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Late Greatness

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

Reflections on the three final piano sonatas of Franz Schubert.

Sonata no. 19 in C minor, D. 958

Sonata no. 20 in A major, D. 959

Sonata no. 21 in B-flat major, D. 960

Survey recordings by Elisabeth Leonskaja, Miksuko Uchida, Evgeny Kissin, Francesco Piemontesi and Alfred Brendel.

Vienna, September 1828. Poor Schubert. The man is a misery-guts and likely knows he's about to waltz off to meet his maker after suffering an intensification of the plague of syphilis he's endured most his adult life. He complains of paralysing headaches, intense dizzy spells, extreme fatigue, effusions of blood. He is only 31. His inevitable death comes a couple of months later and along with it raises another of music's great "what if" contemplations: what if Schubert had lived longer, had composed more? Already at 31 his body of work was one of staggering achievement at a prolific rate of output. Destined for much of subsequent history to always be compared just that slightly less favourably to his great idol Beethoven, just as he was unfairly pitted against that other young genius taken from the world far too soon - Mozart - we can only wonder what great masterpieces were still to flow from Schubert's quill.

For much of the rest of the nineteenth century Schubert's reputation suffered something of a soft decline: these three great late piano sonatas were not even published for ten years after his demise. Even then, Robert Schumann - to whom the blinking things were eventually dedicated - had the temerity to write in his magazine Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik that the sonatas, "ripple along from page to page as if without end, never in doubt as to how to continue, always musical and singable, interrupted here and there by stirrings of some vehemence which, however, are rapidly stilled." Only Brahms at the time seemed to find any potential in them, as did Clara Schumann, tellingly quite possibly the finest pianist of her generation. Indeed, it was only in the early twentieth century that the great concert pianists such as Arthur Schnabel really began to champion them, as did the likes of Sviatoslav Richter and Wilhelm Kempff a generation later. Now they happily sit amongst some of the most revered works in the canon of piano literature, analysed, performed, recorded and enjoyed continually.

First: a little deviation. Schubert died in near abject poverty. Mozart fell to a similar fate. The list of great artistic geniuses who go nearly completely unrecognised and unrewarded during their own life time is both a testament to the true nature of genius - that it is always tragically ahead of its own time - and as an indictment against the general stupidity of the common human propensity towards philistinism. It does make me wonder whether Schubert would have had a slightly happier and more contented conclusion to his brief life if he wasn't always so occupied with keeping the proverbial wolf from the door. But there is another telling aspect to true genius which both Schubert and Mozart personified: their circumstances did not prohibit, limit or diminish their craft but arguably enhanced it to even greater heights of transcendental bliss and perfection. This is particularly true of the spiritual heights Schubert reaches in the final B-flat sonata, so temptingly analogous to Mozart's quest for the affirmation of life in the face of death which we find in the mythos surrounding the composing of his Requiem Mass. To begin to wonder how an ordinary fallible human can summon the physical energy, let alone plumb the depths of the wavering soul, to create the complexity we find in the final three Schubert sonatas is one of mankind's great artistic mysteries. And to think that the sensibility and fortitude of the artist has so often been likened to temperamentality, weakness and 'nerdiness'!

Not surprisingly preoccupations with mortality cast a shadow over the final three sonatas, all written very close together in those final months of 1828, all unified by numerous structural similarities, all sharing similar tonal qualities, all meant to form one cohesive statement about the fragility and temporality of life. Many musicologists dispute Schubert's own awareness of his impending death, arguing there is no biographical evidence to make such a claim: he was often "ill" and "close to death", but I would say that to listen to the underlying sentiment which weaves and threads through the sonatas makes it more than pertinently obvious that there is both a lamentable and a reconcilable sentiment being expressed here. The opening section of the adantino movement of the A major sonata (no. 20) offers up such a spare, mournful, poignant melody that you can almost imagine it played on an organ as a dirge at a funeral. It is likewise expressive and full of sighing gestures which challenge the finality of the first theme with the startling interrupting nature of the fantastia-like development material: the spirit is struggling back from the brink, it's mounting one last gasp for life. Likewise, the development secti0n of the first movement of the B-flat major sonata (no. 20) is one of the most astonishingly courageous declarations of inner peace: the upward tonal shifts towards a dramatic climax in D minor cements the notion of levitating harmony and reconciliation between the corporeal and the spiritual. This section, when played with an ear for the sublime, such as in Evgeny Kissin's breathtaking recording, always induces me to think of the best of John Donne's "Holy Sonnets", particularly no. X - Death be Not Proud:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

It would be far too simplistic to suggest that all three sonatas are mere prefigurations for an impending death event. Schubert’s mature musical compositions are staggering in their complexity and depth. Indeed, they provide considerable food for thought to any discerning listener, not just in the scope of sentiments and emotions they evoke but also in their daring and original compositional framework. There are, for instance, a broad and comprehensive array of technical aspects on display in the sonatas which add to their sense of scale and pianistic grandeur: it is true they are not virtuosic showpieces, they do not foreshadow the massive works of Liszt, for example, in the way that Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (no. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106) clearly did. In fact, Schubert did not write much music for the solo piano which falls ostentatiously into this genre and yet such is the sweep of his technical originality that they compare equally and in many cases – certainly in the instance of the final three sonatas – superiorly to much of Liszt’s concert hall output, as well as to much of Brahms and Schumann too.

There is an exception in the Schubert oeuvre for solo piano which was designed as a companion to the grand Hammerklavier on the concert stage and that is The Wanderer Fantasy in C major, D. 760 of 1822. The harmonic scheme underpinning the last sonatas consists of the same tonal conflict we find in The Wanderer and which is gradually resolved through careful modulation over the course of each of the sonatas’ corresponding four-movement structures. There is a common dramatic arc which is integrated across the sonatas, including the use of cyclic motives: each first movement is in a moderate or fast tempo with expositional material which contains moves from tonic to dominant modulations, even if, quite apparently, the harmonic scheme here involves additional intermediate tonalities which move the material away from the tonic-dominant axis. Recapitulations are often in the ternary form and contain rhythmic figurations which unify the entire form of the movement. Interestingly, the codas all yearn for urgent harmonic resolution and all end pianissimo. Second movements are all slow, normally in the ABA ternary form or the ABABA scheme with the A and B sections posited in sharp contrast in terms of key and character. Third movements are rhythmically dances, either a scherzo or a minuet and bear striking similarities to each sonata’s first movement. They are dramatic and punchy. The finales of the sonatas are all exquisite rondos characterised by lush melodic material and accompanied by relentless flowing rhythms which gather pace and suggest a certain sense of dominant triumphalism, even in sonata no. 19’s moody minor key.

There is a recurring tonal stratum of C#minor/F#minor which Schubert copies from his Wanderer Fantasy. Embedded into the tonic arc of the sonatas this device deploys a sense of alienation, of journeying and rootlessness. This combines with a sense of how our ear is manipulated by a disjointed unity of time and momentum: sometimes passages or even whole movements are cast adrift from their tonal roots and often there is the introduction of a sudden ethereal harmonic shift which we find startling or at the least puzzling. And yet, it works wonders in cementing the feelings of flighty temperance which characterise the sonatas as a whole. Occasionally Schubert creates tonal suspension by swiftly oscillating between two opposing tonal elements. The result is the sensation of a complete halt in flow, an arrest of time and motion which evokes a sense of dislocation from what is expected or familiar and embodies the music with the emotional register of the surreal, the dreamy, of nostalgia and memory. It is obvious that Chopin later used this exact same device to great effect in his own piano music.

Sometimes mechanically repetitive accompanying passages in the left hand give the sonatas a song-like or singing quality. Of course hardly any composer wrote sweeter or more touching melodic material than Schubert, but the use of ostinato or repeated chords grant a simplicity to the sonatas which is in fact a total deception: the first movement of the B-flat major sonata (no. 21), for example, or the first theme of the rondo to the A-major sonata (no. 20) are such examples. There is a propensity to linger in their chorale-like states, and yet, gradually and almost imperceptive to obvious detection, a great deal is going on in the middle harmonies which are always protean, shifting and modulating and thus gradually changing the psychological states of the music: at first we hear a suppleness, a grace, a plaintive phrase but the next time we hear it, the exact same melodic material is quite something altered: there is a fragility, a wavering shiftiness, a sense of disenchantment and detachment.

Musicologist Charles Fisk, in his really interesting dissertation, Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert's Impromptus and Last Sonatas (California University Press, 2001) has suggested that the sonatas embody a protagonist going through stages of alienation, banishment, exile and eventual homecoming (in the A major and B-flat sonatas) or self-assertion (in the C minor sonata). In addition, he characterizes a sense of binary dissolution within the breadth of the sonatas: reality vs the dream, home vs exile, attainment vs yearning. Only in the finales, when these dichotomous conflicts are resolved through intensive musical integration is there a sense of reconciliation, of acceptance and homecoming. In many ways, we sense Schubert’s own relief from the burdens of material living which were known to be considerable to him and in many ways their cathartic qualities are what he strives for most ardently: a comparison to the dark and brooding song cycle, Winterreise, written the year before, is often cited as a thematic companion to the last sonatas. Certainly its subject matter – disaffected love – is echoed in terms of texture and melancholy lyricism in the late sonatas.

Personally, I find the sonatas to be endlessly yielding. They can change meaning and emotion depending on the slightest modifications in performance. This is a testament to their greatness that they always surprise and excite, no matter how many times one hears them. Like the very best writing, they do not give up their secrets very easily, they resist conclusive interpretations, their stories are merely hinted at and largely left unresolved so that the listener needs to work as hard as the performer to build meaning for any one individual performance.

My own favourite “go-to” interpreter of the last three sonatas is the glorious Austrian-Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja. There is something about her tight control over the material which inspires confidence and awe: she does not indulge Schubert’s dreaminess too much, but she still permits a sense of the fluid and the flighty about her playing. Her tempos are exemplary: the opening of the C minor sonata (no. 19) needs to be taken briskly, just as the piece that inspired it does too – Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor – or else it immediately becomes a funeral march (alla Pietmontesi) and not a statement of defiance and protest. There is hardly a more beautiful conclusion to any sonata than the lilting magnificence of the C minor’s first movement coda: Leonskaja is able to fully enrich those glorious bass notes with real meaning, real profoundness whereas, for all her usual mastery, Mitsuko Uchida takes the tempo a touch too fast and loses that special sense of introspection which Schubert seems to be having at this point in time. Brendel is almost the perfect Beethovian and Schubertian but I find his approach to the last sonatas to be a touch too mechanical in comparison to Leonskaja, whereas his recordings of the sets of impromptus are the definition of perfection. His fidelity to the score is of course beyond reproach but as such he sacrifices those moments of uncertainty and of questioning which seem to be so much a reflection of Schubert’s own preoccupations.

The most sublime of all the recordings I have heard is Kissin playing the final sonata: it is a pity he seems not to have recorded no. 19 and no. 20 for the sake of a more comprehensive comparison. Kissin does something to the development section of the first movement which simply goes beyond music and starts to generate the sensation which is equal to a kind of out of body experience: you find your thoughts suspended, your cares dissolved and instead you are floating on a cushion of air so tender and emollient that it almost seems to be enveloping your body completely.

The grand Elisabeth Leonskaja playing an excerpt from the third movement of Schubert's sonata for piano, no 21 in B-flat major, D.960


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