Eine Kleine Blogmusik: Stumbling through Schubert

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.

6 thoughts on “Eine Kleine Blogmusik: Stumbling through Schubert

  1. I rarely take the time to sit down and listen to Schubert. Thanks for this.

    When working on these large projects, I often find that the various passages of interest change drastically. For Instance, As I’m listening to this piece, I’m very much drawn into the opening theme. However, the low trill that follows is, as you say, unexpected and almost jarring. As I continue to listen to the sonata I become more and more interested in the way that this jarring motif is treated and become increasingly convinced that its initial framing was quite brilliant. Now, based on my past experience, I can almost guarantee that what I find most exciting about the piece would be something totally different, like the tritone you mentioned. Which often leads me to say that I never really know “why” I like certain music, but I can tell you what I find interesting at that moment.
    Do you find that this is, or has been, the case as well? As in, were you drawn into the sonata for reasons or characteristics that you no longer find very interesting? You say that Schubert continually works to subvert expectations which makes it technically difficult for the player. Do you think that this is also a main reason why you (and others) were drawn to the music in the first place?

  2. I actually think that what got me interested in the first place was my puzzlement about why I was finding it so difficult. I initially picked it up just because I had a recording of the last three piano sonatas that I loved since I was a teenager and the very last one was my favorite — and also because I kept hearing it in random places (like in the witch season of “American Horror Story,” when the red-haired witch is playing the second movement and the main mother character criticizes her execution…).

  3. I see. It has been somewhat of a goal piece for quite sometime. But now that you have found out why it has been so difficult, has that decreased or increased your attraction to the piece?

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