Music of judgment and consolation in Schubert’s A minor sonata, D. 845

The ending of the first movement of Schubert’s A minor sonata, D. 845, left us with a sense of void, frustration, and dejection. The idea of the rich sonority of the piano we have in mind has been violated by Schubert’s harsh use of the piano’s register, and the jagged phrase structure deprived us of an equilibrium we otherwise wouldn’t notice. Although the general character of the sonata is morose and menacing, Schubert centers the work around a movement of elegance, measure, and consolation, in C major. 

The second movement, Andante poco moto, takes the form of theme and variations. The theme, in 3/8 time, resembles a graceful and supple minuet. Its time signature, in 3/8 rather than 3/4, is of key importance to its character, as the unit of the eighth note implies a lighter character than the usual quarter note unit heard in minuets. The first two variations [1:32, 2:58] stay true to the benevolent character of the theme and adhere to the traditional shortening of note values in successive variations. The third variation [4:31], in C minor, still fits into the mold of traditional writing in variation form as a Minore section. However, it is also the structural focal point of the movement where the variations become independent and where Schubert brings his conception of a slow movement in a four-movement work to realization. 

I like to make a clear distinction between a slow movement in a three-movement work of Schubert and in a four-movement work, a distinction that wouldn’t work with just about any other composer. The rhetorical qualities of a slow movement of Beethoven or Brahms don’t depend on the number of movements in the work. In a four-movement work of Schubert, however, the slow movement plays a role of its own. I like to think of it as a moment of judgment, consolation, and possibly redemption. Unlike Schubert’s use of register that I mentioned in last week’s entry, this rhetorical quality is heard not only in his piano music, but in his symphonic and chamber music, too. All slow movements in Schubert’s six later piano sonatas describe judgment, but some of the most poignant evocations of judgment can be heard in works such as the ninth symphony and the G major string quartet. When writing for a multitude of instruments, Schubert utilizes register in the most masterful way to convey the notion of pleading, judgment, and whatever follows. 

Back to the second movement of the A minor sonata, the third variation opens with a twice-repeated ascending figure that implies pleading and imploring. The repetition of that figure reminds me very much of the words per carità as repeated by Leporello (in Giovanni’s disguise) in the sextet from Don Giovanni, as he asserts his true identity and pleads mercy from Anna, Ottavio, Zerlina, and Masetto, who are prepared to kill him in revenge for Giovanni’s misdeeds. Unlike Leporello’s pleading, which is met by stupefaction on the part of the other five characters on stage, Schubert’s pleading figure is immediately answered by the harsh sound of judgment, in the form of jarring minor seconds marked with an accent on every beat (naturally making the original 3/8 much heavier). After eight stormy bars, Schubert retreats to the original pleading figure, indicating that consolation or redemption are not to be found in this minor variation. So where will it be attained? 

Whether it is attained in the following variation [6:34], or not, is in my view an open question. On one hand, the contrast between the third and the fourth variations could not be greater. While the third is lugubrious and heavy, the fourth is lithe and agile, graced by almost acrobatic figures in the right hand. The minuet from the beginning of the movement is hinted at, even though the rhythmic character of the fourth variation is altogether different from that of a minuet. On the other hand, the variation is in A-flat major, a foreign key, a far cry from the original C major. Hence, even if we do receive consolation from the composer, we get it elsewhere. Unlike in the Andante con moto from the ninth symphony, where judgment and consolation alternate in quick succession, here, Schubert withholds it from us. Just like… he withheld the sense of equilibrium in the first movement. 

Which brings us to the final variation [8:31]. Back in C major, Schubert seems to add to the sense of detachment brought upon by the previous variation in a foreign key. The dancelike character is by now only skeletal, and a new form of writing is introduced, that of choral writing. Nowhere else in the sonata do we hear anything resembling this style (we do get quite a lot of it, however, in the following sonata, in D major, D. 850, whose trio of the third movement is a chorale of astonishing proportion). After having subtly hinted at both the theme of the movement and the minor variation, Schubert returns, in a slightly more self-explanatory way, to the music of judgment heard in the third variation, after which we finally get the answer to the question of consolation and redemption. The coda that ends the movement is where Schubert reveals his tender side to the fullest, as we are at last redeemed by the spiritual subdominant harmonies and the gentle lilt of the triplets. Our redemption is confirmed with the final subdominant “Amen” cadence that brings this monumental movement to a close. 

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