In the year 1828, Franz Schubert stared down his impending death from syphilis and produced an astonishing amount of music. In his desperation, with the clock running out, he achieved some of his greatest art (see my post about his B-flat sonata). Thankfully, he also left most of it in a finished state, but the stroke of death left several projects in a state of arrested development.
The set of three piano pieces labeled as D. 946 was supposedly a planned set of four impromptus, following his other sets D. 899 and D. 935. But only three complete pieces were found. Forty years later, composer Johannes Brahms edited the music and restored a cut of over 150 measures in the first piece that Schubert had crossed out on his manuscript. This dialogue between two composers across time is fascinating, and is described more in detail in a wonderful blog post on Henle’s website.
Though frequently recorded, D. 946 is still an underdog compared to the more famous sets, and underrepresented in print. My hope is to bring a little more attention to these three pieces that are just as harmonically intriguing and spacious as other late Schubert.
No. 1 in E-flat minor. Though set in 2/4, the constant rumbling triplets create more of a 6/8 feel. The overall atmosphere reminds me of the finales of the late C minor or B-flat major sonatas, though slightly more breathless and desperate. After a repeat of the exposition, Schubert slyly modulates into B major, the chromatic mediant. This new section is an oasis in the storm, more spacious and relaxed almost to the point of stasis. More harmonic tension arises in the B section of this B section, and another bit of modulation trickery lands us back in E-flat minor for a near-exact repeat of the opening section. The missing measures that Schubert deleted would have started right after this. After listening to this C section in a new key of A-flat, I find myself agreeing with Schubert’s choice to remove it. It’s not as strong as the B section, which causes the dramatic tension to evaporate. Furthermore, it necessitates a third statement of the opening material at the end to tie it all together, which makes the whole thing a bit unwieldy, even by Schubert’s duration-testing standards. In the 150 years since Brahms’s edition set a precedent, many pianists have included the C section in performance, but that trend is now on the decline. I suppose everyone is now free to make their own choices.
No. 2 in E-flat major. This one opens with a wonderful sort of gondola song in 6/8, then enters a darker C minor mood with lots of sixteenth quavers. The bass line in this second section becomes quite robust, alternating murmuring and stabbing. In a nice Schubertian gesture, the C minor is transfigured to C major at the end of the section, like a great sigh dispelling the anxiety. The gondola song returns before a C section in remote A-flat minor. Most of the interest here is harmonic, but irregular phrase lengths help to break up the tedium. There’s something very impromptu-esque about the overall construction in this section. By the time we arrive at the end of the final statement of the gondola song, it’s been quite a journey.
No. 3 in C major. The opening finds Schubert in high spirits, with bouncy offbeats and occasional flurries of sixteenth notes. It also traverses many harmonic areas, lingering around F major and E-flat major for a bit before settling into the biggest modulation yet: a B section in D-flat major. A rhythm of long-long-short-short persists through this material, which features almost no melody. The sequence of chords does draw one to introspection, though, much like the inner movements of Schubert’s sonata in D major, D. 850. The transition out of this hypnotic section is the best transition of the set. Schubert storms the heavens with a leap to A minor, grows anticipation for a return to C major, and jumps back into the happy mood of the opening to finish it off.
These pieces are lovably uneven. Schubert wanders into odd inner sections that overstay their welcome, but somehow arrives at a satisfying finished product by the end. By and large the music is more idiomatically written than the sonatas, sitting at an upper intermediate/early advanced difficulty level. If I had the opportunity to work on a new edition, I’m sure I would include that controversial chunk of the E-flat minor piece that Schubert crossed out, but with a note explaining that the material does not necessarily represent the composer’s final intentions.
Where to find it in print: