Schumann’s F-sharp minor sonata and the boundaries of genre

Schumann’s musical output in general, and his early works in particular, contain a fascinating mix of the traditional and the innovative. On one hand, he was staunchly true to the traditions of harmony and counterpoint he inherited from the great composers who came before him, but on the other hand, he seemed to be just a little uncomfortable with the templates of form commonly used by them. The most common of these templates is of course the sonata. Unlike Chopin or Mendelssohn, who wrote quintessentially conventional sonatas, Schumann, in his early period, seemed to be a bit reluctant to commit himself to this form, preferring unique cycles with self-dictating form over a fixed template. 

Schumann’s first venture into this genre is the F-sharp minor sonata for piano, Op. 11 (composed between 1833 and 1835). A masterpiece of gigantic proportions (both in length and in expressive scope), the work seeks to reconcile the structural boundaries of the four-movement sonata with the composer’s cyclical ambitions. This manifests itself in two ways: the thematic “connecting tissue” of the first three movements, which are the subject of this entry; and the tonal scheme of the last movement, which I will discuss next week. 

The great tradition of sonatas that Schumann was familiar with balanced separation of movements with a sense of cohesion between them—the movements must vary, but their grouping should not be coincidental. More often than not, the separation is more obvious than the cohesion, which is merely achieved by the character of one movement complementing that of the rest. In some cases, however, the cohesion “takes the front seat,” as it were. In Schubert’s A minor sonata, characteristics of certain sections of the work are alluded to throughout the four movements. Given Schumann’s penchant for writing cyclical works, it is to be expected that thematic cohesion would be of paramount importance to him in a sonata. This he achieves in the most fascinating way in the first three movements. 

The first movement contrasts a declamatory opening with a highly fervent and mercurial “main body”. It is in sonata form, but the tonal ambiguity of the first theme (which is centered around a pedal point on the dominant) and the many thematic diversions (including a return to the material of the opening in F minor, one semitone below the tonic key) blur its sense of being in sonata form. Its lugubrious ending leads right into the resplendent and lyrical second movement in the parallel key of A major, titled Aria. It is based on An Anna, an unpublished song of his, and quotes the introduction of the first movement. Unlike the first movement with its structural contortions, the second movement has a simple A-B-A form. Back in F-sharp minor, the scherzo, is once again volatile and histrionic, with two extended middle sections—one frantic and breathless, and the other mock-majestic, perhaps resembling a distortion of a polonaise. This scherzo, similarly to the one in Schubert’s aforementioned A minor sonata, has qualities not at all typical of a scherzo. 

These three movements, being as disparate as they are, are bound together in the most organic of ways, more than most movements of most great sonatas written up to that point in time (later, Liszt’s B minor sonata later achieved a similar sense of unity, but it was not formally divided into movements). How could the composer achieve this? By using an almost rudimentary concept—connection by means of the simplest musical units. The opening of the first movement contains the thematic core of the unity of the first three movements. It has two components: the opening interval and its inversion, and the long-held single note. The opening interval holds the first movement together thematically, as the repetition of the dotted rhythmic figure cements in our ears and mind the interval of an ascending fourth, heard at the opening of the piece. In the course of the introduction, Schumann tosses around that rhythmic figure until the interval becomes inverted into a descending fifth. The opening motif of the first subject after the introduction is indeed a descending fifth which will be heard a great many times throughout the movement. But before this descending fifth hovering around the dominant is heard, Schumann leaves a single C-sharp “hanging in the air,” played by the right hand. Given the mass of sound accumulated in the raucous ending of the introduction, playing a single note in the right hand (and in a relatively dynamically weak register of the piano) is, to say the least, most awkward. But this awkwardness is key to understanding the structural scheme of the first three movements, because the end of the exposition (in the first repeat, which is often omitted—wrongly so in my opinion), the end of the movement, and the end of the second movement, too, consist merely of a single note. I cannot think of any other sonata that has such an odd yet telling feature. I can, however, think of many Schumann cycles that have held single notes or chords of enormous structural significance to the whole narrative of the work (such as the Davidsbündlertänze, Kreisleriana, and Humoreske). In these single notes, we hear Schumann’s struggle with the confines of the sonata genre: a genre that, in its bare shape, does not allow him to achieve the sense of roundedness that was so important to him. This sort of thematic connectedness we usually associate with composers who came later (although Beethoven’s sonatas Opp. 101 and 106 are exceptions), and who were part of the Wagnerian frenzy that was to sweep Europe not long after Schumann wrote this great work, as it greatly recalls the concept of the Leitmotif. Hence, most of the thematic material of Liszt’s B minor sonata can be found on its first page. 

Schumann’s need for cyclical unity is expressed most dramatically in the last movement, but in a completely different manner, which will require us to try to adopt his foreign way of thinking. But until we reach the last movement, we see from the first three that many musical features we associate with a certain point in time were in fact introduced by composers earlier than we thought. 

If you liked this blog, please click the buttons below to share it on your social media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *