Franz Schubert. Part 3 - His musical language in some of his piano sonatas.

Aktualisiert: 9. Juni

o.Univ.-Prof. Manfred Wagner-Artzt

Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien


Welcome back. First, I would like to recapitulate what we have realized as special means, Schubert uses in his Lieder. There is first:

  • the expression of wandering as an unescapable proceeding in life, usually expressed by repeating permanently the same patterns

  • long unison phrases

  • changements of the mode major / minor

  • unusual length of phrases

  • unexpected changements of the key without any modulation

  • breaks and unfinished phrases

  • open endings with not anymore clearly definable harmonies

  • long chromatic structures to increase tension

  • unusual key characteristics, e.g. D major as the expression of highest pain

Now when we come to the sonatas, we will find quite similar means but some additional ones. First of all, very interesting in Schubert’s sonatas, we can find it nearly in each sonata, are the

  • general pauses – breaking a phrase followed by a general pause

  • what’s also characteristic is his using very strange registers sometimes, very high, very low

  • extreme dynamic signs

  • accentuated dissonances – not only marked with a sf but additionally with an accent >

  • emballishments as a means to express a scary, frightening atmosphere

  • the system of dialogue

  • and – for me very important – is what I call „escaping to a dream-world“. We have sometimes in Schubert’s sonatas a break, followed by a completely different atmosphere, which is somehow for me „dreamy“ in the sense of escaping to a „better“ world, when destiny seems to become unbearable.

In this connection I would like to mention that it seems that many of these facts are obvious but the view of these facts of course is my personal one. Everybody can find a lot of other interpretations, of other meanings of these characteristics in Schubert’s music.

Now let’s go to the first example which comes from the a minor sonata D 537. We find this part, I am going to play, in the first movement and it’s the beginning of the development. What means does Schubert use in this sonata? First we have these suspensions, repeated four times .

even underlined with an accent on the first note. Than he repeats the same group of bars one note lower, than a third time. Finally we come to this part where the left hand goes very high up to e flat 2 – it’s like crying. We know this from human beings, when our voice becomes very excited we speak higher and this is the highest point of excitement. Than he breaks,

there remain only fragments anymore. And than this general pause! We expect something like f minor or F major but he continues with the dominant of A flat major! For me this means: when all this despair becomes unbearable Schubert „escapes“ to a kind of dream-world.

The next example comes from the same sonata: It’s the beginning of the third movement.

Maybe you are surprised, that I play the quarter-note a little bit longer than most of the pianists. But I think that the general pause afterwards needs a little ritenuto before. It’s the sigh-motiv, so I put a little bit more weight on this note. We have three attempts all three starting with the same motif in unison. It stops always in the middle of the phrase, followed by a general pause. The second start ends with a neapolitan sixth chord. Again he stops and quite like a resignation he falls back to a minor. And than comes the third attempt. Now we have reached A major, but as if Schubert could not believe that he really will find the exit of this sad atmosphere, we have again a general pause. Only than starts the A major part.

The next example is very interesting. It comes from the f minor sonata D 625 which is rarely to be heard. In the third movement we have a writing which reminds us somehow of Beethoven and Chopin, but Schubert was the first one, I explain this later. It’s astonishing: We have this long unison phrases.

Of course we have it also for example in Beethoven’s sonata op.111

but this was written five years later. And also we have it in Chopin’s Etude in c minor the so called „revolutionary etude“,

or in the fourth movement in his b flat minor sonata.

On the other hand I have to mention, that nor Beethoven nor Chopin could have known this sonata of Schubert because it was only edited in the nineties of the 19th century. So it is astonishing, that the language is very similar. However, the expression is perhaps somehow similar to the fourth movement of Chopin’s sonata, but it is a very special kind of expression because of the ending: Completely surprising this unexpected F major in piano, again for me an escape to a dream-world.

Now we come to the so called small A major sonata D 664. This sonata is often mentioned as a very cheerful sonata, but for me it’s only on the surface again. We can listen to „clouds“ already at the end of the conclusion-part in the exposition.

This diminished ninth chord in the 5th bar of our example is not at all cheerful. The beginning of the development is very gruesome for me. It’s like seeking without knowing exactly what. And this uncertainty is the preparation for the following desperate explosion.