a23_inumvx_2019-01-05-17-00-29Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I was always drawn to music from a very young age. We used to live in Poland when I was about five or six, and the house we rented had a piano in it. Even though I didn’t know how to play, I would spend hours trying to reproduce the music that I heard on TV, or write tunes to go along with my favourite books and stories. Soon after I started taking lessons, and when I realised writing music for films and for stage was an actual, real job, well, my heart was set on it.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

Film and theatre music has always been a huge influence on my life. I didn’t listen to a lot of classical music, so I was mainly introduced to the orchestra by way of the screen and the stage. Bernard Hermann had a big impact on me as a child, as did Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, John Williams, and Alan Silvestri…to name just a few! My parents also had some cassettes of Offenbach operettas which we used to listen to in the car on repeat, so that also really drew me towards the operatic voice. Later, at music college, I was thrown in at the deep end and discovered the world of contemporary classical music. As you can imagine this was quite a change from John Williams and Offenbach! It was a complete revelation for me, opening up a world of textures and sounds I had never even considered.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Probably the greatest challenge in my work is convincing directors and producers to fund recording with live musicians, particularly on smaller-scale film projects with very small budgets. A lot of film music is produced electronically with instrumental samples, which can be a great tool for demonstrating ideas or mocking up sketches for editors. But even though there is a huge industry in place working to produce some very refined orchestral samples, nothing compares to real musicians. Without them, the music is simply two-dimensional. It lacks humanity.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

The greatest pleasure is that it will actually be heard by an audience! As a film composer, we produce huge amounts of material that does not necessarily see the light of day: different sketches, pitches, or music for scenes that end up on the cutting-room floor… So it’s nice to work on something with the knowledge that it will be performed or broadcast. From a more practical point of view, film and TV work always provides a certain framework that music has to fit in to, and I really enjoy being creative within the architecture of the visuals. Often these projects have extremely tight deadlines, and I strangely find something extremely exciting and, ultimately, gratifying about pushing oneself creatively when working to the clock.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve been very lucky to work with some fantastic musicians and I particularly value the common understanding that builds over years of working performers again and again. It really is unique. I guess there are challenges to that relationship too: remaining rigorous and not getting lazy with my notation…!

Of which works are you most proud?

I’m particularly proud of my score for Amma Asante’s new feature film ‘Where Hands Touch’, which comes out in the UK on 10 May. It was the first feature I scored and so it holds a very special place in my heart. I also really love working on a series of comedic operettas I’ve been writing for the past ten years which, although something of a side project compared with the film and TV work, are still very dear to me. They are tremendous fun to develop and extremely liberating. I aim to write a new show every couple of years. My current one is called Pygmalion 2.0, a one-woman opera about a scientist trying to engineer a better generation of men using artificial intelligence.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

As you’d probably guess from my first answer, I’d say my musical language is first and foremost cinematic: tonal, narrative and melodic.

How do you work?

I write every day but ideas and projects tend to get finished in focused bursts. As for a particular piece, I work things through mostly in my head so will spend an awful lot of time thinking about a piece of music, envisioning it. Then I move to paper, rather than the piano; I find that if I move to the piano too quickly things can easily get altered by my fingers, which will automatically go into a certain key or add musical idioms that aren’t necessary. So I make it a rule never to play through anything I have in mind until I have written the core of it out on paper first. That way the idea feels somehow truer to its conception.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

That’s a hard question. It’s an ever-changing list really, I listened to a lot of Takemitsu over Christmas. I also love Xenakis, Reich, Ravel, Chopin. I’m writing an EP for trombone, viola, and electronics at the moment, and I tend not to listen to any music in the weeks surrounding a project. Instead, during those time sI like to research traditions of music that have been lost. At the moment I’m looking at musical traditions in ancient Greek drama and what modes and scales might have sounded like 2500 years ago.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

This is a difficult one to define, I suspect for many other artists too. Often it can be blurred with external perception and audience validation, so for me the important thing is to focus on having personal pride in what I do.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

A strong work ethic and, above all, perseverance. It’s an industry which can be truly gruelling and often completely contradictory in its nature: one day it feels meritocratic, the next it’s about who you know and not the music you make. Maybe because of this it can be easy to get swayed by hype and trends – but the constant in any musician’s life has to be one’s work, and one’s voice.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I love improvising along to narratives, and one of my favourite ‘exercises’ is to put books up on the music stand and improvise on the piano while reading them. At the moment I do this with a Belgian comic book series called Yoko Tsuno.

Anne Chmelewsky is a composer and writer for screen and stage. 

Anne composed the score for Amma Asante’s feature film Where Hands Touch, (TIFF 2018). Past projects include the music for Mark Weeden’s feature film Only People (2018), Sofian Khan’s Do We Belong (The Atlantic Selects 2018) and An Act of Worship, (Field of Vision 2017), as well as the Emmy & Golden Globes nominated Derek (dir. Ricky Gervais, Netflix / C4).

Her third opera ‘Pygmalion 2.0’ has been developed with the support of the PRS foundation, and is currently previewing in the UK. Her second opera, The Looking Screen, was performed extensively both throughout the UK and internationally, as well as broadcast on UK TV and radio. She has also written for The Independent and The Huffington Post. 

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8-16 June 2019 – Clarendon Muse, Watford, Hertfordshire

The inaugural Master Music Piano Festival & Competition takes place across two weekends in June 2019 at Clarendon Muse in Watford and aims to promote local talent by offering young musicians a superb platform to experience and participate in fine music-making.

Featuring a set of unmissable recitals by leading young pianists of their generation including Ji Liu, Nicholas McCarthy, Artur Cimirro and Michael Harvey. The Master Music Festival will also host competitions scheduled for all ages and levels of performance ability together with a special Children’s Concert. Alongside much-loved core repertoire, the featured artists will also showcase their own new compositions and arrangements with their published sheet music available.

The Festival is the brainchild of Benjamin Williams, Director Of Master Music Publications, a new publishing house designed to promote original compositions, transcriptions, interpretative editions and educational resources by the world’s finest contemporary musicians. As well as the beautifully produced environmentally-friendly scores, Master Music Publications offers a wealth of additional information, biographies, context and a link to an online study guide with useful tips, videos and a discussion section.

Festival Programme:

Nicholas McCarthy – Piano Recital – June 8th, 7pm

British pianist, Nicholas McCarthy was born without his right hand and only began to play the piano at the age of fourteen. He went on to study at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London, becoming the first left-hand-only pianist to graduate in the college’s history. A passionate educator and motivational speaker, McCarthy champions left-hand alone repertoire, music that developed rapidly following the First World War as a result of injuries suffered on the battlefield. Expect an awe-inspiring recital of repertoire ranging from Bartok to Gershwin via Scriabin and Strauss. Notes McCarthy: “I’m absolutely thrilled to be part of the first Master Music Festival and to be able to play alongside other esteemed artists from the piano world. As one of the few disabled artists in the classical industry, it gives me great pleasure to be able to share the music that I love so much with new audiences and hopefully even inspire people along the way”.

Artur Cimirro – Piano Recital – June 9th, 7pm

Brazilian pianist, Artur Cimirro enjoys an eclectic career as a composer, arranger, writer and art critic. He has composed works for piano, orchestra, choir, chamber ensemble, opera and ballet and his transcriptions and arrangements, dedicated to the left hand, deal with the exploration of new horizons in piano technique. They include notably ambitious projects, such as Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Etudes for the Left Hand Alone. As part of his recital, Cimirro will present a striking array of his own compositions and arrangements.

Michael Harvey – Piano Recital – June 15th, 7pm

A compelling and sensitive musician with a rare combination of intelligence, flair and charm” is how acclaimed pianist Leslie Howard described pianist, composer and teacher, Michael Harvey. Harvey has dazzled audiences at prestigious venues around the world with his virtuosic technique, individual sound and charismatic personality. His recital is bound to offer pianistic brilliance, creative sensitivity and a kaleidoscope of colours. Says Harvey: “I am looking forward to communicating with the audience at the inaugural Master Music Festival by sharing stories, pieces and some of my own compositions, several of which will be world premieres!

Ji Liu – Piano Recital – June 16th, 7pm

Praised by Pianist Magazine for his “sensitive and unpretentious musicality” and described as “a major talent” by Classical Source, Chinese pianist, Ji Liu has positioned himself as one of the brightest stars in classical music today. In addition to topping the classical charts on numerous occasions, he also delights audiences around the world, from the Royal Albert Hall in London to Carnegie Hall in New York with his thoughtful and intelligent recitals. Be sure to expect a sensational evening of music making at the highest level. Ji Liu commented: “It is my great privilege to work with Master Music Publications and to be involved with the very first festival. It is encouraging to see both new and core classical music presented in the festival and how they can meet and support each other. I very much look forward to sharing my musical thoughts and performing for everyone.

Children’s Piano Concert – June 8th, 3pm

This eagerly anticipated children’s concert will feature pianist Ji Liu, who will perform a collection of fun pieces for piano, including Schumann’s Kinderszenen and a narrated solo piano performance of Prokofiev’s popular ‘Peter and the Wolf’. This will be an enjoyable, educational event for children.

Piano Competitions – June 8th 4-6pm and June 15th – 2-6pm

On June 8th and 15th, the festival will feature piano competitions for all ages and abilities. Each participant will receive valuable and constructive written feedback. Medals, certificates and prizes up to £150 will be awarded to participants who achieve 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. The adjudicator will be Steinway and Classic FM/Global artist, Ji Liu. Entry forms are available here

Benjamin Williams, Director Of Master Music Publications added: “It has been very exciting and a great privilege for me to bring these incredibly talented international artists together for this unique festival that all can enjoy”.

Venue: Clarendon Muse, 70 Rickmansworth Rd, Watford WD18 7JA

Full details of the festival

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

I actually never dreamed of becoming a classical musician, and I feel very privileged to have had such a natural and in many ways unexpected career path. The piano choice was purely practical – it was an instrument that was offered to us by a friend so I could start lessons. Of course, now I can say that I was very lucky because I love my instrument for the endless colours and possibilities it offers, for the many sounds – big and small – and the vast repertoire.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Influence on my musical life and career can be linked directly to the influence on my life, and that has been mainly by my parents, who have instilled morals, discipline, and enjoyment upon my life. I gather inspiration from everything that surrounds me, the experiences I have, and those I encounter both on and off stage.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I cannot, with certainty, separate challenges from successes, as these are inextricably linked in my mind. On the one hand, I do not come from a musical family, but I have learned everything from scratch. When I persevere through the most challenging segments of my calendar, they make me stronger, and enable me to know what I am capable of and what I wish (not) to do.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I hope to be proud of every performance, and especially of every recording. The way I judge past performances includes elements such as the piano, the hall, and the audience, and these are intertwined with the memories I kept of that particular week – a very large cauldron. I have especially fond memories of some performances, such as the first time I performed in Warsaw, where all my grandparents heard me perform in a concert environment for the first time ever, or my BBC Proms debut in sweltering London summer weather.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I would not programme works I do not think myself capable of performing, and I hope to add something unique with my interpretation.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

As a pianist I am in the position of having seemingly endless repertoire to choose from. I have certain pieces on the horizon that I would like to perform, and when there’s the opportunity to do so, I will add them to my repertoire. Recordings dictate the choices of repertoire somewhat, in that I need to prepare it beforehand and perform it after. Large multi-concert tours likewise; these decisions are mutual, made years in advance.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I’m terrible at picking favourites (favourite colour, country, person, city, etc.) and this extends to all walks of life. I enjoy the variety of concert halls, and believe it is a skill to adjust appropriately to each environment, from the ultra-accurate 21st-century “high-definition” halls, to some beautiful 19th-century acoustically warm ones, to the Italian opera houses which make you feel suffocated (acoustically, of course), not to mention everything in between. Every hall presents a challenge – and an opportunity – and overcoming the challenges while exploiting the opportunities is part of what makes a performance successful.

Who are your favourite musicians?

I have too many to name – from those I’ve worked with and admire, to those I am friends with, to others who may inspire me in performance.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I flew to a remote community in Saskatchewan, Canada; an outreach concert from my performance with the Saskatoon Symphony. In La Ronge, most people had never heard a piano before – it was also sent for the recital. The concert was packed, the excitement was palpable, and the genuine appreciation was unlike anything I’ve felt before or since. Falling snow, children in “Sunday’s best” sitting on the floor of the school gymnasium in complete silence. A concert I will gather strength from for years to come.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success is deeply individual, and I consider myself very fortunate to be where I am today.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Make sure you stay true to yourself, practice only just enough, and learn about other things beyond music.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Walking on planet Earth.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Enjoying the small things that make life magical.

What is your most treasured possession?

My memories.

What is your present state of mind?

Always the same – happy.

Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki has won acclaim for his extraordinary interpretive maturity, distinctive sound, and poetic sensibility. The New York Times has called him “a pianist who makes every note count”. Lisiecki’s insightful interpretations, refined technique, and natural affinity for art give him a musical voice that belies his age.

Jan Lisiecki was born to Polish parents in Canada in 1995. He began piano lessons at the age of five and made his concerto debut four years later, while always rebuffing the label of “child prodigy”. His approach to music is a refreshing combination of dedication, skill, enthusiasm and a realistic perspective on the career of a musician.

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(Artist photo: JL Holger-Hage)

Dear Subscribers

My apologies for the deluge of previously-published posts. This was the unexpected result of some maintenance on my site. It was a glitch and it shouldn’t have happened – and it won’t happen again.

Some new posts to look forward to in the coming weeks:

Meet the Artist interviews with pianist Jan Lisiecki, violinist Tasmin Little and rising opera star, soprano Chanae Curtis.

Thank you for following/reading


Frances Wilson | The Cross-Eyed Pianist


Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?

My childhood dream was to become an astronaut. The infinite, remote worlds, the unknown, mysteries, everything that has to do with indeterminate intrigued my imagination. Than, playing and discovering the nature of sound itself, the same infinity unfolded in music…..

This child’s desire to become an astronaut was also a yearning for contact, the desire to meet a different Other. That longing has evolved into a deep encounter while performing, while being at one with the music that reaches out to the others and creates the moment of grace, the ultimate, most intimate yet transpersonal union.

Having heard for the first time the Allegretto of Beethoven’s 7th I shivered. The tragic and grandeur of human expression left an indelible mark forever. My childhood fascination with Beethoven’s personality made of him einen fernen Geliebten (a “distant beloved”) and his oeuvre has become that place of encounter; love, belonging, togetherness and utopia.

My first instrument was my voice. In my early childhood I often sang the solo part in children’s choirs.

Than one day, standing in front of the shopwindow with my mother in Belgrade, I was mesmerised by the blissful black August Foerster upright piano – it looked exactly as my toy piano yet huge and gleaming. Mom bought it and I raved about that jewel that had a marvellous singing tone. No one ever forced me to practice. I stayed the long hours wrapped up in playing my huge toy. Later in my adolescent years, mom used to say ”do not play so much, go out and meet the boys….

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Singing voice, the astonding beauty of voices and songs …songs my (grand)mother taught me……

In my music education the most impressive encounter was with Tatjana Nikolaeva. It was the deftness of her touch, that ineffable legato that I was trying to reproduce by listening to her and her recordings on Melodiya. It was Nikolaeva’s otherworldly Bach that influenced me the most. That’s how my piano epiphany commenced.

I always wanted the piano to sing in a velvet tone as if the hammers do not really touch the strings. Later I read that Debussy expressed the same about the art of touch.

Rudolf Kehrer, whom I met in Weimar, was a fascinating personality who inspired me a lot. When I settled in Paris I was lucky to work with amazing Eugen Indjic who has incredible gift for teaching; one feels confident and masters the instrument like an absolute wizard!

However – I hope it does not sound pretentious – what formed me as musician was discovering and understanding the language of music by myself alone.

The one thing that really matters is to have a personalised sound.

Now in the time of revival of the music of my grandfather, Czech-born composer and conductor Jan Urban ( 1875-1952) who passed away before I was born, everyone considers that he and his music influenced me the most in the bosom of family. It was not so. The story is less idylic, rather heavy. As my parents divorced when I was three years old, I was separated from my father and the paternal Urban side was covered by silence.

But the silence is inhabited.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Paradoxically – to avoid “career”….

Schnabel said ”Safety last.” Taking a risk on the podium has been the most challenging issue for me. The intensity of human expression dwells in intuition, to play at the very edge of control to deliver the music most spontaneusly, directly, to be totally wrapped up in the very moment of the execution. I recall Thomas Bernhard citating Glenn Gould ”you enter the music or you don’t.” The price to pay might be less perfection.

Further, I refused to participate the competitions. I dare say that competitiveness is not the way of dealing with music. Deciding not to compet has probably cost me a wider popularity.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am very proud of my recordings of the complete piano legacy of the Czech composer Jan Vaclav Hugo Vorišek – three CDss on Grand Piano record label.

One perfomance at the Orlando Festival in the Netherlands is very dear to me. I shared the stage with the great Menahem Pressler who put me at ease with his wise remarks and divine lightness.

Invitation to perform in the jubilee year of the renowned American Philip Lorenz International Keybord Series was an honour. The series presents exclusievly the world’s greatest pianists, such as Emanuel Ax, Garrick Ohlssohn, Trifonov, etc.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Difficult question. There are two forces in human nature – Apollonian and Dionysian.

I feel at home with sonatas of Beethoven. Through him I can structure, form, build and forge. The affirmative experience of enlightenment prevails the tragic and reaches the Apollonian shor . Through his music one conquers the state of pain and humiliation and reaches dignity – a cathartic experience.

The other part of me dwells in the sensuality of Debussy’s works. Seeking for deepest sensors to catch the immediate, the instantaneous is in essence an erotic experience….. The hands are touching the nude nerve of the instrument.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

This question reveals for me an other issue related to it.

I feel the larger music works of my repertoire as if they were human beings. Most of them I have known and lived with for a long time. There is an alive interaction between me and an oeuvre in the subconcious. That’s why the choice of programme is very spontaneous and comes from the bottom of soul. Giving the programme sp far in advance, as it has to be in today’s concert planning, is very frustrating.

Whenever possible I choose to perform the gems of lesser known and undeservedly neglected composers.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

No – yet I dream about Viennese Musikverein for its Boesendorfer and its acoustics.

Who are your favourite musicians?

To mention a few – Alfred Cortot, Tatiana Nikolaeva, Alexander Jocheles, Arthur Schnabel, Claudio Arrau, Radu Lupu, Carlos Kleiber, Gregor Piatigorsky, Georg Prêtre, also Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré, Leonard Cohen….

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A long time ago, a concert in the Jeanine Rose series in Paris with Argerich and Hirschorn…..

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I am a sort of ‘anti diva’. Music making is about touching souls. In that ability lies the success.

I feel succesful when I open my music studio and I recognize in me that ebullient child that was in love with that black Foerster piano and the feeling of gratitude fills my heart. If I finish may days with such a feelings, I will consider I’ve had an amazingly successful life.

Of course the recognition is very important but the glory is infirm……….

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Highly idealistic – to be free from the dictats of entrenched values or prevailing musical tastes. To be free from competitivness and the industry of competitions. Sharing, loyalty, solidarity, mutual support, imagination and truth – everything that musicians aspire to give to and create in the world should be cultivated more between musicians themselves.

Biljana Urban comes from a family with a rich musical tradition. Her Czech-born grandfather, Jan Urban (1875–1952), was a composer and conductor. Biljana Urban received her Ph.D. in Music (Piano Performance) summa cum laude from the Academy of Music in Zagreb. In her native country she received the most prestigious awards. She also studied at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris – Alfred Cortot and settled in Paris in 1985. Her musicianship has been strongly influenced by Elisso Virsaladze, Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Eugene Indjic. Since 1991 she has been based in Amsterdam and has Dutch nationality. Urban has performed in the most renowned international concert halls, including the Fresno Concert Hall, California, for the Philip Lorentz Memorial concert series. She has taken part in international music festivals, including the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, the Festival of Flanders and the Orlando Festival in The Netherlands. As a chamber musician she has performed with soloists of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Monnaie Orchestra, Brussels, and the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Her recitals and recordings have been broadcast by BBC Radio 3, Radio France Musique, Radio 4 in The Netherlands, Radio Klara in Belgium, by radio and television companies in Croatia and Slovenia, and by Valley Public Radio in the United States. Urban is a commited teacher, having her own piano school in Amsterdam and giving masterclasses and lectures world wide. In Paris she has taught at the École Supérieure César Franck and the Conservatoire de Neuilly. In 2012 she was artist-in-residence at California State University in Fresno. In 2010 Biljana Urban released an acclaimed recording on Naxos [9.70120] of the piano works of her grandfather Jan Urban. Her first album of Voríšek’s Complete Works for Piano, released on Grand Piano, was recognised as one of the best albums of the year by Culture Catch.

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