The gloomy undercurrents of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux

The first three movements of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux are three different “snapshots” of rustic life, in its charm, pride, and wide emotional range. That rustic character is still present in the last three movements, which constitute the second “volume” of the work. However, many differences arise when comparing the first three movements with the last three. The first volume is a lot more optimistic: although, because of his typical bittersweetness, Schubert is hardly ever wholly optimistic, one can feel the resolution and rectitude shining through the score. This isn’t the case in the last three movements—which, unlike the first three, have an overarching emotional “theme:” that of premonition. In fact, when looking at the tonal scheme, the two volumes are exact opposites—the first consists of two movements in major and a movement in minor that despite its minor-ness is still forthcoming in character; and the second consists of two movements in minor and a movement in major that is remarkably gloomy and heartbreaking. One feels no uplift in the last three movements, but rather an impending sense of concern and pessimism. 

Schubert’s brilliance lies in his ability to portray this premonition in three very different ways. The fourth movement carries a mark of its iconic predecessor. It is also slightly reminiscent of a polka, but the pride of the third movement gets supplanted by a brooding character. The middle section, in major, gives the listener a slight sense of respite, but doesn’t “let him off the hook,” as the heartwarming melody in major is undercut by undercurrents in minor in the lower register of the piano (which on Schubert’s piano would have sounded especially menacing). A microcosm of that is heard in the last bars, as we think the movement is about to end in major with the theme of the middle section, but instead it is truncated by the return of the opening material (in minor). The fifth movement is entirely different. The dolefulness heard in the fourth movement has suddenly erupted into volcanic and furious music, full of jagged and irregular phrasing and stinging dissonances. It isn’t entirely clear whether Schubert is trying to evoke something concrete in this movement, but I think he might be referencing certain wrathful movements in liturgical works (like the Flammis orci from Haydn’s Stabat Mater). The last movement, in A-flat major, begins with an elegant and caressing melody. What could have developed into an uplifting end to the piece ended up becoming something entirely different. Throughout the movement, in both the “A” section and the trio (in D-flat major), those same undercurrents of premonition appear, this time casting a bitter shadow on the savory melodic material. As the movement progresses, the light and shadow come into near-conflict, leaving room for only one emotional sphere to end the piece. And that is when Schubert does something extraordinarily unusual—he ends the whole cycle in an ambiguous manner. After painstakingly reaching A-flat minor at the end and preparing a final cadence in that key, he ends the piece on an open octave, leaving the final answer concealed. The listener may imagine a major ending, if he so wishes. If hearing the end in a possible major is optimism, would that make hearing it in minor pessimism, or, given the last cadence, realism? 

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