a breathtaking interpretation of some of the last works of the great composers
Seen and Heard International
What is ‘Late Style’? It’s a question that has preoccupied writers and thinkers, from Theodor Adorno, who coined the term in relation to Beethoven’s late music, to Edward Said, whose book ‘On Late Style’ explores the output of composer, artists and writers in the later years of their creative lives.
We expect the late works of composers (and writers and artists) to be concerned with valedictory thoughts, of resolution and acceptance, that age and ill-health bring a state of serenity or resignation. Yet many composers’ late work is often intransigent, challenging and contradictory, inventive and transcendent.
Late style is also associated with an aesthetic mastery and a distillation of what matters most, as if an awareness that the end may be near has the effect of really concentrating the artistic focus. Beethoven, for example, reveals in his late piano sonatas an intense heroism, otherworldliness and non-conformity. For Adorno, Beethoven’s late works are an emphatic and triumphant assertion of his refusal to resolve life’s exigencies peacefully, a view which Edward Said endorses, regarding it as a strength in its own right, rather than a negative factor in Beethoven’s late music.
For Schubert and Chopin, both of whom died young (by today’s standards), lateness is relative, almost a philosophical construct. The “late” works of these composers demonstrate that lateness is not just about physical or creative maturity, but also an attitude of mind. In their music there is the sense of life lived with intensity, that time is finite and there is much more to say, and this seems to have focused these composers’ imaginations in a very specific way.
‘Endgame’, a series of concerts by British pianist James Lisney, at venues in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic, explores the notion of Late Style through the lens of four composers who are particularly close to Lisney’s heart – Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. These recitals include some of the best-loved, most intriguing and satisfying music of these composers’ late output.
‘Endgame’ continues throughout 2020 at St George’s Bristol, West Road Concert Hall Cambridge, Southbank Centre London and Rudolfinum Prague
I have nothing but praise for James Lisney`s piano playing; he combines velvet touch and wide range of colour with complete understanding of phrasing and dynamic shading. This is someone who can really give the mechanical box of wires and wood a singing soul.
The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works
Edward Said, ‘On Late Style’
What is ‘Late Style’? It’s a question that has preoccupied writers and thinkers, from Theodor Adorno, who coined the term in relation to Beethoven’s late music, to Edward Said, whose book ‘On Late Style’ explores the output of artists, writers and composers whose late work is often intransigent and contradictory.
Although not always concerned with valedictory thoughts, late style is also associated with an aesthetic mastery and a distillation of what matters most, as if an awareness that the end may be near has the effect of really concentrating the artistic focus. Beethoven, for example, reveals in his late piano sonatas an intense otherworldliness and non-conformity. For Adorno, Beethoven’s last works are an emphatic and triumphant assertion of his refusal to resolve life’s exigencies peacefully, a view which Edward Said endorses, regarding it as a strength in its own right, rather than a negative factor in Beethoven’s late music.
In a more long-lived composer such as Brahms, the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is limited produces music which is impeccably wrought and introspective, yet emotionally unleashed. The late piano works which form Brahms’ Opp 117, 118 and 119 contain serenity and vulnerability, and an acceptance that the end is near, yet these works are not valedictory. In these late piano works, there is greater spaciousness, more freedom of expression, and the sense of a composer who no longer has anything to prove.
Meanwhile, for Schubert and Schumann, who both died young (by today’s standards), lateness is relative, almost a philosophical construct. The “late” works of these composers demonstrate that lateness is not just about physical maturity but also an attitude of mind. In their music there is the sense of a life lived with intensity, that time is finite, and this seems to have focused composers’ imaginations in a very specific way.
In the Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations), composed in February 1854, just weeks before Robert Schumann’s irretrievable mental breakdown and his committal to a lunatic asylum, we find a composer who has turned inward, the “Eusebius” (sensitive, introverted) side of his personality very much to the fore. The music is poignantly pared down – a simple chorale-like theme opens the piece – but also full of intimate tenderness and expression. In the final variation, the theme dissolves into the textures of the music and simply fades away at the end.
Schubert’s last works, in contrast, suggest an “incompleteness”, as if he still had much more to say. The final year of Schubert’s life was one of extraordinary productivity, marked by increasing public acclaim and declining health, and the wealth of music he produced, including the two sets of Impromptus and the final three piano sonatas, displays a very high level of artistic maturity. Freed from the shadow of Beethoven, who died in 1827 and whom Schubert revered, the last three piano sonatas in particular reveal a remarkable assuredness in Schubert’s writing, in their structural organization and expansiveness, and the use of cyclic motifs to create a sense of “belonging” between the individual movements and across the three sonatas as a whole.
If ‘Winterreise’ is heartbreak, a study in unrelieved sorrow, the final three sonatas reveal, and revel in all of life: while the C minor Sonata D958 is the most serious of the triptych, its companions are never unremittingly melancholy nor heavy, but rather intoxicatingly bittersweet, nostalgic, and life-affirming.
It was Schumann who coined the phrase “heavenly length”, specifically in relation to Schubert’s Great C major Symphony, D944, though this tag has now become synonymous with all of Schubert’s late music.
How to approach a work of the scale of the Sonata in A, D959? In common with the other late sonatas (including the Sonata in G, D894), it is a big work, with a first movement which can last as long as an entire mid-period Beethoven Sonata, if the exposition repeat is included (and I believe it should be).
The D959 is indeed long: the entire work takes around 40 minutes to play, and for both performer and audience there is a sense of traversing an epic landscape. 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. 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, and there are many other cyclic elements – of rhythm, melody, articulation, and even character/emotion – which connect the four movements ). The cyclic elements also enhance the sense of a tightly organised structure: this sonata may be long, but it is not rambling (though some performers may make it so!). The first and the final movements are almost identical in length (c.13 minutes each if one observes the exposition repeat in the first movement). These edifices bookend the middle movements which are also of an equal length – c.7 minutes each (roughly half the length of the first and final movements) if one observes all the repeats in the Scherzo. Some scholars have pointed to a “golden ratio” or “golden section” in Schubert’s structural organisation. Whether this was conscious on the part of the composer is not known, but from the performer/interpreter’s point of view an appreciation of this almost perfectly-balanced structure is important in creating the sense of a distinct structural and narrative arc that runs through the entire work.
In terms of embarking on the learning of all these notes, I decided to treat the sonata as four separate works, learning each movement as a stand-alone piece while also remaining alert to the cyclic elements within each movement and the whole work through regular study of the score away from the piano and listening to recordings of the complete sonata. From the outset, I had a clear timescale in mind: I wanted to have the entire sonata in the fingers (learnt but by no means finessed) by summer 2015, and having a clear focus enabled me to meet my target, almost to the day. What has interested me throughout the learning process is the fact that the notes themselves are not that difficult, and most of the time the writing lies comfortably under the fingers and hand. What has been far more difficult is achieving a convincing rendering of Schubert’s unique compositional voice – and maintaining this throughout c40 minutes of music. Too many interpreters treat Schubert as Beethoven’s “enfeebled twin”, but as the pianist Paul Lewis has noted “Schubert is more internally stormy than Beethoven, which perhaps make it all the more powerful…….. Schubert almost never provides the answers. There are always more questions than answers…….it’s a reflection of what we find in life“.
Schubert interpretation is riven with some doubtful traditions which developed in the nineteenth century, many of which have been subsumed into standard performance practice today. The best commentary on the music can be drawn from the autograph scores and contemporary evidence.
Schubert should never be stereotyped or over-interpreted: such treatment can straitjacket the music, reducing it to a simplistic highlighting of elements which the performer may feel are obviously “Schubertian” (beautiful melodies, nostalgia, poignancy, depression, emotional volte-faces, rage, joy etc) rather than allowing oneself the freedom to appreciate that this music is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Here is Inon Barnatan in the final movement of the D959, a reading I particularly like for his clarity and appreciation of the articulation, coupled with a real sense of the joy inherent in this music
In the autumn of 2014 I set myself the task of learning Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata, No 20 in A, D959. My intention was to learn and finesse the work to be performed in public, confidently and convincingly. I wanted the challenge of immersing myself in a large-scale work over a long period of time: it would test my ability to plan and use practise time intelligently, to set and fulfil goals during the process, and to reflect on learning outcomes. The work was to be included in the programme for a final performance qualification, for which a very high level of musical competency and professionalism was required. In this series of essays, I will explore my approach to learning this work, and what I have gained from the experience. I hope my reflections will offer useful resources to others and serve as a “travelogue” of my journey through this sonata.
So why this sonata and not the final sonata, D960? My reasons were twofold: 1) from the point of view of the professional assessment, I felt most people would select the D960 if choosing a late Schubert Sonata; 2) the Sonata in A has always been one of my favourites for its open-hearted warmth and nostalgia (notwithstanding the extraordinary slow movement).
The Sonata in A always seems to provoke strong reactions: whenever I mention it online, a whole host of other pianists will comment, citing the slow movement in particular as a significant clue to Schubert’s mental state at the time of the work’s composition. Some commentators suggest that this movement, more than anything else that Schubert wrote, is the clearest indication of the effect of his illness (advanced syphilis) on his mental state and his music. This article offers some frank and disturbing insights into syphilis and its treatment in the early nineteenth century, specifically in relation to Franz Schubert. The side-effects of the illness and its treatment may well have had a detrimental effect on Schubert’s mental state, and it is thought he also suffered from cyclothymia, a form of manic depression (his friends reported periods of dark despair and violent rage). The traditional clichéd, sentimental image of Schubert as the cheery songster or cherubic “little mushroom” is refuted by these accounts. Is the slow movement of the D959 a manifestation of both depression (the opening and closing sections) and mania (the middle storm)?
Another issue which merits consideration in relation to this sonata (and indeed the others which form the final triptych) is the notion of Schubert’s “late style”: whether a sense of his own mortality presaged a change in his compositional style in the works written in the final years of his life. In On Late Style (London: Bloomsbury, 2006, and LRB article here), Edward Said examines the concept of a distinct artistic/literary “late style” and highlights features such as a certain “insouciance” or self-confidence, which may stem from a sense of completion, serenity, acceptance, reconciliation – “fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present” (Edward Said). But rather than express acceptance or a sense of his own mortality, Schubert’s last works seem to communicate an “incompleteness”, that he had much more to say, and suggest “the triumph of artistic achievement over the degradation of death and disease, the permanent presence of death” (Lorraine Byrne Bodley, Schubert’s Late Music, Cambridge: CUP, 2016).
The Sonata in A, D959, certainly expresses these sentiments: it is joyous after the darkness of the C minor Sonata, D958, which precedes it, and its themes are springlike and lilting. In this respect it is related to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. If ‘Winterreise’ is heartbreak, a study in unrelieved sorrow, this sonata, and other works from the last year of Schubert’s life, reveal, and revel in all of life – intoxicatingly bittersweet, nostalgic, and life-affirming, never unremittingly melancholy or heavy.
A programme note….
Schubert completed his final three piano sonatas in September 1828, 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 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. 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 they were dedicated to Robert Schumann, a keen advocate of Schubert’s music.
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, 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.
The almost complete survival of the manuscripts of the final three piano sonatas suggests that they were written in two stages: a preliminary sketch, probably made in the Spring of 1828, and a full, final version, most likely notated in September 1828, which contains many remarkable transformations and changes. For example, in the working draft of the Sonata in A, D959, the initial theme is presented in the style of a chorale, without the octave leaps in the bass which give the final version its rhythmic propulsion, and the calm melody of the second subject has far less rhythmic tension and expansiveness. The final version is also particularly notable for its cyclic innovations.
During the 1820s, Schubert had begun to experiment with cyclic devices, whereby motifs or themes established in the opening movement recur elsewhere, often subtly modified, to create an enhanced sense of “belonging” between the various sections and movements. For example, in the Sonata in A, D959, the majestic opening sequence of chords in the first movement re-emerges, much reimagined, towards the end of the slow movement, which then forms the melodic outline of the Scherzo and its Trio; the closing bars of the finale refer back to the opening of the first movement; and the arpeggiated ending of the slow movement anticipates the spread chords of the Scherzo. These simple cyclic motifs, and an innate sense of musical geometry which allows Schubert to draw the whole sonata together at its conclusion, represent his boldly experimental approach to traditional sonata form, further reinforced by a dramatic expansiveness, and the daring underlying harmonies which create contrasting and often startling musical hues and shifts of emotion.
The first movement opens with noble chords which give way to a gentler motif whose falling arpeggio figure could have come straight out of an impromptu. These two motifs form the melodic and rhythmic basis of the first movement and indeed the entire piece. The second subject, a lyrical theme in the dominant key of E major, leads into an intensely chromatic triplet passage culminating in a dramatic section built on descending arpeggios which recall those from the opening. The second subject returns briefly at the close of the exposition, fused with a quiet echo of the urgent triplets from earlier on.
Instead of developing the main thematic material from the exposition, as is traditional in classical sonata form, the development section deals entirely with new material and in the first section the harmony constantly oscillates between C major and B major. Later on, a passage first in C minor and then the tonic minor appears, based on the motif which opens the development.
The recapitulation is traditional: it remains in the tonic and emphasises the tonic minor and the flat submediant (F major) as subdominant tonalities, while the second subject is presented in C 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. The movement closes with gentle ascending arpeggios which mirror those from the opening. It is not until the close of the fourth movement that the opening theme is restated in its full-bodied guise.
The second movement, marked ‘Andantino’, is in F-sharp minor (the relative minor key of A major) and is in ternary (A–B–A) form. It opens with a poignant melody full of sighing gestures portrayed by descending seconds with a simple barcarolle-like accompaniment. The almost hypnotic main melody recalls 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. Schubert creates an almost static quality in the opening section through restrained melodic repetitions within a narrow register.
The middle section unfolds like a fantasia, improvisatory in character and growing ever more dramatic with extremely harsh modulations. 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. After this climax, a recitative section follows, repeatedly disrupted by sforzando chords. This leads to a serene phrase, redolent of the G-flat major Impromptu (D899/3), which leads back into the opening melody, now with a more intricate left-hand accompaniment and a haunting triplet figure in the treble.
The dark arpeggiated sonorities at the close of the Andantino are transformed into the brilliant arpeggiated chords which open the Scherzo, and a sense of levity is portrayed through staccato articulation and a lyrical dance-like figure, which is further developed in the second section. The tone here is distinctly bucolic, but the pastoral mood is disturbed by a dramatic descending scale which recalls the stormy middle section of the previous movement. A reference to the main melody of the Andantino is heard in the ensuing passage before the opening theme returns. In the contrasting Trio, Schubert reimagines the initial theme of the first movement with a serene choral quality.
The finale is a Rondo whose 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain.
If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site