Schubert Piano Sonata in E, D. 157

performed by Wilhelm Kempff


If, as Messiaen stated and many others might agree, Mozart is ‘an extraordinary rhythmician,’ one of the most talented and gifted rhythmic composers, then Schubert must be one of the most lyrical.

With Mozart’s first string quartet from a few days ago still on my mind, I got to thinking about what it was that made it so infectiously charming, and while it’s not rhythm in the sense that many people think of it (jazz, rock, R&B) and certainly far removed from that kind of harried rhythmic intensity of, say, Stravinsky, Messiaen’s statement about Mozart and his rhythmic prowess came to mind.

That’s what I thought of when I listened to Schubert’s first (complete) piano sonata just a few weeks ago, Mozart and Messiaen. I had originally intended to write about his fourth and seventh sonatas (537 and 568, respectively) before I decided we should start at the beginning. D. 157, 279, and 557, among a handful of others are not included in the cycle of sonatas from Mitsuko Uchida that I love so much, incomplete works and all the rest, which was the initial reason I started with the ones I did, and as much as I love D. 537, we’ll have to leave it for another time.

So yes, while that’s what it made me think of, I was still focused on Schubert, who I’m really coming to love. I’ve been listening to a few of his string quartets and a symphony that are all coming up soon, and while the first movement of this piece is not necessarily a landmark of melody, it is at least harmonically very interesting, and that draws the ear just as much. Wikipedia explains that the movement:

…sets out to explore the key of E major using two types of contrast: chords vs. arpeggios and scales, and legato vs. staccato. After the opening E major chord, there is an ascending, legato arpeggio, which is met by a fast, downward scale, marked staccato. This pattern is repeated in the dominant, submediant, and finally the subdominant chords. All this together makes up the main tune.

What’s nice about this is that the ‘home key’ of E major is established and then we go through all of these different iterations, if you will, of the melody, with a different big chord to introduce each one, and each change is just the slightest bit breathtaking.

See them?

While Wikipedia says that the movement is “not especially melodic,” I’m not sure I’d agree. It’s straightforward, lots of scales, nothing especially groundbreaking, a bit repetitive, sonata form, repeated exposition, recapitulation (this seems like it might be less common in Schubert than others), but it is clear and melodic enough to keep my attention, even though the real focus is on the harmonies and different keys. As mentioned above, there is a clear, straightforward contrast present between chords and arpeggios and legato vs staccato notes. Some passages are playful and light, others heavy and thunderous, even including a few very dramatic…… long…… pauses.

The second movement, andante, is in the parallel minor, E minor, and sounds almost funereal to me in places. Wikipedia tells us the movement is “in siciliana 6/8 rhythm.” Generally from the baroque era, considered pastoral, it’s a slow dance often featuring dotted rhythms, but for me, it’s a little bit down-sounding. It’s in a rondo form, with “two episodes” or other sections that the movement presents.

The final (or, rather, third and not-supposed-to-be-final?) movement is the minuet and trio, in an ‘allegro vivace‘ 3/4 at the kind of speed that it’d be conducted (okay, counted) in one. It’s the lightest, most playful of the movements, and contains lots of pretty large leaps for the left hand, sometimes with both staves in treble. It is nice enough, but doesn’t do as much for me as the first two movements.

There are a number of reasons why this minuet is considered to be not the originally intended ending, one of which is that it was kind of odd to end a sonata with a minuet; it’d been done before, but wasn’t terribly common. That’s maybe a bit weak. The strongest evidence is that the third movement doesn’t return to the tonic key that the piece began in, which is quite odd for sonatas of the time.

But then again, Schubert had written pieces (like his first string quartet) that didn’t  observe this expected return of the tonic. And it’s unlikely that it was lost, because the autograph contains several blank pages after the minuet. So, it’s perplexing in that it appears to be incomplete, but it also seems as if the composer never even attempted to complete the work. People also consider “the finale-like character of the third movement, so that it can be seen as an effective conclusion of the sonata despite a failure to return to the tonic,” with Walburga Litschauer as a reference on Wikipedia.

So what we have is a nice little three-movement enigma, and it seems the confusion or uncertainty surrounding the work and how it should be approached might prevent it from getting some of the attention it deserves. Granted, it’s no earth-shattering, groundbreaking work, but it’s nice, and at the very least, gives us insight into the young Schubert. This is why I’ve decided to give it some attention here. This will not be the only unfinished or potentially incomplete work from Schubert, but the completed sonatas will be performances from the box set of Mitsuko Uchida.

At the time of this writing, I’m not entirely sure which of the sonatas will follow this one this week. The logical choice would be no. 2, D. 279, but that might also be a bit boring. We shall see. Stay tuned.

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