An Autumn Sonata – a personal journey through Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata: the Andantino and the Scherzo

This article first appeared in The Schubertian (No 97 January 2018), the journal of The Schubert Institute (UK)

Startling contrasts – the Andantino and the Scherzo

The second movement of the Sonata in A, D959, marked Andantino, is quite unlike anything else that Schubert wrote. Described by pianist Jonathan Biss as “a composed hallucination”, it feels like an aberration in the overall scheme of this sonata, which is generally warm-hearted and nostalgic. Many people – pianists, scholars, critics, listeners – believe this movement is the clearest indication we have, in music, of Schubert’s emotional and mental instability, probably due to his advanced syphilis. Schubert had been suffering from syphilis and the unpleasant side-effects of its treatment since 1822/3, which may well have had a detrimental effect on his mental health. It is thought he also suffered from cyclothymia, a form of manic depression (his friends reported periods of dark despair and violent rage). Is the second movement of the D959 a manifestation of both depression (the opening and closing sections) and mania (the middle storm)? Does it reflect, as some have suggested, his memory of contracting syphilis, his terror of an illness which although common in early nineteenth-century Vienna was highly stigmatised, and fear of accompanying insanity, a yearning for lost happiness, and the knowledge that by 1828 he was approaching his death? Unfortunately, little evidence survives to support this view, and while such theorising may enable the performer to create a dramatically Gothic musical narrative, there is a danger one can become bogged down by all the “psychobabble”, and lose sight of what is given in the text: on first sight this movement is a Barcarolle-like folksong with a storm in the middle.

There is no doubting this music has a “desolate grace behind which madness lies” (Brendel), the lyricism of the outer sections providing a dramatic foil to the savage intensity of the middle section, and its position in the overall structure of the sonata creates a remarkable contrast between the expansive majesty of the opening movement, the quirky Scherzo which follows it, and the astonishing warmth and breadth of the Finale.

How does Schubert create such extreme music? First, the key of the second movement is curiously alien from the first – and yet it shouldn’t be because it is cast in f-sharp minor, the relative minor of A major. But the first movement avoids proper references to this harmony except for a few places towards the end of the exposition and thus the second movement seems very remote indeed.

Secondly, the sense of stasis which Schubert creates in the opening section. The movement begins with a poignant melody full of sighing gestures portrayed by descending seconds over a simple barcarolle-like accompaniment. The almost hypnotic main melody recalls ‘Der Leiermann’ from Winterreise, and Schubert creates a sense of alienation in the opening section through restrained melodic repetitions within a narrow register. The entire opening section has a dreamlike fragility and seems suffused with a sense of desolation and loss. I approach it as a simple melancholy folksong, “as if sung in exile” (Fisk), restrained in both dynamics and gesture, yet with a resonance in the right hand achieved through close contact with the keys and a “stroking” touch, and a clear sense of the articulation in the accompaniment. When the melody appears in A major, at bars 17 and 51, it feels less a consolation and more a fleeting and urgent recollection of the key of opening movement. At the end of the first section the melody recedes into darkly-hued bass chords which recall the opening sentence of the first movement. A mysterious arabesque in the RH follows, providing a link to the next section.

The middle section unfolds like a fantasia, improvisatory in character and growing ever more dramatic with extremely harsh modulations. Through bars 77 to 83, I like the RH arpeggios to sound improvised and mercurial over more emphatic bass octaves to define the downward harmonic movement. At mm 83-84, the light shines briefly through the key of C major, recalling the opening of the development of the first movement. The music continues to build with increasing savagery via extreme registers with the use of trills and note subdivisions to create and sustain tension and a feeling of pressing forward, eventually arriving at C-sharp minor and culminating in dramatic fortissimo chords. I like to contrast the Baroque restraint and formality of mm 85-88 and 94-97 with the rising hysteria and terror of the trills and triplets of mm 92-93 and 101-2, before the real melodrama and violence is unleashed at m 107 with a shrieking descent.

For the performer, this section presents a curious dichotomy. One wants to create a sense of rising hysteria and disruption, yet a clear underlying pulse is crucial throughout. In practice, I drilled the entire movement with a metronome for several weeks until the pulse was thoroughly internalised: it’s a good example of “Through discipline comes freedom.” (Aristotle)

After this climax, an operatic recitative section follows, repeatedly disrupted by sforzando chords. Again, I aim to achieve extreme contrast between the simplicity of the recitative phrases and the ferocity of the chords. Finally the turbulence of the middle section yields to a serene lyrical passage in C-sharp major, redolent of the G-flat major Impromptu (D899/3), its warm tranquillity disturbed momentarily by a bass trill (as in the Impromptu) which leads back into the opening melody, now made even more lyrical and poignant with an intricate strummed left-hand texture of semiquavers and an additional haunting triplet figure in the treble. The after-effect of the preceding violence is felt most heartrendingly in this closing section. In the final bars, there is a brief shaft of light, of hope, before the music descends into the darkest realms of f-sharp minor, the rolled chords recalling once again, in reverse motion, the opening of the first movement.

 

The dark arpeggiated sonorities at the close of the Andantino are transformed into the sparkling arpeggiated chords which open the Scherzo, and a sense of levity is portrayed through staccato articulation and a lyrical dance-like figure, which is further developed in the second section. The Scherzo serves several purposes in the overall scheme and narrative of the sonata: it provides a breath of fresh air between the Andantino and the Rondo (to omit a third movement and go straight to the finale would be too ponderous for Schubert), and through its tempo, concision and directness, highlights the breadth of the finale.

The second section of the Scherzo (m 17) begins with a LH figure redolent of the rambunctious opening of the third movement of the ‘Great’ C major Symphony and rich in ‘cello and double bass resonances. The tone here is distinctly bucolic, but the pastoral mood is disturbed by “startling flashes of irritability” (Schiff): a dramatic descending scale which recalls the middle section of the previous movement, with a reference to the desolate main melody of the Andantino in the ensuing passage. For a moment it seems as if the desolation of the previous movement has returned, but the atmosphere is quickly dispersed by a chord (m 47) before the effervescent opening theme returns. In the contrasting Trio, scored in D major, Schubert re-imagines the initial theme of the first movement with a serenity redolent of choral writing or a choir of woodwind, closing with a sequence of ethereal chords.

The opening section is then reprised via the Da Capo marking. The musicologist David Montgomery makes the case for observing all the repeats during the reprise. Like many piano students, I was taught that DC repeats should be dropped, a practice Montgomery suggests developed during the late nineteenth-century and certainly when early recordings began to be made, for reasons of limited disc or piano roll space. In the case of Scherzos or Minuets, there is almost complete agreement amongst performers that the DC repeats should be omitted (I have only heard one performance of the D959 in concert where the DC repeats were observed), regarding them as “vestigial” and unnecessary in such a diminutive movement as a Scherzo. In the case of the D959’s third movement, there is a good argument for maintaining them because 1) they make the movement longer, roughly equivalent to the Andantino, and thus create a sense of structural balance between the first and final movements and the inner movements (a “golden ratio”); 2) repeating previously heard material reiterates Schubert’s unusual harmonies and musical signposts (the same argument applies to exposition repeat in the first movement).

Following the startling contrasts of the Andantino and Scherzo, the scene is now set for the expansive finale, the subject of my final article.


Select bibliography

Brendel, Alfred, ‘Schubert’s Last Sonatas’, in Music, Sense and Nonsense: Collected   Essays and Lectures (London: The Robson Press, 2015)

Fisk, Charles, Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert’s Impromptus and Last Sonatas (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2015)

Hetenyi, G: The Terminal Illness of Franz Schubert and the Treatment of Syphilis in Vienna in the Eighteen Hundred and Twenties (Bulletin Canadien d’Histoire de Medecine, 1986 Summer;3(1):51-64.)

Montgomery, David, Franz Schubert’s Music in Performance. Compositional Ideals, Notational Intent, Historical Realities, Pedagogical Foundations (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2003)

Schiff, Andras, ‘Schubert’s Piano Sonatas: thoughts about interpretation and performance’, in Brian Newbould (ed.) Schubert Studies (Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 1998)

 

Frances Wilson is a pianist, piano teacher, writer, concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as ‘The Cross-Eyed Pianist’. Established in 2010, her blog has been described as “an important voice in the piano world” by international concert pianist Peter Donohoe and enjoys a global readership.

Frances holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas in Piano Performance (both with Distinction) and currently studies with acclaimed pianist, teacher and writer Graham Fitch.

http://www.crosseyedpianist.com

 

 

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