The exceptional and the common in Schubert’s A minor sonata, D. 845

The second movement of Schubert’s A minor sonata, D. 845, is an oasis of calm in the midst of a storm. Whereas the other three movements are all impassioned and tragic, the second movement begins and ends in the affirmative, the poignant C minor variation notwithstanding. What follows, however, is a far cry from the tenderness of the Andante poco moto

The third movement is a scherzo. But is it really? The opening bars imply anything but a lighthearted movement. Of course, not all scherzos need to be “funny”, but most scherzos I can think of (at least those written in and before Schubert’s time) have at least a semblance of humor and gaiety. Not this scherzo, though. Besides its contradictory nature, Schubert undermines the dancelike origins of the scherzo by way of an irregular and jagged phrase structure. Balanced phrases of bars in three are the very foundation and frame for the scherzo movement, which evolved from the minuet, but Schubert inserts bars that would surely knock anyone trying to dance to the scherzo right off his feet. (This, incidentally, sounds a little like Beethoven’s sense of slapstick humor. Such a description would perfectly fit a hilarious Beethoven scherzo, but here, the premise and atmosphere are entirely different). I mentioned parenthetically how such a bitter scherzo was a near-novelty in 1825, when this sonata was written, but many characteristics heard here reappeared in scherzi written later in the 19th century. Of the many such instances, what immediately comes to mind is the desperation of the scherzo from Schumann’s F-sharp minor sonata, written just a decade later; the macabre and menacing second movement of Brahms’s C minor piano quartet, written in 1875; and the apocalyptic second movement of the ninth symphony (written between 1887 and 1896) by the composer who I think is Schubert’s truest musical heir, Bruckner. 

Although the third movement brings us back to the tragic and tempestuous character of the sonata, Schubert still harks back to the idyllic state reached in the second movement. The trio of the scherzo, marked un poco più lento, is everything the “A” section is not. It is simple (with a symmetrical phrase structure), almost childlike, and indeed, idyllic. The reason why I think this is not merely a contrasting section of a third movement of a sonata, but rather an expression of yearning towards a distant state of tranquility, is the return of the chorale-like form of writing, heard in the closing variation of the second movement. Just like in that variation, where the dancelike character of the theme is merely skeletal, the chorale in the trio of the scherzo is merely implied. 

The finales in all of Schubert’s six later piano sonatas are vastly different from each other. Every one of them has a distinct character of its own and a different rhetorical “function” in the four-movement scheme. This finale is an expression of despair and torment: what opens somewhat innocuously and simply develops into a flurry of contradicting themes and rhythms, spiraling into its own demise at the end with a hellish accelerando. One could draw a parallel to the last movement of the C minor sonata, D. 958 (the first of the last three), but I think that this finale is wholly individual. 

Yet, there is one common characteristic to all six last movements: an argumentative development section reminiscent of Beethoven’s middle period. Following a tender and lyrical digression in A major, the final nostalgic section of the sonata, a belligerent development section ensues in D minor that brings to mind Beethoven of the Op. 50s and 60s. The development section of the opening movement of the fifth symphony (Op. 67) is probably the most suitable parallel: themes and rhythms at odds with each other, enacting a real-life impassioned argument. Looking at the last movements of Schubert’s later piano sonatas, it seems as though such a section in the finale became a necessity for Schubert, as even the mellow and pastoral D major and G major sonatas have such sections. Somehow, of these six argumentative episodes, this one seems to me to be most reminiscent of Beethoven. Could it be that Schubert wanted to stay close to the “model” of such a section before embarking on his own way? 

The A minor sonata follows a tradition of piano sonatas expressing a state of utter despair and agony. The most notable of these is of course Mozart’s sonata in the same key, written right after the death of the composer’s mother. But with Schubert’s four-movement A minor sonata, this sub-genre enters a new realm and acquires new dimensions and proportions, setting an example many other composers followed. 

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One thought on “The exceptional and the common in Schubert’s A minor sonata, D. 845

  1. I know God loves you SO much!
    Thankyou for so freely and humbly sharing your piano studies. Helps me in these times:). How I miss my grandchildren.

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