Franz Schubert

Allegretto in C minor


About this work

It is tempting to hear homage to Ludwig van Beethoven in Franz Schubert's little Allegretto in C minor for piano, D. 915, composed in late April 1827. Schubert reportedly met Beethoven for the first and only time just days before the elder composer's demise on March 26. To say that such a meeting must have been both a moment of rapture for Schubert and an occasion that carried with it a bitter sting would not be overly dramatic, for here lay dying the man whose music had probably shaped Schubert's musical persona more than any other composer save Haydn, and also the man who -- more than any other in Vienna -- could have lifted Schubert's all-but-ignored music from the obscurity in which it languished. If we are to believe the accounts of Beethoven's last weeks, he had on his deathbed gotten to know some of Schubert's lieder -- the only genre in which the young composer knew commercial success during his lifetime -- and had been more than impressed, hailing Schubert's gifts to those who came to visit him. And so it may well have been that Beethoven was in Schubert's thoughts when he sat down on April 26 to pen the Allegretto in C minor, D. 915 (not to be confused with D. 900, another work by the same title and in the same key composed sometime earlier); Schubert was, after all, one of the torchbearers at Beethoven's funeral.

If the Allegretto was in some way inflected by Beethoven's passing, however, it was not on the musical surface, which is typical of late Schubert in every sense save its brief duration. The key, C minor, is funereal enough, and the 6/8 meter arpeggiation of the main tune is the sort of thing that Beethoven might indeed have spun (one thinks of the scherzo to the Fifth Symphony, which opens in strikingly similar fashion). But there is something of Schumann or Brahms, both ardent admirers of Schubert, in the rich, pianissimo middle section of this perfectly-balanced ternary form piece; the chords come in tiny spurts, sounding something like a broken-up chorale. The opening section of the Allegretto is itself a kind of stunted three-part form sometimes called "rounded binary," but here used with a flexibility that defies textbook analysis; in the second strain Schubert throws together a devilishly clever canon between the right and left hands. After this imitation builds to a fortissimo climax, Schubert ushers the opening idea back in with a pair of gentle, pleasingly dissonant heartbeats. The entire opening section is played again, da capo.