Review Summary: "Truly in Schubert there is the divine spark".
For the entirety of the 19th century Schubert’s Sonata in Bb Major was considered to be a poor representation of the composer’s music. The ever opinionated 19th century romantic composer and music critic Robert Schumann had this to say about Schubert’s last three sonatas, “they ripple along from page to page as if without end, never in doubt as to how to continue”. He continues, lamenting Schubert’s “voluntary renunciation of shining novelty, where he usually sets himself such high standards.” Schumann’s criticisms seem to fit with much of the negative attitude towards the Bb. In fact, the dismissive attitude towards Schubert’s last sonatas persisted well into the 20th century. Only with the writings of famed music critic Donald Tovey and the performances of the Bb by Artur Schnabel and Eduard Erdmann, both around the late 1920s, did the public opinion about Schubert’s sonatas, especially the Bb Major, begin to change.
Schubert conceived of his last three sonatas, the first in C minor, the second in A Major, and the final in Bb Major, as a trilogy. Motivic material and similar harmonic modulations are thread throughout each piece. As it happens, Schubert composed the sonatas in cyclic form, one of the hallmark features of 19th century romantic music, where music is continually returned to before its final resolution. While the entirety of each sonata, from movement one of the C minor to movement IV of the Bb, comprises a cyclic form writ large, each sonata itself is a self-contained cyclic unit.
Movement I of Schubert’s final sonata, composed in a three-key exposition sonata form, features what’s come to be known as Schubert’s “magical” modulations. Theme one begins straightaway manipulating our sense of time as if the piece had already begun. Without an introduction we first notice the tempo, molto moderato, which gives the piece a sense of inner stillness and freedom from pain. The melody, supported by an ostinato bass in the tonic, begins on the pickup to measure one with a tranquill quarter note diatonic onenote descend and three note ascend landing on D. The pickup to the third measure brings the melody to the dominant, F major, that then floats above the bass, passing through Eb Major, Bb Major, and then back to the dominant. In measure 8 we come to an off key trill in Gb after a momentary quarter note rest, a pause of the kind which Shubert utilizes throughout the movement to produce an effect of temporal stasis. The trill in Gb, a far distant key from Bb, sets up Schubert’s first “magical” modulation in measure 19 where Schubert sounds the beginning of theme one’s motivic material in exactly the same tempo, this time in Gb, and seemingly without any preparation.
Harmonic manipulation of this kind leads to a sort of dimension transportation. Without being treated delicately, modulations without preparation come off as crudely juxtaposed. Yet, measure 8’s Gb trill prepares our ear for the new realm. Schubert utilizes such tonal detachment to manipulate our sense of time and forward movement. Even for all his profound forward thinking, Beethoven himself never explored this kind of territory.
After some dramatics in Gb, right hand scaler runs, Schubert returns to the opening material, again in Bb, but now with an anxious drum-like bass. Then, again seemingly without any preparation, Schubert introduces theme two in the ultra far key of F# minor. The choice for this key is obvious; F# and Gb are enharmonically equivalent. Theme two exists in the same temporal and contoral world as theme one, albeit with the introduction of kindred minor tonality motivic material that exists in a quasi mirror opposite world. Theme two’s motivic material, especially the syncopated downward scaler/chromatic runs sounds as if it’s holding hands with the sonorites of theme one, each existing in separate dimensions yet tethered to each other through mutual parentage and affection. Further, mid theme, Shubert abruptly shifts back to the brightness of Bb where he builds on theme two’s motivic material quickening it into a crescendo that prepares us for the third theme in F major, our rightful destination.
Schubert’s third theme covers wider territory. He begins with F major left hand triplet arpeggios that exude joyousness...briefly, as we no doubt morph back into the uneasiness of Gb. After a short excursion we sail back into a delicate cadental passage in F major. After a repetition of the major arpeggios in the left hand and further Gb uneasiness, we are taken through the exposition’s ending thematic material, four series of cadential passages blackened with chromatics which disappear as quickly as they came before the passages settle into the stillness of crystal clear sonorities. But, before returning back to the beginning of the exposition for the customary repeat, Schubert introduces nine bars of totally new and elsewhere unrepeated material that somehow does not stilt the music, perhaps because of their similarity in register and intervallic leaps to the Gb trill.
On the pickup to the beginning of the development Schubert introduces perhaps the work’s most “magical moment”, an unprepared modulation to C# minor, the key in which Schubert develops the first and third themes, and a modulation which prepares our ear for the development of the second theme in Db major, later in the movement. Schubert now takes us through a crescendo of thematic material in which he manipulates rhythm, tempo and key, the big three, before landing us back to the safety of the recapitulation. Or so we think. The first theme is developed, again! This time Schubert cycles the theme through the closely related keys of Bb major and D minor, the juxtaposition of which elevates the already lofty material. Moving on, in the recapitulation, the sonata principle is fulfilled when theme three and the concluding material are sounded in the tonic.
As is a favorite occupation of musicologists, pianist and scholar Charles Fisk sees the last three sonatas a psychological statement. He suggests that the sonatas, “portray a protagonist going through successive stages of alienation, banishment, exile, and eventual homecoming [in the Bb].”
The impulse to search for answers to questions that may have never existed is certainly a feature of interest in the composer and his late music. In fact, some 20th century scholars have argued that Schubert’s last sonatas should rank with Beethoven’s, arguing that, at the very least, they effortlessly mimic The Master’s style while retaining their own distinct sense of style and compunction, quite like the relationship between Beethoven’s first sonatas and Mozart’s last. Whatever one thinks of such a sentiment, Schubert’s final sonata certainly deserves praise, continuing scholarship, and performance.