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Schubert Sonatas

“All that I have created is born of my
understanding of music and my own sorrow.”

                —from Schubert’s diary, March 27, 1824

Franz Schubert
Sonata for Piano D959
Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano, D821


Wu Han (piano), David Finckel (cello)

Listen to AudioNotes:

Notes on the Music:

On Schubert and the Subjective Melody

By Patrick Castillo

"The melody is the point of departure.  May it remain sovereign!  And whatever may be the complexities of our rhythms and our harmonies, they shall not draw it along in their wake, but, on the contrary, shall obey it as faithful servants."  Thus begins the French composer Olivier Messiaen’s treatise The Technique of My Musical Language – and indeed, his musical language is a rigorous one.  Though often lush and romantic, it is not what is commonly considered “melodious.”

Given its author, this declaration is all the more telling and important.  The supremacy of a perfectly crafted melody is difficult to challenge; such melodies were a particular specialty of the nineteenth century Romantic composers.  And to invent, not a staid melody of the "Three Blind Mice" variety, but the kind of melody that flows so naturally and seamlessly that it seems indeed to invent itself from one note to the next – this is an ability that precious few people in all of history have been granted.

The element of melody constitutes music’s foremost declamatory ingredient, at once music’s most basic and most profound utterance.  Before rhythm and harmony, it was melody that first defined any music as a language unto itself, as a mode of human communication.  The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians conjectures that melody “represents a universal human phenomenon traceable to prehistoric times… Primary concerns with melody appear to have been related more specifically to verbal, in some instances pre-verbal, modes of social intercourse.”

Though there has been no shortage of published studies of harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration over the past two centuries, melody has, for the most part, gone conspicuously ignored.  Not that it has been ignored altogether.  Certainly, we are indebted to Béla Bartók’s initiative to collect countless folk melodies throughout his native Hungary.  A generation later, musicologist Steven Feld’s seminal work, Sound and Sentiment, would offer a remarkable analysis of the melodic elements of everyday social interaction among the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea.  But within the framework of common practice western classical music, the topic of melody has rarely been delved into.

Perhaps it seems too obvious a topic to discuss.  Or, equally likely, perhaps melody has proven too difficult to discuss meaningfully, since there seems nary a science behind the divine gifts of Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn.

I don’t mean to suggest that an ethnomusicological understanding of melody as an instinctive device, as outlined by Feld, Grove, and others, is of no use to such a discussion.  On the contrary, such an understanding takes on a significant new meaning when applied to music from the Romantic era (though certainly, the melodic gifts of countless pre-Romantic composers are not to be denied: composers from Josquin des Prez and Palestrina to Bach and Haydn likewise could adeptly spin a musical tale).  For while the origin of melody in the course of history lies in the most rudimentary elements of human society – from preparing food to mourning the dead – its function as a mode of communication evolved by the nineteenth century into a more deeply personal statement.  Even just one hundred years prior to Schubert’s first melodic thought, melody served a more defined social purpose.  As tender and intimate as any of Couperin’s sarabandes may be, for instance, they were nevertheless composed as dances to entertain the court of Louis XIV; as great as this music is on its own, it can never be completely divorced from this social context.  But with the dawn of Romanticism – and the works of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Frederic Chopin – music relied increasingly upon the composer’s own humanity and subjectivity in the music itself.  This is nowhere reflected more strongly than in their melodies’ newfound expressiveness, lyricism, and vigor.

The sturm-und-drang aesthetic of the Romantic generation has been well documented.  But the reason for this increased subjectivity in music is just as socially rooted as it is culturally.  The Romantic composers were not employed by church or state.  Yes, financial preoccupations remained; but the Romantics viewed their responsibility as artists not to God or magistrate, but to the spirit of their own art.

This subjectivity resulted in an approach to melody concerned with conveying a spectrum of unprecedented emotional extremes: quickly from the highest ecstasy to the most bittersweet melancholy, and often into the deepest despair.  Listen, for instance, to the opening gesture of Schubert’s Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano.  This breathless soliloquy stands in stark contrast to such compact, self-contained themes as the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah, or the defiant four-note motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, composed just fifteen years earlier.  At the arrival of Schubert’s second subject (1:42), however, the arpeggione dances with inane glee.  This music displays a heightened subjectivity, a brand of heart-on-my-sleeve not present in (save indeed, for the middle and late works of Beethoven) music prior to the Romantic era.

Schubert’s mastery of mapping syntactical thoughts to musical ones is evident in his œuvre of over six hundred songs, in which he set the words of countless poets (most obsessively, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s greatest poet).  Indeed, Schubert’s melodic gift was of the purest sort.  As Robert Schumann recognized, “He has tones for the finest feelings, thoughts, yea, events and conditions of life – what he sees with the eye, touches with the hand, is transformed to music.” 

To come to an understanding of Schubert’s ability to transform the conditions of life into song is a complicated task.  It begins with the music’s exquisite simplicity; I have yet to hear a melody by Schubert that I couldn’t have sworn I had heard somewhere before.  The raw materials from which he generates his melodies are transparent.  Listen again to the opening of the “Arpeggione” Sonata: the first sub-phrase is four notes long.  The harmony here does nothing more than establish the key.  Yet, the result is stunning.  The Piano Sonata in A Major is similar.  From the first movement to the last, Schubert weaves an intricate tapestry of interrelated melodies spun from little more than scales and arpeggios.

On the other side of this simplicity is the frequent boldness of the harmonies underneath.  The modulations Schubert employs throughout the Piano Sonata (especially at the first movement’s end) are in turns devastating and exhilarating.  The supporting cast, as it were, of chords and accompaniment figures color the melody’s lead in endlessly inventive ways.

Equally important to the melody’s immediate accessibility is its shape, and Schubert’s musical ideas are flawless in their architecture.  In the slow movement of the “Arpeggione” Sonata, the cello’s first sentence departs from and returns to the same note.  This symmetry makes for a perfectly satisfying melody in itself; but by beginning and ending on the unresolved fifth scale degree rather than the stable first degree, Schubert allows himself to extend this melody even further.  The second time around, after a subtle chromatic pull upwards (0:40), the melody arrives comfortably on the tonic (before immediately departing for murkier waters). 

Certainly, these components and more contribute to the memorable melodies of Schubert’s music.  Many have gone on at far greater length about the proportions of Schubert’s note values and pitch relationships.  But for all of the perfections that can be quantified in Schubert’s musical constructions, what makes his melodies great, memorable, and quintessentially Schubertian is the immediacy with which they speak to the listener’s heart, as though upon each cadence, the ear agrees, “Why yes, of course.”  The most accurate assessment of Schubert’s instinct for melody may forever remain that of Schumann (whose passion for Schubert’s music ran deep; when the eighteen-year-old Schumann learned of the master’s death, he is said to have spent the entire night weeping): “what he sees with the eye… is transformed to music.”

Franz Schubert
Born Vienna, 31 Jan. 1797; Died Vienna, 19, Nov. 1828

Sonata in A Major, D959
Composed: September 1828.  Surviving drafts suggest that Schubert worked on this sonata, as well as its companion pieces, the piano sonatas in C minor (D958) and B-flat Major (D960), throughout the summer of 1828.  They were completed just weeks before Schubert’s untimely death at the age of 31.

Published: Posthumously in 1839 (possibly 1838) by the Viennese music publisher Diabelli, who acquired the set of three sonatas after Schubert’s death.  Recognizing lucrative potential, Diabelli published the set as “Franz Schubert’s Last Compositions: Three Grand Sonatas.”  Schubert’s intended dedicatee was the pianist and composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel; however, as Hummel had died in 1837, Diabelli’s published dedication honored Robert Schumann, the leading champion of Schubert’s music after the Schubert’s death.

Other works from this period: Also composed in 1828 were the “Great” Symphony No. 9 in C Major (D944) and the classic Cello Quintet (D956), also in C Major.  The three piano sonatas were his final completed works.  A sketch of an unfinished symphony in D Major (D936a – not to be confused with the “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8 [D759] of 1822) survives, which may be the last music ever committed by Schubert to paper.  The manuscript begins with counterpoint exercises: just two weeks before his death, Schubert began taking counterpoint lessons with Simon Sechter, a contemporary music theorist.

The composer and the music: The final three piano sonatas exhibit a level of artistic genius that, even for Schubert’s legendary precocity, is utterly astounding.  Each sonata inhabits its own distinct musical world (indeed, it is more accurate to hear them as individual works, rather than as a trilogy per se), but the three are nevertheless bound together by a sublimity of conception and construction.  The A Major Sonata demonstrates a boldly experimental approach to traditional sonata form, marked especially by the composer’s restless motivic development.

Heard in the context of Schubert’s death just one month after the completion of these works, it is tempting to speculate as to what music may have been yet to come.  Had the composer lived to be as old as Bach or Haydn – or even Beethoven, who died at 57 – might the year 1828 may have heralded the dawning of yet a more sophisticated stage in Schubert’s music?  These sonatas suggest an exquisitely tantalizing answer.

Listening Guide
I. The aesthetic similarities between this sonata and Beethoven’s middle “heroic” works have often been noted.  Indeed, as with Beethoven, Schubert makes proficient use of very rudimentary musical building blocks as the basis for his work: scales, arpeggios, small motivic cells, and constant contrast between major and minor harmonies.  The opening Allegro’s aura of simplicity presents itself in the first measure, starting with nothing more than an A major chord.  This simple statement extends into a solemn chorale, characterized by the immediately recognizable octave leap in the left hand and a steadily rhythmic acceleration (from the two opening whole notes, to a half note, followed by a succession of quarter and eighth notes).  Ever a master of melody, Schubert here masks the primary melodic movement in the inner voices, played in parallel thirds.  After a series of cascading triplets (0:15), this opening melody returns (still in thirds) (0:30), accompanied by a soaring countermelody in the right hand.  Already, we see Schubert extending the boundaries of sonata form, experimenting with motivic development just seconds into the exposition.  Schubert thoroughly extends the opening subject, craftily shifting harmonies through rising chromatic figures (beginning at 0:53).  A second theme is soon to follow (1:38), which Schubert extends with equal fluidity and grace: rising chromatic lines (2:32) refer back to Schubert’s handling of the first theme, and give way to powerful arpeggiated chords (2:59); a descending major scale (3:23) is extended into a graceful reprise of the second subject (3:30).  Even here, a familiar melody is extended ever so slightly by a two-measure variation, played ppp (3:39).

The start of the development section (7:57) is instantly audible by a stunning change of key, combined with a change in the left-hand accompaniment to eighth-note chords; this new rhythm holds the development together, providing a steadfast heartbeat all the way to the recapitulation.  The devious manner in which Schubert fashions the development section is especially astounding.  Rather than go on extending either of the two main subjects (as he does exhaustively right from the outset of the movement), he surprises us by developing the slight variation that appeared only at the end of the exposition.  But its treatment here is anything but slight: on the contrary, it is romantically obsessive.  A sense of wanderlust pervades, marked by abrupt shifts between major and minor (as, most strikingly, at 8:54).

The music finally settles into the dominant key of E Major (9:33), which is sustained throughout a lengthy transition until the triumphant arrival at the recapitulation in A Major (10:06).  But Schubert’s proclivity for development is not yet satisfied.  Just when the music seems prepared for repose, a magically subtle harmonic turn sneaks in (10:34), propelling the piece into the distant tonality of F Major.  The music returns to the movement’s opening figure for a dramatic coda (14:08).  Here, Schubert especially echoes late Beethoven, with his fragmented and meditative utterances.  Thestaccatonotes in the left hand bear a delicately communicative quality.  Even as the movement is ending, Schubert cannot resist another sly change in harmony (15:01) before the music comes to a gentle close.

II. As mentioned earlier, Schubert’s final three sonatas often betray the influence of Beethoven’s seminal sonata cycle.  In particular, the contrast between the grandeur of first movement and the funereal second movement recalls several works from Beethoven’s so-called heroic era.  As Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, for instance, starkly juxtaposes victory with suffering and adversity: Schubert here follows the luminous Allegro with a testament of profound despair.

The Andantino begins as a barcarolle, a steady triple meter form that traditionally recalls the melancholy song of a Venetian gondolier.  Beyond melancholy, however, this barcarolle is in fact a funeral march.  The harmony seems to stand still for prolonged periods, furthering the contrast with the first movement.  This morose dirge is halted (2:41), and yields to a virtuosic fantasy.  Again, we hear a depth of musical subjectivity rarely indulged in the music of a Haydn or Mozart.  The music is besieged with angst-ridden rhythms and chromaticisms.  The wanderlust of the first movement resumes here with a vengeance.  A long chromatic line again controls the music’s harmonic motion (beginning at 3:12).  Note how Schubert intensifies the dramatic fall of, again, nothing more than a minor scale (3:47), by compulsively accelerating its descent.  The end of Schubert’s tormented chromatic sentence (4:00) rises to an angry exclamation point (4:10): an emphatic C-sharp minor chord, but stated in its unstable first inversion.  Three more exclamations follow, each answered by a devastated silence.  The funeral march returns, accentuated by ominous bells in the right hand (5:39); whether deliberate or not, these dark ornaments clearly nod towards Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. 

III. The Scherzo is a nineteenth century vignette, typical of Schubert’s Vienna.  In large-scale sonatas of the turn of the eighteenth century, largely by Beethoven’s pen, the exuberant scherzo (Italian for ‘joke’) came to replace the elegant minuet.  The social implication is obvious.  Whereas the minuets of Haydn and Mozart served as dance pieces for the aristocracy, the scherzo is a statement of humanism.  This particular scherzo displays Schubert’s bohemian combination of audacity and wit.  The laughing octaves that follow the opening episode, for instance, are at once playful and defiant (0:27).  A sustained pedal G-natural in the bass (beginning at 0:31) is followed by a climactic outburst (0:41).  This explosion is left hanging in silence, only to be answered by a new musical idea (0:45).  A more contemplative trio section (2:18) reflects nineteenth century Vienna just as accurately as the music that preceded it.  True to its form, this trio section comprises three distinct voices: a hocket-like dialogue between the bass and soprano, with a chordal accompaniment in between.  Schubert continues to extend simple scale figures into expressive musical statements, before returning to the scherzo.

IV. The closing Allegretto is a rondo, in which a central subject typically alternates with a series of contrasting episodes.  Here, however, Schubert returns to and extends the same secondary melody in each episode, rather than introducing new material.  The opening subject is as Schubertian a melody as any to be found in all of his work: expressive, cantabile, and perfectly satisfying in its simplicity.  This particular melody is, in fact, vintage Schubert in more ways than one: as he did frequently throughout his career, Schubert here quotes an earlier work, the slow movement of his Piano Sonata in A minor D537.

The rondo’s second theme is based on a simple gesture, an ascending four-note cell (1:58), followed immediately by the same figure.  Despite its simplicity, however, this gesture propels the music quickly from one key to the next, as each tonicized note is immediately treated as the dominant to yet another new tonic.  Schubert returns to this melody often throughout the movement, exploring its expressive potential through varying harmonic color.

Periods of long sustained harmonies, similar to certain passages in the first movement, contribute to the rondo’s grandeur.  Midway through the movement, Schubert’s chromatic restlessness takes pause in the ominous key of C-sharp minor (6:00).  This tonality dominates the following twenty-one measures, before yielding to the brighter sound of C-sharp Major (6:37) – which, in turn, is sustained for twelve measures before the music returns to the opening theme in F-sharp Major (7:00).  After one statement of the melody, Schubert leads us effortlessly back to the home key of A Major (7:19)

After visiting the second theme one last time, the music arrives at what feels like the end of a journey (10:18).  But an abrupt pause (10:34) is followed by yet another return to the opening theme: Schubert continues to wander, and increasingly frequent silences emphasize this feeling.  At last, the music launches into a coda (11:23), marked Presto: here, Schubert extends – for the first time! – the main theme’s last breath.  What was first heard as a gentle cadence becomes bold and dramatic. 

Finally, this sonata illustrates the dawn of cyclic form in music, in which separate movements of a multi-movement work are thematically connected.  This development is another result of the Romantic composers’ more personally invested approach to musical construction and communication: no longer content with movements unified just by key relationships, composers became intent on writing music that spoke, that relayed a journey with a beginning and an end.  Although cyclic form would mature in the works of later Romantic composers such as Cesar Franck, late Beethoven likewise yields masterful examples (the greatest of which is the magnificent Ninth Symphony); and it is surely Beethoven’s influence again that can be heard here.  The final movement ends with a reprise of the opening movement (12:06)– after the sonata’s journey through a wide spectrum of musical and emotive terrain, Schubert’s wanderlust at last finds resolution.

Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A minor, D821
Composed: November 1824, while living at his family’s home in Vienna.  Schubert was twenty-seven years old.  The piece bears a dedication to the guitarist Vincenz Schuster, who encouraged its composition and gave the piece its first performance.  The arpeggione (ar-peh-gee-OH-nay) was a newly invented instrument at this time, and Schuster remains history’s only arpeggionist of note.

Published: Posthumously in 1871.  By the time of the sonata’s publication, the arpeggione had already fallen out of fashion.  The first published edition already included an alternative cello part; modern arrangements exist today for instruments ranging from the cello to the flute.

Other works from this period: The year 1824 saw an explosion of masterworks for smaller forces, including the “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet, D810 the “Grand Duo” Sonata for Piano Four-Hands, D812; and the Octet for winds and strings, D803.

The composer and the music: The early 1820s were marked by Schubert’s deteriorating health and subsequent melancholy, due to the syphilis that would eventually claim his life.  In March of 1824, he wrote to his close friend Leopold Kupelwieser,

In a word, I feel myself the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world.  Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the happiness of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, at best, whose enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for all things beautiful threatens to disappear, and I ask you, is he not a miserable unhappy being?—“My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it never and nevermore” [quoting Goethe]. I may well sing every day now, for each night, I go to bed hoping never to wake again, and each morning only tells me of yesterday’s grief. 

The instrument: The arpeggione was a bowed, fretted, six-string instrument invented in Vienna in 1823-24 by the Viennese guitar luthier Johann Georg Staufer; it was also referred to as a bowed guitar, the instrument that it most resembled.  Though the cello frequently fills in for this now obsolete instrument in performances of the ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata, the arpeggione in fact had a significantly wider range; and its six strings (as opposed to the cello’s four) furthermore allowed for certain virtuosic passages to be played easily across the strings in one position, avoiding the manual acrobatics required on the cello in modern practice. 

Similarly to the cello, the sound of the arpeggione apparently bore an expressive speechlike quality, especially in its upper register.  Schubert was a quick study on this new instrument, and wrote with superb sensitivity to its timbre.  The melodies and harmonic textures to be found in the ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata are vintage Schubert, worthy to be ranked among his greatest works.  Nevertheless, perhaps owing to the novelty of the instrument, critics and commentators have perennially failed to give the sonata its due recognition, often casting it off as a novelty in itself.  The fifth edition ofGrove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians pompously offered the sonata only lukewarm praise, calling it “a secondary work compared with the giants of [1824], but not altogether to be despised.” 

Listening Guide
I. Schubert once wrote, “Whenever I attempted to sing of love, it turned to pain.  And again, when I tried to sing of sorrow, it turned to love.”  This polarity can be heard in the unabashed contrasts in mood of the openingAllegro moderato.  The music begins with a long and mellifluous melodic line.  A quick transition (0:56-1:17) from this plaintive opening melody to the buoyant second theme shows how manic the music of the early nineteenth century had become.  The music has gone from tragic to idyllic.  The sixteenth-note pattern of the second theme (1:43) recalls numerous moments in many of Schubert’s songs dealing with one of the composer’s thematic favorites: the serenity of a brook or stream.  (Listeners are referred to “Thränenregen” and “Die Müller und der Bach” from Die Schöne Müllerin, for starters.)  A yodeling octave leap completes the figure (1:45), conjuring images of Schubert’s beloved Austrian Alps. 

A development in the truest sense of the word follows, as Schubert’s melodic material undergoes a frenzied series of harmonic and emotive shifts.  The section begins with a sunnier statement of the opening theme in F Major in the piano (6:17), accompanied by pizzicati in the cello.  The mood quickly darkens again (6:29), and the rambunctious second theme, which had offered the lightheartedness of the exposition, is now exploited to more introverted ends.  Following a standard recapitulation, a brief coda (11:00) ends the movement on a solemn note. 

II. The opening of gentle Adagio offers a long and lyrical musical statement.  The meditative tenderness of this music owes just as much to Schubert’s ravishing harmonies.  Long sustained notes by the cello seem to change inflection, as colored by new harmonies in the piano accompaniment (as at 1:49).  Midway through the movement, the music enters into another world, as if from drowsiness into sleep (3:28).  The eighth-note accompaniment suddenly stops, and the rhythmic motion doubly slows into a drugged waltz.  A delicate cello cadenza (4:31) arcs as if tracing a rainbow, from the bottom of the cello’s range to the top, before returning to middle ground and leading directly into the third movement Allegretto. 

III. The sonata ends with a delightful rondo, the same form employed in the finale of the A Major Piano Sonata.  Apart from this, however, the two movements are quite different indeed.  Whereas the Piano Sonata’s final movement extends two main melodies into a truly grand finale, Schubert here constructs an almost manic rondo, relying more on contrasting musical ideas. 

The amiable opening subject alternates with contrasting sixteenth-note episodes (1:32, and again at 6:29), recalling the contrast between the two central ideas of the first movement.  Schubert includes delicious moments throughout that are similarly bipolar, but on a smaller scale: listen, for instance, to the sudden yet seamless transition from agitation to lyricism in the first episode (1:50).  At the center of the movement, Schubert inserts a second episode, reminiscent again of the Austrian Alps (4:12).  The sonata closes quietly, with the cello reaching into its uppermost register for a final statement of the theme (8:39)