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

During 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."

But "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)

By 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.

To admire 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.

So 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 impudent dedication.  

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)

Beethoven 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 major.  

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.  

It 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.

Lasting 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 to describe.
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.)
Beneath 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.