Schubert’s Moments Musicaux and the natural creation of a genre

Schubert’s Moments Musicaux is not a work I instantly understood or loved. I long considered it to be weaker than his sonatas and impromptus. It didn’t leave the emotional imprint on me that other works of Schubert left. Although I never outright disliked it, I might have considered it to be a bit “fickle” compared to say, the last three sonatas. But then, as I started playing more and more Schubert, its value became clearer to me, and I decided that I wanted to read it through and “see how it goes.” Incidentally, I was asked around that time to replace, on a few months notice, Till Fellner, who was supposed to play an all-Schubert program that included the monumental D major sonata, a work I played a lot. I decided to start my recital with the Moments Musicaux, which meant that I was going to spend the next few months delving into the piece and getting to know it intimately. In these months I grew to become enthralled with the work. 

The composition of the Moments was quite sporadic: the third and sixth movements appeared in various collections of works compiled by publishers in 1823/24, and the complete collection appeared in 1828, the year of Schubert’s death. As there is no genre of “musical moments,” a question arises about the essence of the work’s title. In my view, this cycle belongs in the same general “category” as the impromptus and the Drei Klavierstücke. However, there is one difference between the Moments and the other two aforementioned works: the scope of the movements is much less broad. Schubert is often referred to as a “repetitive” composer (not in a negative sense of the word, given the sheer beauty of his material). While the Impromptus and the Klavierstücke affirm this notion, the Moments cycle contradicts it. Here is Schubert at his most concise: apart from the expansive second movement, he avoids repetition, leaving the listeners “wanting for more.”

The cycle is divided into two “volumes:” nos. 1-3 and 4-6. On the surface of it, there aren’t any major structural differences between the first half of the piece and the second, but there is one subtle difference that I think is significant. The first three movements are truly standalone pieces, whereas the last three, which I will discuss in the next entry, are more interconnected on a larger emotional scale. One can really think of the first volume as being made up of different “scenes” from country life, rather than having an overarching narrative. The first movement, with its abundance of writing in unison, evokes the sound of the mountain horn; the second, the most weighty movement of the entire set, alternates between serenity and grief; and the third, the most commonly played as a separate piece, is somewhat reminiscent of a polka, and alternates between pride and lyricism. 

A connection I often make when thinking of these first three movements is to a collection of short stories describing the day-to-day existence of a certain people or place. Even when the music doesn’t necessarily develop from one place to another, it still describes. And the description in itself is enough to create a fascination unlike any other. We are used to music moving from one place to another, but Schubert draws us in and makes us focus on static existence, to find interest and enchantment therein. 

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