Schubert: Wanderer Fantasy

performed by Alfred Brendel

Back to Schubert and back to the piano. We did Schubert and Mahler symphonies a while back, and I feel like a more appropriate follow up to those two would have been like, Schubert’s string quartet no. 14, Death and the Maiden, a work which Mahler himself was interested in (and would have related to at certain times in his life, I’m sure) but I am terribly underprepared for anything that logical.

Also, we are back to piano for the next few weeks or so (and wonderfully have an interview with a pianist coming up next week!), and this is a piece I’ve been interested in for a while, mostly because of its historical significance, but I have come to enjoy it musically too. Its length is also just about the length of time it takes me to get home from work, so I have listened to it on many a bus ride.Last week’s (well, the week before last’s) song is the basis for this week’s piano piece, the entire thing. It pulls this one theme and draws it out and expands it to magnificent length and character over the four sections (not movements) of the piece. It is given the opus number fifteen, but has number 760 in the Deutsch catalogue. It was written in 1822 and published the following year.It is a fantasy for piano (not a sonata, even though it feels much that way; we will talk about that later). It is considered the pinnacle of his piano writing, and very virtuosic, even leading Schubert to have (by some accounts) given up playing it front of friends and state “the devil may play it.”

I feel like I possibly should have gotten more familiar with his sonatas first, but this perhaps is the piece that will motivate me to go discover those sonatas, which I am sure we will eventually get to. (Also, Schubert’s catalogue seems to be a bit of a mess, and I don’t like not having “sonata no. 1” or 12 or 7 to be able to organize them in my head into a sequential set of works. That or I am just far less familiar with his work than I realize). The Wanderer Fantasy was written for and dedicated to a student of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, apparently in hopes of being given some money for the work. This is perhaps ironic, as this article points out, since what turned out to be Schubert’s most demanding work for the piano (perhaps one of the most demanding of the era) ended up being dedicated to an amateur musician.

For all his composing talents, Schubert spent most of his life destitute, even relying on his friends to give him paper to use for his compositions. I would assume the piece (one like this of such magnitude and complexity) MUST have been incubating already to some degree or other in the composer’s head prior to such thought of a dedication. Otherwise, I would venture to bet the composer was grossly under-compensated for his craftsmanship.

Aside from its technical challenges, it is structurally inventive and complicated as well. Again, the piece is a fantasy, based on on the opening phrase of his Lied Der Wanderer (hence the name of the piece). It is a single-movement piece with four distinct sections, each leading into the next not only without pause, but without any final closing cadence or chord (until the very end). The work therefore, uses both the ideas of sonata form as well as theme-and variations with one single thematic element, making for a multi-layered work. This idea is called double-function form.

In fact, this piece is accepted as the first “famous” piece to display this form. Liszt’s piano sonata is another, but it came another thirty years after this one. It’s also known for an extremely complicated structure, which will take me some significant time to prepare to talk about, if I ever can. At least this fantasy revolves around an easily identifiable theme. It still does fantastic things with it. This is a fine touch Schubert has.

Continuing in innovation, it can also be considered an early representation of progressive tonality, the idea that a piece (or movement) ends in a different key from that in which it began. Chopin and Schumann all had pieces or movements that ended ambiguously, perhaps without a definite cadence, etc., but this happens with each “movement” of the fantasy, since it leads into the key of the next rather than finishing in its own.

I have been reading Schoenberg’s book on composition and he talks about something that seems quite simple, but explains it ever so elegantly. He talks about the balance required to write variations effectively: not varied enough (or at all) and it is repetitive and monotonous; too varied, and it is unidentifiable and therefore unidentifiable as a variation to the audience. Schubert’s piece here, while obviously close to a century prior to Schoenberg and his work, is still innovative in its structure and content. It was one of the more expressive of Schubert’s pieces and heavier, in many ways. It’s thick and rich and big and bold and lush, and this can present challenges for performance and interpretation.

In all these ways then, it broke the mold a bit for composers to begin to do more interesting, innovative things with their music, its constructions and content. This piece was innovative, expressive and new, and while still sounding ‘Classical’ in many ways, it also represents the drama and intensity that would characterize the Romantic era.
It was apparently taken up and written around the time the composer abandoned his Unfinished symphony, leading some to suggest that as the reason this piece has such distinct orchestral elements (to be honest, I have NOT read that entire paper, but it certainly does seem to be a fantastic resource). The voices in the piano and the balance between “parts” is crisp and clear and distinct. In fact, my biggest issue with this piece has been that the more I try to understand it, the more there is to understand. So I figure shy of taking years of piano lessons to learn to play (the notes of) the piece, analyze its structure and everything else, I may as well bite the bullet and just write what I can, with references to more professional information. So here it is.

While the theme that we’re getting all this content from (based on the theme in the Lied) is stated most directly in the second section, the opening statement is quite strong, and sets the tone for the entire piece. It is also what we return to so satisfyingly at the end (still as a variation). The first section is strong and commanding, ornate and articulate, yet still playful and inventive in its expression and variation, keeping the textures and sounds from getting old.

A succinct, clear, and easy-to-understand summary of the piece can be found here. It is a good resource. The interplay of the first two sections is especially strong. The way the first section develops, as far as we know, we’re looking at a straightforward sonata… But the piece starts to wind down and change at once drastically and subtly, into the adagio. It reminds me almost of a funeral march, something similar to Chopin’s famous march or the opening of Beethoven’s moonlight sonata. Coming off the bright and bold and energetic first section, this adagio feels even more tranquil and solemn. It’s painfully yet peacefully gorgeous.

The strongest contrast is behind us, and what’s left is a scherzo and fugue that play very well together. One leads right into the next with a kind of seamless energy and excitement that is very enjoyable to hear.

The finale is my favorite movement. It’s … Lively and articulate and ornate like the first, but also kind of crunchy and crisp. I don’t know, but I do love it.
Perhaps the thing that stands out most to me, and it probably isn’t just Perahia’s (fantastic) performance (although that certain is a part), is the clarity and sonority of Schubert’s piano writing. The voicings and beautiful lyrical nature of multiple voices, of background sounds, of the melody, it’s beautifully layered and clear and crisp. This obviously could be botched beyond recognition in a poor performance, but it’s also something inherent to the piece and not just the performer.

What I’m curious about is what Schubert was thinking when he crafted a piece like this. Was it the product of a planned, well-thought out blueprint, inspiration in one fell swoop, or the result of long arduous hours of splicing and designing and reworking? It’s a brilliant idea, and it may in fact be the product of Schubert’s symphonic thinking and processing that bled over into this piece. I don’t know. What I do know is that one single sonata-form movement is complex as it is, without grafting another layer of complexity on top of it. I’m quite impressed, and this piece truly is like an onion, one I am incapable of dissecting properly, but one where an exposed layer of complexity only reveals another. While I procrastinated on it for a while because I felt I was woefully unprepared for the task of presenting this piece with any authority, it is also a good example of how music is the gift that keeps on giving. This one piece would be enough for months (at least) of analysis at many different levels (check out the links above), but still proves interesting and educational even for the beginner. It’s a good example of the fulfillment I get out of preparing to write about these pieces, even at quite an amateur level. There’s still something to learn and enjoy, and that something is still fulfilling. While I’ve barely scratched the surface of the masterful artwork of this piece, it is a fantastic example of what’s out there to be enjoyed and explored in classical music, a product of the mind of a genius whose talent was far from fully realized in his short lifetime.


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