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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 8, 15, "Reliquie"
Schubert’s fragmentary and unfinished piano sonatas come from the period between 1815 and 1823. They are among his most innovative and puzzling works surviving, as it were, as experiments in composition while offering a fascinating insight into the composer’s creative process. This disc starts with Schubert’s very first sonata, continues with three fragments of sonatas remaining from his middle period, and ends with his last sonata fragment, an outstanding and progressive work that looks forward to the expressive world of Beethoven and Bruckner. Gottlieb Wallisch’s first recording of Schubert fragmentary Sonatas is available on Naxos 8.557189.
By David Denton
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Piano Sonatas 1815–25: Sketches, Fragments and Unfinished Works
This recording spans a wide period of Franz Schubert's piano sonata composition. It starts with his very first sonata, continues with three fragments of sonatas remaining from his middle period, and ends with his last sonata fragment, an outstanding and progressive work, bold in conception.
Schubert's earliest piano sonatas are distinguished by a lively joy in experiment. A number of works have been handed down to us in varying and partly fragmentary versions and have survived only as single movements. Since almost nothing is known to us of the occasion of their composition and of contemporary performances, it is worth taking a short look at the circumstances of Schubert's life in the years from 1815 to 1817. When in February 1815 the seventeen-year-old Schubert composed his first sonata, he was working as an assistant teacher to his father at the latter's school in Vienna and lived in 'a cramped room in which he had put a wretched piano' (according to the reminiscences of his friend, the poet Johann Mayrhofer). Antonio Salieri gave him free lessons in composition. These were, as contemporary sources tell us, directed towards vocal writing, where independent instrumental music played no part. Schubert was evidently proud to be Salieri's pupil: this is shown in his inclusion of the words 'Pupil of Herr von Salieri' at the bottom of several of his compositions.
Schubert's first sonata, the Sonata in E major, D. 157, includes three completed movements, of which the last, a Menuetto with Trio, is in B major. Although one may concede that the Menuetto brings the work to an effective conclusion, the Sonata must be regarded as incomplete since a final movement in the basic key of E major has not been handed down. Schubert occupied himself intensively in the composition of this work, as several revisions show. The first movement is conceived on the model of a string quartet and is marked by exchanges between solo voices and timbres. The slow middle movement in E minor is of astonishing musical profundity and maturity. In it Schubert contrasts with the introverted principal theme, a warmer, lyrical theme in G major, and a rhythmically pregnant and vigorous central section in C major. Outstanding here is Schubert's mastery, creating wide arches and grand melodic lines without thereby expanding the form or affecting the balance. The concluding Menuetto is a very fast movement, marked, unusually for this form, Allegro vivace, and sparkles with energy and joie de vivre.
In April 1816 Schubert applied in vain for the position of a music teacher in Laibach (Ljubljana). In the same month he sent one of his song albums to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, including the settings of Goethe's Heidenröslein, D. 257, Wandrers Nachtlied, D. 224 and Erlkönig, D. 328. This was returned to him without comment.
In autumn of that year, Schubert settled in the inner city of Vienna and found for his new home an obviously much better piano. Encouraged by this he wrote, up to August 1817, six sonatas (D. 537, D. 557, D. 566, D. 567, D. 571 and D. 575). Conceivably Schubert envisaged them as classical sonatas in the tradition of Haydn, Clementi or Mozart, although this tradition was then already past. Often in these works a strong affinity with the dance is perceptible. More than half of all the movements are in triple time. The penultimate of the series, the Sonata in F sharp minor, D. 571, remains as a fragment. Here Schubert's great model, Ludwig van Beethoven, is constantly present. This is noticeable particularly in the first movement and the finale, which show strong similarities with the Moonlight Sonata. The existing 141 bars of the first movement transport the listener into a remote, melancholy world in which there are few elements of contrast and drama. This is due first and foremost to the fact that Schubert constructed it on monothematic principles. The main theme has a particular lyricism about it, yet this is not enough for the construction of dialectical tension in the context of a sonata first movement. The movement breaks off directly before the expected recapitulation. In spite of all resemblances to Beethoven, Schubert does not succeed in taking on the latter's formal scheme in his Sonata quasi una fantasia, or in finding his own formal solution. Did the sonata remain incomplete because of the overwhelming example of Beethoven?
Three of the four movements of this sonata were originally handed down and published separately but, following paper analysis of the original pages and the choice of keys, it now seems certain that they must form a four-movement sonata. To provide a better connection of movements I continue in this recording, directly after the break in the first movement, with the Scherzo in D major, D. 570, followed by the Andante in A major, D. 604. These two movements Schubert wrote out in full. The Allegro in F sharp minor, D. 570, breaks off, exactly like the first movement, before the recapitulation, and is clearly, in view of the character of the finale, to be put at the end of this sonata.
In Schubert's next attempts at sonatas there can be recognised in the two very short fragments in C sharp minor, D. 655, and E minor, D. 769a (previously D. 994) from the years 1819 and 1823 the struggle to create themes and structures of greater sharpness and developmental possibilities. Why these works were broken off at a very early stage cannot be explained. With the work in C sharp minor, which has no tempo direction, there is a unified sonata exposition with two contrasting themes. Schubert here makes use of the very unusual keys of C sharp minor and G sharp major in a search for new expressive possibilities. His work breaks off, however, after 73 bars, with a double bar and repeat sign, and no further indication of the continuation of this composition is left.
The fragment in E minor can also be designated as a simple sketch for a sonata-allegro movement. In only 38 bars Schubert notated a sparsely accompanied theme based on an E minor triad, as at the beginning of an exposition. In contrast with earlier sonatas he succeeds here, in the smallest space, in creating dramatic contrast and giving the theme a clear contour. The short fragment was first published in 1958.
The last and arguably the greatest work in this recording, the Sonata in C major, D. 840, marks a new start after a two-year pause in Schubert's sonata writing. In spring 1825 this sonata stood at the beginning of a new creative stage, comprising three sonatas (in C major, D. 840, A minor, D. 845 and D major, D. 850, the 'Gastein Sonata' ) written within a few months. Already at the end of March 1824 Schubert had told his friend Kupelwieser in an often quoted letter that he would, through string quartets and other chamber music, 'pave the way for great symphonies', a path on which he without doubt had already found himself since the composition in 1822 of the Unfinished Symphony (Symphony in B minor, D. 759). The four-movement Sonata in C major known as 'Reliquie' is a great step on this path, even if it remains unfinished – only the first and second movements are complete. The piano-writing is laid out very orchestrally, and the individual sections and formal structures take on hitherto unknown symphonic dimensions. Careful listening reveals premonitions of the Great C major Symphony, D. 944. Particularly in the first movement, Moderato, Schubert embarks on a new range of sound in which the piano takes over directly the colours and nuances of the orchestra. The special pianistic challenge of this movement lies in the handling of its immense structure and the necessity of transferring individual instrumental sonorities to the piano. The epic breadth and the many daring harmonic elements of this movement reach far beyond the music of the period, recalling the 'sound cathedral' of a Bruckner symphony.
The second movement, Andante, in C minor, is more formally manageable than the first and is generally written strictly in four-part harmony. It has the character of a ballade. Its general development culminates in an extended coda that provides, as it were, a conclusion to both movements. Conceivably Schubert might have been unwilling or unable to complete the work after its two remarkable first movements, as with the Unfinished Symphony. He continued, however, according to the traditional formal principles of a four-movement sonata. The Menuetto in A flat major that follows (with a completed Trio in G sharp minor) breaks off exactly like the C major Finale at a point crucial for the development. In the Menuetto, Schubert avoids the inelegant modulation from A major back to the repeat of the theme in A flat major. In the Finale, a very comprehensive development would have been necessary, since in the exposition of this movement no fewer than three different themes are presented, which would have had to be worked out. The number of themes and the ambitious proportions of this final movement - of which the first part comprises 238 bars - does not make it clear whether this was intended as a Rondo, as marked, or a sonata-allegro movement.
Only a few years after Schubert's death Robert Schumann began to work enthusiastically for the promotion of Schubert's music. In 1839 the then still complete autograph manuscript of the Sonata in C major came into Schuman's possession, given to him by Schubert's brother Ferdinand during a stay in Vienna. Schumann succeeded in March of the same year in arranging for the first performance of the Great C major Symphony, D. 944, in Leipzig. Shortly afterwards he published the second movement of the unfinished sonata in the periodical he had co-founded, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. After Schumann's death the manuscript served as the source of the first edition, published in Leipzig in 1861. The editor designated the work wrongly as 'Reliquie. Letze Sonate (unvollendet) für das Pianoforte von Franz Schubert' ('Relic. Last Sonata (unfinished) for the Pianoforte by Franz Schubert'), which could explain how the sonata came by its nickname.
That most sonatas in this recording were left unfinished by the composer must not be a cause of irritation. On the contrary, the fragments make it possible for us to approach Schubert directly on an emotional level, revealing a completely new view of him and his works. Josef von Spaun, one of Schubert's most loyal friends, once described this as follows: 'Those who knew Schubert closely know how deeply his composing affected him and how his work was born in pain. Whoever saw him only once in the morning while he was composing, glowing and with shining eyes, in other words like a sleep-walker, will not forget the impression.' These fragmentary works very often breathe a special mysterious poetry. They provide a fuller view of Schubert's creative process and musical thinking and at the same time bring to life for us his journey and quest.
English version by Keith Anderson
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SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1, 8, 15, "Reliquie"