For the last couple weeks, my first year seminar on “Deals with the Devil” has been focusing on Goethe’s Faust. On the day when we read Goethe’s fragmentary and suggestive account of Faust and Gretchen’s tragic romance, I played for them Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” a youthful composition that revolutionized the approach to song in classical music.
This class exercise brought together two fascinations of mine. In addition to becoming ever more invested in Goethe’s Faust after teaching it for several years, I am also an amateur pianist and have been working at playing Schubert’s final piano sonata for a long time now. I will probably never have it performance-ready, but I am beginning to understand the piece in a way I have never understood a piece of music before — the complex development of key signatures, the parallel structures between movements, and above all, the abrupt and sometimes stunning transitions. (See score here.)
One thing that makes the piece approachable is that it is so clearly broken down into units of a page or a page and a half, which often seem to have nothing to do with what preceded them. Sometimes the effect is transformative — above all the abrupt shift into a pure C-major in the final lines of the second movement (pp. 15 to 16 in the PDF) — but often it is simply puzzling. For instance, one of my favorite passages in the first movement shifts the very recognizable “molto moderato” theme into a minor key (pg. 5), but the the chord that would resolve the melody line shifts into the beginning of a variation on an oft-repeated spritely theme that seems to shift back and forth promiscuously from major to minor. More striking is the most technically demanding passage of the fourth movement (pg. 24 of the PDF), which evolves out of the main theme of the movement seemingly without warning — only the shift from an eighth note to a sixteenth note on the first anticipatory beat of each phrase announces a change — and then shifts into a seemingly even higher gear in the following measures (pg. 25). But that “dramatic” gesture slowly fades, until we are simply reintroduced to the movement’s signature opening “chime,” as though nothing had happened.
I wonder, now, if Schubert was returning to his earlier fascination with Goethe. There is a fascinating article by Benjamin Bennett called “Interrupted Tragedy as a Structural Principal in Faust” (available in the Norton Critical Edition of Goethe’s play), where he argues that Goethe systematically undermines any cathartic moment — precisely so that the reader will not be able to purge or purify the emotions they are experiencing, but will be left to grapple with them. This seems to me to account for the abrupt ending of Part 1, where we get no resolution of the “main plot” involving the bet with Mephistopheles but are instead left to sit with the devastating human encounter between Faust and the woman whose life he has destroyed and whom he no longer loves. In most of Part 1, Mephistopheles is the tragedy-interrupter, injecting jokes and irreverence whenever Faust is having a “deep” moment of insight or tragic self-regard.
Something similar seems to be happening in the Schubert, where borderline-romantic passages, often in a minor key, often with a lot of black on the page, are abruptly interrupted with playful asides or simply left to fizzle out. And even the most sustained “serious” minor-key passage — the opening theme of the second movement — is constantly “deranged” by the repetitive left-hand gesture that jumps around the keyboard in seeming indifference to what the right hand is doing (beginning on pg. 12 of the PDF). Perhaps here we can recall Mephistopheles in his guise as a poodle, nipping at Faust’s heels as he muses about the restorative powers of nature and human companionship. This dynamic gives way (on pg. 13 and following) to a more “heroic” theme — but one that fizzles out, to be replaced by a return to the main right-hand theme that is even more insistently harassed by the left hand (pp. 15 and 16). Yet this is precisely the moment of the almost transcendent appearance of the C-major triad, a light piercing the darkness. But only for a moment.