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

Aktualisiert: 9. Juni 2022

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.

So this is not at all cheerful! And when we look to the conclusion-part of the recapitulation there are even more of these clouds, this darkness

For me there is an enormous sadness in this part. First we have again this ninth chord (bar 125) and than it stops, just with an eight note followed by a general pause, restarting in pp with a diminished chord and a deceptive cadence.

The second movement takes the last notes of the first movement: the suspension b to a. Now we have a very quiet atmosphere, somehow like in a lullaby but it is interrupted in the seventh bar. I have mentioned this already in another video, but I have to repeat it here once more.

The whole movement is based on this sigh-motif. But what’s really exciting in this movement is that also in this movement we can feel this sadness and desparation and these splitted emotions as e.g. in the incredible changements of dynamics.

First we have always accents. And the climax is in D major. If we remember D major in the „Doppelganger“ there it seems to express the highest point of his pain. So maybe this place is also painful? All the way it’s unusual that after this one bar in forte there comes suddenly a piano, and pp in minor now.

When we continue, this is for me an extremely deep expression of sadness. It seems to change to major, but this major is even more sad for me than minor because of this b flat. Than suddenly, completely unexpected, the phrase is interrupted. He changes again to D major and to another register. And even at the end we can feel oncemore a cloud (in this ninth chord with b flat).Let’s come to the sonata in a minor D 845, written in May 1825.

At the beginning we have a dialogue between two bars unison and afterwards a choral setting. It is very interesting because exactly one month before he has written the C major sonata,

and it seems that he has tried this idea there for the first time because also in the C major sonata the beginning is in unison followed by a choral setting. What is full of melancholic is that in the a minor sonata he changes immediately afterwards to a ninth interval. This is a very important interval in this sonata as we can hear already some bars later. We have a development at the beginning which is really frightening. We have also one additional bar (bar 9) and a similar effect as we know it from the introduction of the Lied „Das Wirtshaus“ for instance.

He enlarges this phrase, than there comes an unison but in two phases while the left hand is repeating permanently the same octaves. We have syncopations, a fz on these syncopations, and then breaking chords. Now starts the main motif, destiny-like, a motif which is somehow a little bit similar to the main motif of the fifth symphony by Beethoven.

One of the most expressive moments in music at all is for me the coda of the first movement of this sonata. He starts in a very low register unison, always with this short ornament, which is somehow very strange, - frightening emballishments.

Next attempt in a higher register. And than comes this oppressive line with ff and the „destiny-symbol in the left hand – suddenly again: a general pause. And than only one voice with this triton.

What an expression in this one note! Full of melancholy. Third attempt again starting and than come this endless rising chords.

One could think that he as already reached the climax in bar 292-293 followed by b flat minor. But no, he continues. And listen to this high register! It’s again this crying voice, full of despair, full of pain. Than breaking chords followed by a four voices unison.

For me it sounds like the trombones of Jericho. Finally, two apodictic chords: No escape from destiny!

Now we have a very famous example from the fourth movement of the c minor sonata D 958,

where Schubert is changing the key completely unexpected. But some bars before we have already an interesting motif, because we have it in the left hand through 28 bars. It’s always the same pattern, even that he changes the notes. Very strange: He ends with a dominant seventh chord and we expect now e flat minor or E flat major. But after this general pause he continues in B major! And than follows a wonderful phrase which sounds like coming from paradise.

Another extremely expressive moment in music we can hear in the „big“ A major sonata D 959 in the second movement. We have a long chromatic line upwards, increasing tension.

And then starts a dialogue. To me it seems like a dialogue between Schubert and God.

What are the characteristics here? After this long chromatic line we have breaking chords. And now starts a begging, praying, which is roughly refused. Second try. This time chromatic line is falling. Again, these apodictic chords – no discussion! (here in D major). Somehow a kind of resignation – but no! It becomes very emotional, very intensive, and finally we can feel something like reconciliation or pity. It reminds me somehow of the dialogue between Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle in Mussorgsky’s „Pictures at an exhibition“. It’s a little bit the same atmosphere and also Mussorgsky is in this piece on the „way“ to expressionism.

Now we come to the so called „last sonata“ in B flat major D 960. We know in the meantime, that Schubert has written these three sonatas at the same time. For instance, he has started with the third movement of the B flat major sonata. This has been proved by the ETH Zurich by analyses of the paper and the ink. Then at the end there came first the first movement of the A major than the first of B flat major sonata and the last movement of these three sonatas composed was the second movement of the A major sonata of which we just have heard the middle-part. So nevertheless, these are the three last sonatas of Schubert. The B flat major is often described as the most peaceful sonata. But when we listen to the end of the first movement I think this is one of the craziest parts in Schubert’s music.

Already at the beginning four chords – break – three chords – break - two chords, a very high register and a very low one in the left hand. And then follows for me one of the strangest moments, this E flat major element with staccato – like Bajazzo laughing. It’s not a happy, it’s a gruesome embittered laughing. Only fragments are remaining, there are no whole phrases anymore. Once more – break. Now again three chords, with a ninth chord. Listen to the g flat in bar 339! Than the same chords, but one quarter-note later in the bar. Before we have had it on „one“ and afterwards we have it on „two“. This underlines even more this dissonant harmony because it seems that the third chord comes too early. Finally we have this wonderful theme a last time with this trill in the left hand – shudder!

And then: What an idea to continue in c sharp minor after B flat major! This changement of harmonies reminds me a little bit of the „Wegweiser“ in the „Winterreise“: An unbelievable strong moment of expression!

The second movement is for me one of the saddest pieces of Schubert. Again we can find this idea of „wandering“, permanently – endless bars with the same rhythmical motif. The right hand, the melody, is written in very small intervals, what expresses a kind of narrowness. And then comes once more this praying character (bar 9). The rhythm in the left hand remains still the same, an ostinato-line, which – to my mind – gives this piece a most depressive character.

The last examples I want to show you are from the first and the second movement of the c minor sonata. Concerning the first movement we have already spoken about the so called „Atlas-motif“, fighting against destiny, and bearing the whole pain of the world on his shoulders.

Now comes the same phrase once more

This is the same phrase like the first 6 bars, just it became very nervous now. Only two notes bound by a bow together, and in the left hand the movement is not „smoothy“ (with f) but excited with f sharp which does not belong to c minor. Later we have the same changement to a flat (bar 27) – again this escaping to a dream-world after this nervous uncertainty of before. Very interesting is also the development of the two quarter-notes.

At the beginning full of decision, of anger, later changed to a lamenting suspension (above left example). The third appearance is in this what I call „dream-world“, also a completely different character (below left). And at the end of this first theme of the exposition we have again an aggressive, revolting moment. The first note is just ein eight and the second note is a quarter note with a fz. Here we can very well see how emotions develope within a few bars, it’s a whole story of a men’s feeling in this short part. The second part begins after a general pause in e flat major .

And then we have two variations with a completely different character (second example, bar 48). What makes this movement so nervous? It’s the left hand because he writes a completely unexpected articulation. Normally we would bind the first two notes, but he wants us to bind from the third note of the triplet to the first and second note of the next triplet. This creates a very restless atmosphere. In the third appearance we have a staccato in the left hand which is a very toccata-like style.

Also very interesting is the changement of the key.

We are in E flat major and then changing suddenly to D flat major. And he makes the same changements in the first variation (second line, bar 60). He even uses the same pedal point in the left hand. But we have a second melodic line now in the left hand of the first variation.

Finally, we come to the second movement of the c minor sonata. The first thing which is interesting is, that Schubert wrote „Adagio“. This marking he used very rarely. I was told that it exists only four times in his compositions. First, I want to compare the three appearances of the first theme. At the beginning it’s like a choral

We have this very strange 64th-notes – creating a very gruesome atmosphere, not at all fitting with the quiet peaceful atmosphere of the beginning. So again, we have to levels of expression. After the first 8 bars he repeats more or less the same melodical line but in another kind of setting, he uses now a higher register and a close position. Surprise in bar 12: we have again more or less undefinable harmonies: D flat major – g flat minor – and back to D flat major. So, we have to decide: Is g flat minor the (minor) subdominant of D flat major, or is D flat major the dominant of g flat minor. As he continuous with A flat major, we have to think that this is the subdominant of D flat major. It’s the situation as we have found in the „Doppelgänger“ in the last bars where we expect a solution to e minor, which does not come. Fascinating how Schubert uses this possibility of leaving harmonies completely open. He repeats this, and then again: changement of the register. This was the first appearance. The second one sounds like this:

As in the first movement we now have triplets in the left hand but this time the articulation is as we are used to. However, this too brings a quite restless character into this phrase, although the right hand remains completely the same as at the beginning. And then we have again this changement in the register, but now follows an additional bar – a half note higher.

We are now in D major and he continuous in A major. The third appearance is again in this character of wandering, of not being able to escape the way of life, symbolized by the left hand going on like a clockwork. He even wrote especially „ senza pedale“, what makes this place very difficult to play, because we have this great chords in the right hand. And the melody-line is still the same, but now embedded

So we have a completely different appearance of the theme although the theme itself has not at all changed. The greatest emotion is at the end, when there comes the second part of this theme, because here we are unable to say which key Schubert uses

We have now a f flat and a g flat, which does not fit at all with A flat major. A very misterious moment and he underlines it with ppp, a sign which he rarely used. We change to a flat minor and change enharmonically to C major, again with this ambivalence between f minor – C major, dominant or subdominant. From now on he is seeking. We can hear again f minor b flat major. Than he changes from the upper register to the low register, and it seems that he has reached the aim – A major. But he breaks the phrase, general pause, and than falls back, full of desperation, to A flat major.

The next thing I want to show you are the so called „bridges“ from the first to the second theme. In the first part Schubert wrote

The second part sounds completely different, because he uses a counter-subject, which becomes the more and more dominant.

Again he writes „senza pedale“. This counter-subject in staccato is put against the legato-line in the right hand. Than he changes the voices. The counter-subject goes to the right hand. And the third appearance is with full chords in ff and each chord in the right hand has additionally an accent. Again, when the whole atmosphere becomes unbearable, when he is not able to suffer anymore, Schubert „escapes“ – this time to B flat major.

And the last example I want to show you, is from the second theme. For a long time people did not understand, why he wrote two different dynamics in the first and in the second appearance of this part. There were even editions which adapted the dynamic signs, but it’s very logical what Schubert wrote, he exactly knew what he did. The first part sounds like this

We have this pp and then a sudden ffz on a weak beat in the bar, but not only a ffz also an accent on this dissonant chord. And not enough yet there we can find a crescendo to the next bar. In the second appearance of this part it’s completely different, not anymore revolting or fighting against destiny. The second version is pure weakness and resignation.

Now we have only a simple sfz and afterwards a diminuendo to the next bar, second time again sfz and diminuendo and then there is a very surprising ending (bar 93): An additional bar, with a changement of the key without any modulation and a choral-setting, as in the beginning of the movement.

I hope I could give some impressions about what I feel in the music of Schubert. I think many aspects are clear because we can see them in the music. Of course, as I have said already before, the interpretation is my personal own, but maybe you will like one or the other way of thinking. All the way it’s really important to pay very much attention to what Schubert has written! There are so many details, so many small changements of emotions he expressed in music, that’s magnificent! And for me this is already expressionism. Thank you and good-bye.


o.Univ.-Prof. Manfred Wagner-Artzt

January 2022

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