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.
©Frances Wilson 2016