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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas, D. 959 and D. 840, 'Reliquie'
By Robert Cummings
By William Hedley
By T. Hashimoto
San Francisco Examiner
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D. 959 Piano Sonata No. 15 in C major, D. 840
Franz Schubert was born in Vienna in 1797, the son of a schoolmaster, and spent the greater part of his short life in the city. His parents had settled in Vienna, his father moving there from Moravia in 1783 to join his schoolmaster brother at a school in the suburb of Leopoldstadt and marrying in 1785 a woman who had her origins in Silesia and was to bear him fourteen children. Franz Schubert was the twelfth of these and the fourth to survive infancy. He began to learn the piano at the age of five, with the help of his brother Ignaz, twelve years his senior, and three years later started to learn the violin, while serving as a chorister at Liechtental church. From there he applied, on the recommendation of Antonio Salieri, to join the Imperial Chapel, into which he was accepted in October 1808, as a chorister now allowed to study at the Akademisches Gymnasium, boarding at the Stadtkonvikt, his future education guaranteed.
During his schooldays Schubert formed friendships that he was to maintain for the rest of his life. After his voice broke in 1812, he was offered, as expected, a scholarship to enable him to continue his general education, but he chose, instead, to train as a primary school teacher, while devoting more time to music and, in particular, to composition, the art to which he was already making a prolific contribution. In 1815 he was able to join his father as an assistant teacher, but showed no great aptitude or liking for the work. Instead he was able to continue the earlier friendships he had formed at school and form new acquaintances. His meeting in 1816 with Franz von Schober allowed him to accept an invitation to live in the latters apartment, an arrangement that relieved him of the necessity of earning his keep in the schoolroom. In August 1817 he returned home again, when room was needed by Schober for his dying brother, and resumed his place, for the moment, in the classroom. The following summer he spent in part at Zseliz in Hungary as music tutor to the two daughters of Count Johann Karl Esterházy von Galánta, before returning to Vienna to lodge with a new friend, the poet Johann Mayrhofer, an arrangement that continued until near the end of 1820, after which Schubert spent some months living alone, now able to afford the necessary rent.
By this period of his life it seemed that Schubert was on the verge of solid success as a composer and musician. Thanks to his friends, in particular the older singer Johann Michael Vogl, a schoolfriend of Mozarts pupil Süssmayr, Leopold von Sonnleithner and others, his music was winning an audience. There was collaboration with Schober on a new opera, later rejected by the Court Opera, but in other respects his name was becoming known as a composer beyond his immediate circle. He lodged once again with the Schobers in 1822 and 1823 and it was at this time that his health began to deteriorate, through a venereal infection that was then incurable. This illness overshadowed the remaining years of his life and was the cause of his early death. It has been thought a direct consequence of the dissolute way of life into which Schober introduced him and which for a time alienated him from some of his former friends. The following years brought intermittent returns to his fathers house, since 1818 in the suburb of Rossau, and a continuation of social life that often centred on his own musical accomplishments, and of his intense activity as a composer. In February 1828 the first public concert of his music was given in Vienna, an enterprise that proved financially successful, and he was able to spend the summer with friends, including Schober, before moving, in September, to the suburb of Wieden to stay with his brother Ferdinand, in the hope that his health might improve. Social activities continued, suggesting that he was unaware of the imminence of his death, but at the end of October he was taken ill at dinner and in the following days his condition became worse. He died on 19th November.
During Schuberts final years publishers had started to show an interest in his work. He had fulfilled commissions for the theatre and delighted his friends with songs, piano pieces and chamber music. It was with his songs, above all, that Schubert won a lasting reputation and to this body of work that he made a contribution equally remarkable for its quality as for its quantity, with settings of poems by major and minor poets, a reflection of literary interests of the period. His gift for the invention of an apt and singable melody is reflected in much else that he wrote.
In the last year of his life Schubert was involved in continuing negotiations with publishers. The previous year he had met Heinrich Albert Probst, German agent for Artaria, who had shown a positive interest in his work and was publishing the Piano Trio in E flat major, Op. 100. On 2nd October Schubert wrote to Probst for the last time, asking when the Trio was to appear and offering him settings of Heine, the Quintet in C major and three piano sonatas. Probst, however, expressed an interest only in the songs and any new piano duets. An attempt to interest Schott, with its Paris office, in his new set of Impromptus came to nothing. Schubert had intended to dedicate his three sonatas to Hummel, but they were finally published by Diabelli only in 1839, two years after Hummels death.
The three piano sonatas mentioned in Schuberts letter to Probst were all completed in September 1828. The second of these final works for the piano, the Sonata in A major, D. 959, shows the influence of Beethoven, not least in the opening bars of the first movement. The central development section makes telling use of a brief figure that only first appeared towards the end of the exposition and now assumes considerable importance, before the return of the opening material in recapitulation. The second movement, marked Andantino, related in its key, F sharp minor, and lilt to Schuberts setting of his friend Schobers Pilgerweise, is interrupted by a tempestuous central section, before the opening mood is restored in a varied version of the principal theme. The Scherzo, again suggesting Beethovens handling of the form, frames a D major Trio, while the final Rondo offers a principal theme that recalls the secondary theme of the slow movement of the Sonata in A minor, D. 537, written eleven years before. The mood is that of a Schubert song, although the main theme is immediately varied in a more elaborate and less vocal form, to return in various guises between intervening contrasting episodes.
The Sonata in C major, D. 840, left unfinished and known as Reliquie, was started in the spring of 1825. In 1839 Schuberts brother Ferdinand gave the manuscript to Schumann and it was finally published in 1861, when it acquired its unfortunate title. The first two movements were completed, the third movement Trio is complete, but the Scherzo itself breaks off before the return of the main theme. The final Rondo, a form that offered Schubert problems of discipline that he found difficult to meet, ends after 272 not very convincing bars. The first movement opens with a theme reflected in the following Sonata in A minor, D. 845, and attention has been drawn to the almost orchestral conception of the sonatas, which immediately preceded work on the Great C major Symphony. The second subject first appears in less probable keys, and there is high drama in the central development, before the final recapitulation, in varied form. The C minor Andante starts hesitantly, with strong dynamic contrasts before the introduction of a contrasting section in A flat major. There is further drama as both elements return in varied form, before the final re-establishment of the original key and theme.
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SCHUBERT: Piano Sonatas, D. 959 and D. 840, 'Reliq...