I’ve played piano for most of my life, and I still try to keep it up by practicing my old favorites and learning new pieces. Since I started teaching at Shimer, I’ve increasingly been called upon to teach musical materials, and that has shifted the way I look at my piano playing. I’m unlikely to do much if any public performance, so it has all largely been for my own pleasure. Now I’ve become more analytic — learning to play a piece can be a way of picking it apart and figuring out how it works.
Recently I set myself a major challenge: Schubert’s last piano sonata. (Click here for links to recordings and scores.) I’ve been working on the first movement for several weeks, and at this point I’m pretty confident on everything up to the repeat (pg. 6 of the first PDF listed, going by printed page numbers) and have established an outpost beyond it. There’s relatively little in this movement that’s “difficult” in the sense of requiring a lot of repetitious exercises (though I’m not looking forward to the last few lines of pg. 7), but it is surprisingly difficult for me to sightread (admittedly not a strong skill for me in any case).
As I’ve worked on it, I’ve started to understand why: Schubert is constantly trying to subvert expectations. It’s very difficult to place the intended emotional tonality of the first movement, which seems to lurch back and forth very quickly between different emotional registers. This is clear already from the very beginning, where we have a very stately opening theme, followed by the unexpected interruption of the low trilled G-flat and an indefinite pause. When the main theme returns, that very interruption already makes it feel different somehow — you’re set up to expect deviations into playfulness. But this very expectation of the unexpected is subverted on the second page when the main theme returns with the undercurrent of triplets. Things become very dramatic, setting up a shift into a minor key with the introduction of a secondary theme, initially underpinned by triplets and then repeated with variations over 16th notes. Things gradually unravel into a length passage that I would characterize as both playful and halting (especially the first ending, which is apparently not always performed, given how incredibly long the movement is even without the repeat).
The variation on the opening theme after the second ending has strangely proven to be the most difficult passage for me to learn so far (pg. 6). It took me several days of repetitive work, including with the left hand alone, to even get a feel for what seems like a very simple segment. I finally realized that it’s because the left-hand accompaniment will never settle into a standard pattern — instead, it shifts back and forth among what I would call three different standard patterns that never stay in place for more than a measure at a time. This makes what should be a straightforward minor-key variation on the theme feel vaguely unsettled, an intuition that is confirmed by the abrupt and unexpectedly early burst of major-key playfulness that follows. And that only serves to set up a very dramatic section (the dreaded pg. 7) that might itself be undercut by its very length.
This kind of fine-grained unsettling of expectations occurs throughout. In the section with underlying 16th notes on pg. 4, for instance, the base note of the left-hand accompaniment continually seems to shift at the “wrong” time, a beat too late or too early. And even in the opening theme itself, there are strangely dissonant notes that you hardly notice listening to a recording (the second full measure even briefly lands on a tritone, B-flat to E-natural), but that have an unsettling effect that makes the strange left-hand trill less jarring than it might otherwise be — or allows the trill to “preemptively” unsettle the main theme.
Overall, I can understand why these late sonatas had such a revival in the 20th century. Within the apparently very conservative framework of a piano sonata deeply indebted to Beethoven, there is an insistent undercurrent of experimentalism. And maybe by winter break I’ll finally be playing through the whole first movement with confidence.