Top 5 Sonatas from the Romantic Period: #2

#2: Schubert – Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 (1828)

It’s probably worth mentioning that this piece is one of my all-time favorites. I started playing it in high school, polished it in college, and continue to play through it (especially the second movement) when I need a good pianistic catharsis.

Another thing worth mentioning: this is a deathbed piece. Schubert was dying of syphilis at the age of thirty-one, yet produced a huge quantity of music in his last year that also happens to be his some of his best: the String Quintet D. 956, Fantasia in F minor for Piano 4 Hands, D. 940, Mass No. 6, not to mention the other two piano sonatas that form his “late” set. Needless to say, death hovers in the background throughout this music. It appears in stark silences that interrupt the flow of melody, and in the first movement’s uneasy rumbling G-flat trills low in the bass.

But it’s a problematic piece. Pianists and scholars have argued about the tempo for the first movement (Sviatoslav Richter takes it exceptionally slow it’s but also one of the most compelling interpretations), or whether to take Schubert’s repeat and add five minutes to the movement’s duration. And there’s the question of categorization; where does this sonata fit in the timeline of music? It was written in 1828, the year after Beethoven died, but its harmonic structures and “heavenly lengths,” to quote Schumann, push it into Romantic territory, despite some traces of Classical rhetoric. It’s such a masterpiece that it has to get some mention somewhere, but paradoxically, it’s more easily ranked on a list of greatest sonatas ever rather than sonatas of a specific period.

This is one of the hardest pieces to start in performance. The opening melody is set in a fairly full chorale texture, but it needs to be pp, with the first note not too accented. And the opening tempo has to be really finely judged to plan for the rest of the fifteen-or-twenty minute movement. But once you get over that initial fear and dive in, you’re in a vast world of beautiful tunes and classic Schubert melancholy.

The first movement’s main theme is the little tune that could. It’s so gentle and harmless and seems to wander without actually going anywhere, but Schubert keeps developing it, both in the exposition and the development itself, until it’s imbued with layers of meaning. After the first tonic group of phrases, he sneaks into G-flat major, the second key of what will be a three-key exposition. This is just such a beautiful moment: the tune now singing in a higher register, in a crystalline remote key, and buoyant above Alberti bass. A transition leads to a new statement of the theme in the tonic, now full-voiced and forte over triplets. Triplets are an almost annoyingly ubiquitous device in Schubert’s music, but at least he doesn’t wear out the texture, instead crashing into a strange new landscape in F-sharp minor. This is a neat invention (and pretty hard to play sensitively): a somber, descending melody in the tenor, with a tinkling accompaniment in the high treble range. This theme, too, receives an elaboration in a new texture. It’s Alberti bass again! The third tonal area is the expected dominant, F major, and here Schubert switches into triplets again, cheerful arpeggios that seem to suggest all is well. The confidence continues as Schubert peeks around some surprising harmonic corners, met with strange silences each time. It’s like the traditional classical exposition is being slowly deconstructed. Then he transforms the second subject into a warm chorale, but this too gets cut into fragments, disappearing into silence after silence. Eventually he finds his way to an F major cadence to properly end the exposition, but the last sixteen or so measures have been really unsettling. It’s like each phrase is trying to find a way out of a prison, trying a new harmonic direction each time but always running into a barrier.

The first ending of the repeat is the most controversial detail in the whole piece. As I mentioned before, taking this repeat makes a huge statement by adding around five minutes to the movement’s duration. An average listener hearing a pianist start back at the beginning is sure to take a deep breath or adjust in their seat a bit. This also magnifies the movement’s problem of form, which is that a Classical sonata movement is being stretched out to unnatural length with a three-key exposition and very long, elaborated subjects. But at the same time, this repeat contains really important music. A battle ensues between serene F major chords and anxious gestures that point to G-flat. On the third round, the G-flat gestures crescendo into fortissimo F-dominant-seventh triplets. A call to a heroic journey! And what’s next? That devilish G-flat trill low in the bass, also fortissimo and the only time in the piece that it’s marked at that dynamic.

Another reason to relish the repeat is that the second ending, taking us into darkest C-sharp minor, sounds even more despairing after experiencing the theme twice as long in other keys. It would be too hard to comment on all the events of the development, which are equal parts musical and emotional, but essentially Schubert transforms the thematic material into increasingly ominous moods. The most prolonged device is an iteration of the long-short-short rhythms accompanying the triplet arpeggios at the end of the exposition. First they appear together with triplet arpeggios, though outlining new harmonic areas, and then become a steady ostinato under some creeping dissonances. After a huge D-minor climax, the rhythm is back, but now part of a bleak wintry landscape of gently plodding chords. The first subject returns in three reharmonized statements: minor-key inevitability, a longing grasp at the tonic, and then an arrival on an F dominant chord. From there it’s a short trip back to the recapitulation. Schubert uses some modulation magic to give us the second part of the first subject in A major, and the second subject in B minor, on the way to a final tonal area of B-flat major. The movement ends just as unassuming as it began, with the main theme in a quiet chorale, before some gentle cadential chords. There’s a feeling that’s hard to describe after listening to this whole long movement. It’s like reaching the end of a novel or closing a photo album. So many emotions and psychological shades have emerged from this deceptively serene tune.

The C-sharp minor Andante is, along with the Adagio of the String Quintet in C, Schubert’s most remarkable time-suspending slow movement. Here we can observe Schubert pondering his fate. A forlorn melody sings as a pedal point on C-sharp travels from the bass up to a bell-like tone in the right hand. This first paragraph ends in an ascent on G-sharp major appoggiaturas, seeming to call out into the void. He prolongs the suspense by letting the last chord hang in the air while the bass ostinato dutifully continues. We land not in C-sharp minor but in more comforting E major. The major variant of the melody is full of subtle poetry and glimmers of hope. Another slow ascent of cadences, this time in B major, asks for reassurance, but it is greeted only by a return to C-sharp minor, in a sequence of harmonies that definitively speak of fate. The music winds down into a long affirmation of C-sharp minor. My college piano professor wrote “end” at this point in the music; he wanted it to feel like the very end of the movement already, making the next turn more surprising.

Schubert then conjures a chorale out of nowhere, with steady sixteenth notes in the bass. This comes in two large parts, which are both stated in this chorale format and then with cascading sextuplet decorations. The melody has a noble quality, and always sounds to me like a great choral anthem begging to be sung on a German text. Inevitably, the hope in this melody runs out, and shades of C-sharp minor emerge again before a return to the beginning material. Now Schubert adds an extra ostinato gesture in the bass, a little knocking series of notes (do-do-ti-do) that further emphasize the static pedal point. Several magical harmonic turns happen in this last section. The rising G-sharp major chords, now expected to resolve to E major, instead melt into angelic C major. It’s a beautiful world to live in for a few bars. C major moves to E major, and the B major ascending cadences come back. Maybe this time they can conquer fate! But alas, C-sharp minor still returns. The fate is sealed…until one last harmonic twist. Schubert enters C-sharp major, impossibly remote and delicate, at a dynamic of ppp. Now he transforms those exact fateful harmonies from the end of the C-sharp minor section into major variants. It brings to mind a vision of the soul entering heaven. The music tapers out into utmost peace, with the bass ostinato underpinning everything to the end. It’s truly one of the most profound musical journeys that meditates on death but still offers hope.

A jaunty country dance in B-flat shocks us out of the deep introversion of the previous music. This Scherzo soars along with vitality and sly harmonic turns. One could read the manic energy of this movement as desperation, Schubert clinging to life. The Trio section in B-flat minor is notably the most extensive appearance of the tonic minor in the sonata. The exaggerated fzp pokes in the bass make this music more comical than menacing. Has Schubert banished the darkness?

The rondo finale is the musical equivalent of the two theatre masks: one happy, one sad. Few key areas are left unexplored, and the rollercoaster ride of emotions forms an appropriately weighty conclusion to this epic sonata. The stark G octave that opens the movement could lead us in any direction, and that turns out to be a pathétique little melody that flips from C minor to B-flat major on a dime. The G octave returns several times to interrupt the proceedings. After this initial passage of material, the music relaxes into an F major theme entirely in semiquavers. There’s an autumnal quality in this theme, the way it rustles along and flickers between major and minor like hazy late afternoon light. Schubert’s stroke of genius in this material is the jerky offbeat bass, saving on-the-beat gestures for specific phrases to create a change of mood. The music is so lovely but, like so much in this piece, suddenly trails off into nothing. Two bars of silence.

Another specter hovers over this movement, and it is none other than Ludwig van Beethoven*. The music we hear after that two-bar pause bears an uncanny similarity to motives from the finale of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, and using a similar harmonic twist, lifting from F minor (the key of the Appassionata!) to the Neapolitan, G-flat**. This becomes an intense, stormy passage of booming octave melody over running sixteenths, but then Schubert switches to the happy theatre mask in an innocent major-key variant. The section after the next statement of the rondo theme uses a similar parallel of light and dark, developing chunks of the rondo theme into more dramatic, minor-key gestures. The BA-dum-bum-bum rhythmic germ becomes an ostinato in the bass as Schubert flips the switch back to major and reaches his most assertive, exalted music in this movement. The rest of the movement revisits previous material, but now we hear the semiquaver theme in B-flat and the Appassionata-influenced section in B-flat minor (which means the major variant turns to B-flat major). This long period in the tonic of the sonata suggests a happy ending on the horizon, but Schubert leaves us in doubt a little longer. The rondo theme starts up again, but a G-flat octave interrupts it after four bars. This has the effect of wounding the theme, as it returns with unstable harmony. The octave sinks to F. The rondo theme rises one last time, now daydreaming a bit, fading into the distance. After a final long pause, Schubert delivers on the suspense with a Presto coda that gallops to the finish with one last burst of energy, arriving definitively in B-flat.

*One thing I noticed just now: You could view the last three B-flat cadential chords of the third movement, plus the G octave that starts the fourth, as forming the ta-ta-ta-TA gesture of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Maybe that’s taking it too far.

** I once heard pianist Radu Lupu play a program of the Appassionata Sonata and the Schubert B-flat. I wonder if he was trying to draw attention to the connection.

Where to find it:

HL51480399 Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 (Henle Urtext Edition)

HL50256570 Schubert: 10 Piano Sonatas (Schirmer)

HL51480148 Schubert: Piano Sonatas – Volume II (Henle Urtext Edition)

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