 2
Extract 2
Extract 3
Extract 3

Download the complete score

Further reading

Charles Fisk – Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas

John Daverio – Crossing Paths: Schubert, Schumann and Brahms

Alexander Scriabin

This week I had the pleasure of a “house concert” at my home, during which the pianist Anthony Hewitt played Alexander Scriabin’s Preludes, Opp 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17 on my lovely antique Bechstein. This was an opportunity for Tony to put the programme before a small invited audience of friends ahead of public concerts and a recording. It was a very enjoyable evening of “music amongst friends”, enlivened by beautifully rich, textural and colourful playing.

Scriabin was following in a great tradition of prelude writing which stretches back to Bach, and beyond to the Renaissance, when musicians would use an improvisatory Praeludium (Prelude) as an opportunity to warm up fingers and check the instrument’s tuning and sound quality. Keyboard preludes began to appear in the 17th century as introductory works to keyboard suites. The duration of each prelude was at the discretion of the performer and the pieces retained their improvisatory qualities.

German composers began pairing preludes with fugues during the second half of the seventeenth century, and of course the most famous of these are Bach’s ’48’ from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which influenced many composers in the following centuries, most notably Fryderyk Chopin who based his 24 Preludes op 28 on Bach’s model, traversing all the major and minor keys. Chopin freed the Prelude from its previously introductory purpose, and transformed these short pieces into independent concert works, which are widely performed today, both in programmes and as encores, and remain amongst Chopin’s most popular and well-known pieces.

Other notable composers of Preludes were of course Debussy and Rachmaninov, as well as Olivier Messaien, whose Huit Preludes hark back to Debussy in atmosphere and titles, but also look forward to his later piano music in their colourful harmonies and unusual chords. Shostakovich followed both Bach’s and Chopin’s models by writing sets of Preludes and Fugues and Preludes, and Nikolai Kapustin has written 24 Preludes in Jazz Style, Op 53, and a set of Preludes and Fugues. It seems the genre is alive and well.

Scriabin wrote some 85 Preludes, and his Op 11 set (1896) follow Chopin’s in their organisation (cycling through all the major and minor keys) and even make direct reference to Chopin’s music. Indeed, such is their closeness to Chopin’s model in style, texture and harmonies, many could easily be mistaken for Chopin’s own music. Some appear to “borrow” directly from Chopin – one opens with the unmistakable motif of the Marche Funebre from Chopin’s B-flat minor Piano Sonata – while others seem more akin to Chopin’s Études in their technical challenges and sparkling passagework. The Opp 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17 are sometimes called The Travel Preludes, though they were not explicitly a travelogue by the composer; rather examples of how his travels around Europe allowed him to absorb different musical styles. (It is easy to forget, given Russia’s turbulent history in the 20th century, that at the end of the 19th century, the country was a major player in western European culture.) These Opuses also demonstrate how rapidly Scriabin’s musical style was developing at that time. The later Preludes are more redolent of Scriabin’s piano sonatas and show the influence of French music in their sensuous colourful harmonies and lush textures. All share one distinct characteristic: they are, in true Prelude style, short works, some so fleeting they last barely a minute.

In our house concert, Tony presented the Opus 11 set in the first half of the concert, and the Opp 13, 15, 16 and 17 in the second. As my husband commented afterwards, what was so charming about this programme, was that one was able to enjoy a huge variety of music in one sitting, and the programme was sufficiently involved not to require any additional material, such as an Etude or other short work.

Anthony Hewitt performs Scriabin’s Preludes at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, on Tuesday 18th March. Further details here. He will also be recording the complete Preludes of Scriabin, for release in 2015, the centenary of the composer’s death.

What better way to start a new year at the piano with some new repertoire? But where to start? Perhaps the greatest joy – and frustration – of being a pianist is the vast and wonderful repertoire available to us, from Baroque arabesques to über-contemporary fancies. One could spend a lifetime exploring the piano music of Beethoven or Chopin and still only scratch the surface. For many of us, our tastes are shaped from our earliest days at the piano, usually by our teachers, and they continue to form and develop as we learn and expand our musical horizons.

With such a vast repertoire available, it can be difficult to know where to start when selecting new music. For me, a constant source of inspiration is concerts. You hear it live, which gives a wonderful sense of the music – and don’t think that just because the pros are playing it, it must be impossible. Many concert pieces are not nearly as complicated as they may sound. The radio is also a useful source of ideas, as are music streaming services such as Spotify and LastFM, which offer recommendations based on your listening habits. Spotify has a particularly large archive of classical music, with some wonderful rarities, including recordings of both Rachmaninoff and Ravel (and others) playing their own piano music – wonderfully inspiring. YouTube is another good resource.

Recommendations from friends and colleagues can be very useful too. For example, a pianist friend of mine flagged up the recordings from the annual Rarities of Piano Music festival, which have proved a rich source of potential new repertoire for me. It is also interesting to explore lesser-known repertoire.

It’s important to keep variety and spice in what we choose to play, whether we are studying for exams and diplomas, preparing for a concert or competition, or simply playing for pleasure. If we grow bored of our repertoire, we can get lazy about it and silly errors and hard-to-erase mistakes can creep in. I always have quite a broad range of music “on the go” at any given time, and lately I have tended to focus on one or two quite challenging works (LRSM/FRSM standard), music that lies easily within my playing “comfort zone”, and some easy pieces (for example, Elgar’s Dream Children, which I enjoyed playing during the autumn and which found its way into a couple of concert programmes). I like to have wide chronological sweep too, and at the moment I am working on music by Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Bartok, Messiaen, Britten and Cage. I am also looking forward to tackling some piano music which has only just been written (Portraits for A Study by Jim Aitchison).

Even if you are busy with repertoire for an exam or Diploma, I think it is important to supplement your main learning with other pieces to guard against boredom (it is also a good idea to “rest” pieces on which you have been working for some time). Maybe consider some “lateral repertoire” – by which I mean, if you like the music of Chopin, for example, why not explore the piano music of fellow countryman, Karol Szymanowski? And if you like Debussy, and would like to try some later French piano music, how about Olivier Messiaen? His ‘Preludes’ (1929) show Debussyan influences and also look forward, in their harmonies and idioms, to his greatest piano work, the Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus. These kind of musical explorations can often throw an interesting new light on existing repertoire and offer useful food for thought.
There is plenty of copyright-free music available on the internet, which can be downloaded and printed out, or saved on a tablet device. Always remain open to new ideas and inspirations, and you will enjoy a wealth of fabulous piano music.

Happy new year, and happy practising!


Copyright-free music online:

IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library

Piano Street