Piano Sonata No.21

Franz Schubert

Piano Sonata No.21 in Bb major


Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Many of Schubert's greatest works belong to his last year, a veritable Annus Mirabilis which saw the creation of the "Great" C major Symphony, the String Quintet, D. 956, the piano trios D. 929 and D. 898, the Mass in E flat, D. 950, and the Fantasy in F minor for piano duet, D. 940. On September 26, 1828, Schubert's Piano Sonata in B flat major, D. 960, his last instrumental work, was finished. The composer's last three sonatas debate limitation and leavetaking; Alfred Brendel suggests that they "lead us into romantic regions of wonderment, terror and awe." Perhaps the B flat sonata probes human mortality even more deeply than its fellows.

As Claudio Arrau once remarked, "this is a work written in the proximity of death...one feels it from the very first theme...the breaking off, and the silence after a long, mysterious trill in the bass." What Tovey described as "a sublime theme of utmost calmness and breadth" ends mysteriously with the same distant trill, returning intermittently to impart deeper anguish to music of sinister beauty. The exposition contains two other subsidiary themes, both in remote keys, and what follows also includes a remarkable self-quotation -- the links between the B flat sonata's first-movement development and an insistent six-note theme taken from a setting of the cathedral scene from Goethe's Faust, composed in December 1814, are often overlooked. However, as John Reed suggests in Schubert: The Final Years, "many a recognisable variation strays much farther from its theme!"

The C sharp minor Andante sostenuto ranks alongside Schubert's finest slow movements. Sustained gravitas and sublimity of expression take us to the brink of the abyss: that remote, solitary place which T.S. Eliot knew as "the still point of the turning world." The music is dominated by a recurring figure in the accompaniment, spanning four octaves and enclosing a melody of effusive beauty. The distinctive rhythmic accompaniment recalls an Austrian folk song whose silent second beat would have enabled hammer-wielding artisans to synchronize their sledgehammer blows to maximum effect. Popular tradition maintains that Schubert observed a gang of laborers and noted down several of their work songs while on holiday at Gmunden during the summer months of 1815. The characteristic dotted-rhythm figure was used later in the Notturno in E flat for Piano Trio (D. 897).

A mercurial B flat major Scherzo follows, to be played "con delicatezza." But tension and incident are never absent from an overcast trio and an uneasy return to the Scherzo material via an improbable, albeit adjacent, A major. This trilogy of sonatas ends much as it began; Beethoven's influence emerges in a rondo finale whose main idea bears comparison with that of the movement written to replace the so-called Grosse Fuge, the original finale of Beethoven's Quartet in B flat, Op. 130. The rondo theme begins repeatedly in the false tonality of C minor, an ambiguity resolved as the theme appears for the last time, when, following extensive debate and development, the octave G which precedes it descends into the dominant key of F, in preparation for a brilliant final coda. "Thus Schubert ends both gaily and cheerfully," wrote Robert Schumann, "as though fully able to face another day's work." But history records otherwise: Schubert played his last three sonatas at a party held by Dr. Ignaz Menz on Saturday September 27, 1828, having finished the B flat work only the previous day. He died less than two months afterwards.