The publication of the Bagatelles Op. 126, in 1825, marked the end of Beethoven’s piano output, and the beginning of the composition of the five late quartets which were his final works. The same year, Schubert wrote the first of six monumental works which pushed the boundaries of the very concept of the piano sonata. Their complexity exceeds that of Schubert’s many previous sonatas, both finished and unfinished, and their size was then novel to the piano sonata. Sure, Beethoven had already written the Op. 7 and Hammerklavier sonatas, but those were exceptions to the norm. With Schubert’s last sonatas (the A minor, D. 845; D major, D. 850; G major, D. 894; and the last three sonatas—the C minor, A minor and B-flat major, D. 958-960), the piano sonata naturally acquires the scope and dimensions of a large chamber work or symphony.
The first of these is the A minor sonata, D. 845. If I were to try to encapsulate the emotional effect of its first movement in one word, I would probably use “provocation”. This word implies mostly an existing (and usually unnoticed) equilibrium that has been broken. In this case, however, I would turn this concept on its head. Listening to the opening phrase, we are offered no such equilibrium, as Schubert begins with a jagged and discontinued statement. Of these six sonatas, it is the only one that begins without a sense of clear direction. Of course, that was hardly a novelty by 1825, as just three years earlier, Beethoven had begun his final piano sonata, Op. 111, without a clear sense of having either a key or a theme. But in the case of Op. 111, the very search for a key and a theme becomes elevated and almost “consecrated” by the composer. That isn’t the case with Schubert, who wants to create in us a sense of void and deprivation.
Following a stormy and impassioned transitional section, the second theme has all the qualities we missed in the beginning—courtliness, charm, and a slight dose of Schubertian naïveté. But given how the sonata started, have we finally found that equilibrium, or are we in fact provoked by this sense of serenity? This question looms not only over the first movement, but over the entire sonata. There is, naturally, no definite answer to this question which is at the heart of the beauty and uniqueness of this sonata. And we don’t need an answer to appreciate it and to delve into its depths.
By the end of this movement, the two concepts, that of Schubert stressing the sense of void, and that of his drawing on Beethoven’s way of writing, come together in the most unexpected and fascinating way. One of the most common characteristics of Beethoven’s piano writing is the sparsity of register. Beethoven often opened up the register of the keyboard to create a sense of space, or as Leon Fleisher used to say, “a sense of the whole universe.” We see this throughout Beethoven’s piano output, from the Op. 2 sonatas to Op. 111 and the Diabelli variations. Schubert, in pianistic writing, does likewise. In the first three large-scale sonatas, he employs the same concept of sparsity of register, but in every sonata this sparsity takes on a different meaning. In the A minor sonata, that concept is employed in probably the most contrasting manner to Beethoven. Beethoven’s opening of the piano’s register is by nature positive—the composer celebrates the wide space between his hands and turns the void into something beautiful and conclusive (as for example in the modulation to E-flat major in the Arietta of Op. 111). Schubert, on the other hand, in his use of the concept in this sonata, merges Beethoven’s compositional technique with the sense of void and emptiness we feel in the opening of the first movement. The last page of the first movement sees the two hands growing further and further apart, until they end up in the two ends of the keyboard, but whereas in Beethoven, the void acquires a sense of wholesomeness, here, the void is unredeemed. It sounds wrong, as indeed it should. This is the state of mind Schubert leaves us in as he ends the first movement in a most brusque and unsavory way, before we enter the oasis of grace, measure, and serendipity that is the second movement.
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