Schubert the Radical
History has given us a somewhat false impression of Schubert: Because he chose to focus on lieder, chamber music, and piano repertoire, he can often seem familiar, domesticated, and down-to-earth. Yet despite working on that small scale, he totally radicalized the piano sonata, song cycle, and string quartet. As the sociopolitical strictures rose during the 1820s after Napoleon's liberal campaigns, music was forced indoors. The advent of Hausmusik—household performance—appears snug and uncomplicated to modern eyes and ears, but works such as Winterreise and the final triptych of piano sonatas challenge such descriptions.
Despite Schubert's considerable talents, it was to his chagrin that he was working at the same time and in the same city as Beethoven. At Beethoven's funeral in 1827, for which Schubert was a pallbearer, playwright Franz Grillparzer asked the congregation, "Who would stand beside him?" In terms of symphonies, operas, and other large-scale works within the public sphere, Schubert could offer little to support his claims. Yet within the private realm, he was just as radical as Beethoven. Instead of the philosophical boldness of his elder's tonally moving forms, Schubert proffered a more fractured, emotionally bare sound world. This was his heartfelt response to shifting circumstances and a somewhat troubled personal life. If Beethoven made statements on a global scale—paean to brotherhood and sisterhood at the end of his Ninth Symphony, for example—Schubert responded in more modest, but equally honest terms.
Schubert's humbled statements were a product of their time. In Vienna, Napoleon's broadminded (if ultimately egotistical) politics didn't last for long. The State Chancellor and Foreign Minister Count von Metternich instituted a period of sober conservatism with which Schubert has been indelibly and often erroneously associated. Pictures of happy families in light-flooded rooms became the hallmark of what was later known as the Biedermeier era: This period saw a collective cross-cultural taming of Romanticism's more feral impulses. However, despite authorities' preference of intimate sociability to heroic individuality, Schubert radicalized the domestic spaces in which music was performed. During the final summer of his life, his hushed extremism invaded the piano sonata genre.
Schubert at the Piano
Schubert was a highly proficient pianist. He pushed beyond traditional dynamics and textures, for example, designating fortississimo markings in the score and composing washes of highly virtuosic passages. Though the piano works were conceived for entertainment or pedagogical purposes, they were moving towards the richer, darker sound world of Winterreise and the "Death and the Maiden" String Quartet.
Such dark harmonies and themes emerged partly in response to Schubert's failing health. In early 1824, Schubert confessed to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser that the venereal disease he had contracted the previous year was having a drastic impact on both his emotional and physical wellbeing:
Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing, to whom the joy of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, at best, whose enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for all things beautiful threatens to vanish, and ask yourself, is he not a miserable, unhappy being?
Despite these grave circumstances, Schubert continued to approach his music with seemingly boundless energy. His final year, 1828, was no exception. He composed many songs, as well as a string quintet and his three piano sonatas. This final triptych, composed just two months before he died, goes beyond anything that Schubert had previously achieved. Although the sonatas remain resolutely abstract, there can be no doubt to their often contradictory richness and unique emotional landscape. When they were finally published in 1838, they paved the way for the even more dramatic language of Schumann, Liszt, and the Second Viennese School.
Sonata in C Minor, D. 958
Schubert begins his C-Minor Sonata with a Beethovenian gesture. Quoting the opening of his colleague's 1806 Variations for Piano, the first movement is a staggeringly austere retort to coziness. The hymn-like second subject momentarily calms the nervous energy, but the development section is outlandish in its exploration of textures and keys. Vast swathes of chromatic scales and quick-fire changes challenge the calm second subject and the coda ends in agitation.
Although the Adagio echoes the tranquil second subject of the first movement, it also has a more extreme core. The anxiety that Schubert was unable to cage comes to the forefront with a hammering stream of triplets. No more settled is the minuet and trio: Although the dance has its roots in courtly life, this is a breathless jig. The uneven phrase lengths, bizarre harmonic diversions, and uncanny silences provide a ghostly edge. The waltzing trio section starts as a charming dance, but the harmonic palate of the second section is downright perverse. Schubert repeatedly offers radical solutions within traditional forms.
Nothing, however, prepares the listener for the tarantella finale. Although Schubert remains anchored to sonata form, the sharp diversions into neighboring but distant keys create a schizophrenic haze. Rhythmic ambiguities on the final pages destabilize the listener even further.
Sonata in A Major, D. 959
After the torrid C-Minor Sonata, the A-Major offers a bridge to the warmer, lyrical style of the B-flat work. Despite a somewhat brusque opening, Schubert carves out a reserved first subject. It veers into more distant terrain that presages extreme dynamic contrasts before settling into the rapt second subject. This theme also has a more aggressive side, and later passages break down into jagged fragments. The development section swings incautiously between C major and B major—often within the space of just a few bars—before the recapitulation explores further textural and harmonic possibilities.
The ensuing Andantino is one of Schubert's most affecting compositions. Slow but certain in its melancholy, the strident accents and heartrending chromaticism add to the effect. What at first appears to be a brief spiral of notes becomes a major diversion. Crunching dissonances and sudden bursts of energy make for a disorienting central section. The return of the initial theme is unable to restore calm, though a repeated note in the right hand feels oddly restive.
Regaining propriety, the Scherzo adheres to strict two-bar phrases. A more rhapsodic second section unleashes another flood of notes, though the harmonic palate remains moderate. The presence of a lone staccato note in the right hand of the trio recalls that strange repetition in the Andantino, but the finale puts this nervousness to rest with one of Schubert's most conciliatory movements.
Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
The final piano sonata begins with a warm whisper; this is the cozy Schubert that history would have us know. But just as soon as the theme is established, it is undercut by an ominous trill. The theme returns, but the trill burns through again and pushes the music into G-flat major. Having been wedded to the tonic in the finale of the A-Major Sonata, Schubert now refuses to stay put. The return to B-flat major never settles, and the whole exposition unfolds like an epic fantasy. The development is just as mercurial and charts a particularly aching section in D minor. The recapitulation explores even further before returning to that tender theme with its menacing trilling counterpart.
The Andante sostenuto's heartfelt melody, played in thirds, gives way to a more energetic middle section. Here, the texture is thicker and richer, harking back to the first movement. The final two movements put a brave face on proceedings. The Scherzo is a chirruping dance; harmonically courageous, it is unmoved by the foreboding motifs of the preceding music. Although the trio delves into a brooding B-flat minor, it cannot disturb the joyful mood. The finale starts with a similarly broad grin. But there's something impermanent about the music, and Schubert constantly denies a homecoming. The repeated G octave in the left hand presents a series of milestones, but it similarly bars the way to B-flat major. Like the boundless energy of the C-Minor Sonata, the Allegro ma non troppo movement protests too much. The presto coda is a manic display of energy over emotion; the ambiguity in the writing betrays Schubert's hidden fears under the surface bravura of his final sonata.