Interrupted tragedy

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.

A question of interpretation

I’ve continued to work on the Schubert piano sonata I described in one of the least-read AUFS posts in history. I feel pretty confident on the first movement, though there are still places that need work. Now most of my efforts are directed at the second movement, which begins on pg. 12 of this PDF score.

Its most striking feature is a repeated background pattern in the left hand (modelled by the four C-sharps in the first measure). Being familiar with the piece from recordings, I didn’t find it difficult to execute, though it might have been hard to figure out how it all fit together without the recording. Yet it does present a question of interpretation: should the top note, which crosses over into right-hand territory, sound like a part of the melody? Continue reading “A question of interpretation”

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.