In the Shadow of a Giant: Notes on Schubert's Piano Sonatas in A minor and B-flat major, D. 845 and D. 960
by Vitlaus von Horn
his short life, Schubert was always in the shadow of Beethoven.
We do not think of them this way—differences in age—but they were,
quite literally, contemporaries, and died only a year apart.
Beethoven's reputation was secure even during his life; Schubert had no
reputation to speak of during his short life. But even after his
songs and symphonies were acknowledged as among the best that Western
music had produced, his piano works were treated as poor
relations. They were relegated to "non-virtuoso" pianists, such
as Artur Schnabel, whose teacher remarked that, since he was not going
to play a lot of Liszt, he should acquaint himself with sonatas by
Schubert. "You will never be a pianist; you are a musician."
"musicians" always knew they had something very special in their
hands. Through their efforts, begun, incidentally, by the
ultimate "pianist-musician" of them all—Franz Liszt—Schubert's
reputation improved so much during the 20th century that today he is
considered one of the greatest of the greatest, and his mature piano
sonatas rival those of his biggest, his only rival—LvB.
Sonata in A minor, D. 845 (1825)
the year 1825, when Schubert wrote his A minor sonata, Beethoven had
just completed the Ninth Symphony (1824) and had not yet written his
last string quartets. The Giant stood over Schubert for two of
the three years Schubert was destined to live. Giant's shadow was
cast over Schubert even after Beethoven was gone.
Beethoven is obvious, but to imitate him, as was perceptively noted by
Glenn Gould, is impossible, and therefore pointless. So Schubert
avoids that trap. Nothing in the A minor sonata gives any hint
that it follows Beethoven's conclusive words in this genre—his last
three piano sonatas (1820-22). (Schubert will give his homage to
Beethoven in his last three sonatas of 1828, but about
this—later.) Instead, Schubert takes a different path—that laid
out in his songs and charming Marches Militaires, which provide most of the strikingly original "book-end" material in the sonata.
far, so good, but then comes audacity. Schubert dedicates the
Sonata to Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven's patron. Beethoven
dedicated a dozen of his works to the Archduke (one can immediately
recall, for example, the "Archduke" Trio), and, in addition to being
his patron, Rudolf was Beethoven's composition student, and a damn good
one. So, in dedicating his Sonata to the Archduke, Schubert is
butting his head into an established relationship of Very Big Boys (of
which he was not one), and also inviting certain comparisons.
That shows a certain chutzpah.
Perhaps Schubert does not
care, for he is already sick, although it is doubtful he expects to die
so soon, at 31. Be it as it may, the A minor Sonata (published as
his "First," although it was preceded by many earlier piano sonatas,
including some near great ones, not to mention the Wanderer Fantasy)
turns out to be one of Schubert's greatest works, worthy of its
It is somewhat death-obsessed. Perceptive commentators noted that, in Schubert's song "Totengräbers Heimweh"
(Gravediggers Longing), a melodic passage related to the principal
subject of the Sonata, carries the words "Abandoned by all, cousin only
to death, I wait at the brink, staring longingly into the grave."
This motive—the opening phrase of the Sonata—carries through the entire
first movement, but Death does not win without a struggle; a
different thematic material—a marche militaire,
which later turns into a dance—puts up a mighty resistance to the
"Death Motive." One does not march to the grave under the sounds
of a military march (unless it is Mahler, who paid homage to Schubert's
other, "Little" A-minor sonata in his Sixth Symphony), so the entire
movement is, in essence, a struggle between Death and Life. Death
wins at the end, though, as it always does.
The rest of the Sonata consists of a charming set of variations, a scherzo, and a finale that brings back the marche militaire motives. The variations begin with a charming menuet,
and proceed uneventfully, with the exception of a dramatic outburst in
the middle of the movement. The Scherzo lives up to its literal
name—a joke—providing a wild and humorous contrast with the rest of the
Sonata, while bringing its own contrast—the middle section of the
Scherzo is a Schubertian song. The Finale is a moto perpetuo—not
of a virtuosic variety, as in Weber's First Sonata ("a four-minute mile
for pianists")—but a melancholy one, which breaks into military march
music every now and then, but can never quite make up its mind.
On this ambiguity, the Sonata ends. Schubert has three years left
to resolve this ambiguity.
Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960 (1828)
dies in 1827, but Schubert continues the struggle with his
shadow. Is he Beethoven's heir-apparent, as he seemed to have
implied by dedicating his "First" Sonata to Archduke Rudolf?
Except for one unsuccessful attempt (Schubert chickened out), Schubert
never dared to approach Beethoven when he was alive, but he did pay his
respects in being one of Beethoven's pall-bearers at his funeral.
Just as Beethoven concluded his traversal of the piano sonata form with
his last three sonatas—Opp. 109, 110, and 111—so does Schubert.
Moreover, he begins his final trilogy (Sonata in C minor) with a
blatant, undisguised, plagiarism—a reference to Beethoven's "32
Variations in C minor." But, having given Beethoven his due, and,
perhaps, thinking of himself as having been liberated from the Shadow's
omnipresence, the following sonatas of the Schubert cycle become less
and less "Beethoven-like", and more and more "Schubert-like,"
culminating in his final and ultimate masterpiece, Sonata in B-flat
And yet, although the most "Schubertian" of the late sonatas, the Shadow still looms over it, the Commendatore
demanding the final handshake. At least two of the four movements
of the Sonata contain unmistakable references to Beethoven.
The first movement is based on a song-like theme reminiscent of the
"Archduke" Trio of the Shadow, both in its song-like calmness and the
key. The main theme of the Finale is another near plagiarism—this
time of Beethoven's "afterthought" finale of Quartet Op. 130,
containing the same chord progression, the same key, and the same
joke. It is as if, the harder Schubert strives to shake off the
ghost of Beethoven from his music, the less he succeeds.
is not to say, though, that this fusion results in a failure. Far
from it. Whether in spite of it, or because of it, Schubert
creates his greatest piano work in his last sonata. "Heavenly
lengths," is how Robert Schumann, a music critic of some note,
described Schubert's works. Nowhere does this label fit better
than to Schubert's B-flat major sonata. Commentators always wax
poetic with platitudes about "autumnal beauty," "otherworldliness," and
"anguish," when writing about this Sonata—except they are not mere platitudes.
almost three quarters of an hour, with the first movement exceeding
twenty minutes—the length of a short symphony or a to-the-point piano
concerto (the entire Prokofiev No. 1 lasts only sixteen minutes)—this
Sonata calls for an effort on the part of both the performer and the
listener. Yet, the reward is riches beyond the ability of words
The performer's challenge lies in sustaining
interest in a gorgeous, but static work, which, on the surface,
contains almost no contrasts. Most of the twenty-minute first
movement is marked piano; nearly the entire ten-minute second
movement is piano; the short third-movement scherzo is—you guessed
it—piano, and only in the humorous finale—part gallop, part song—do
the dynamics rise to the level of forte.
This presents a
challenge for the listener as well. We come to concerts expecting
to be entertained. We do not come expecting to float in nirvana,
or in the depths of self-created hell. Yet this is what Schubert
offers us. It is, therefore, a challenge of altering
expectations. If you come expecting to reach a catharsis, you
won't be disappointed! (And don't hesitate to close your eyes.)
the surface, the contrasts in this Sonata are as great as in any
Beethoven piece—but they are of a different kind. These contrasts
are so subtle that, without being alerted to them, one is likely to
miss them. For example, the entire magnificent edifice of the
first movement is based on the contrast of a song-like main theme (a
nod toward the "Archduke" Trio) with a menacing trill in the bass,
which disrupts the first theme—a song—in the very first line.
This is different from Beethoven. He works with motives—but
Schubert works with images. The trill is structural—it occurs at
the main divisions of the form, as well as meaningful—it creates a
conflict throughout the movement, which never resolves—for the menacing
trill appears in the very last line of the movement as well.
Always menacing, always quiet—just once this trill explodes in a
fortissimo anger, before the repeat of the exposition. It is such
subtle details that allow Schubert to sustain a slow and quiet piece
for some twenty minutes. Only the Shadow before him was arrogant
enough to attempt something like this.
The second movement
is another Schubert stunner. In the last year of his life, when
this Sonata was written, he returned to his idea of a "nocturne"—a
night song—several times. However, as opposed to Chopin, who
wrote sad, soulful, and emotional nocturnes, Schubert's Nocturne is an
affair of whispered despair, totally obsessive, the expressive quality
of which comes from the ostinato
rhythm that never changes, and the cries of anguish in this night song
never go above a whisper (by that time Schubert must have suspected he
didn't have much longer to live).
The third movement is a
Scherzo that transforms into an elegant Ländler (predecessor of the
waltz), only to fade away with another whisper.
Only in the last
movement does Schubert let loose. Having had enough of nirvana
and anguish, he goes for a joke: the movement starts in the
"wrong" key, creating a humorous effect when it returns to the "right"
key on the next line. And here again not without the
Shadow—Beethoven's last completed work, an afterthought quartet finale
he wrote instead of the insufferable and cardboard-dry Grosse Fuge—contains
the same joke, and even in the same key. Schubert uses this
"wrong key" joke every time the main theme comes back, and only on the
last page he allows the theme to begin in the "right" key, indicating
that the joke—and the piece—is over. This delicious half-gallop,
half-song, with occasional dramatic outbursts, provides the other
bookend to Schubert's greatest piano sonata. The ambiguity is
resolved. Acceptance has been reached. Less than two months
after completing his final piano romp, Schubert was dead.