What is Schubert's best piano sonata

Piano Sonata in B flat major, D 960

Sonata in B flat major for piano, D 960


Catalog raisonné number: 2546

Sentence names

1. Molto moderato

2. Andante sostenuto

3. Scherzo. Allegro vivace con delicatezza

4. Allegretto ma non troppo


“Tonkunst buried a rich possession here, but much better hopes.” Franz Grillparzer's grave inscription for Franz Schubert not only reflects the respect of the music world for a genius who died young, but also the situation in Schubert's last year in particular. In 1828 the Viennese composer had just prepared to become a widely recognized musical great in his hometown. It attracted the attention of music publishers, the specialist press and the public, increasingly also “abroad”, i.e. in Germany and England. The Schott publishing house in Mainz asked him for works, the leading German music magazine devoted enthusiastic reviews to him, and in Vienna his major instrumental works, not just his songs, saw successful performances. When Schubert died on November 19, 1828 at the age of 31, music art buried the beautiful hope of being able to welcome Beethoven's successor in him - no more and no less.

The last three piano sonatas, completed in August 1828, are the works in which Schubert's role as the successor to the classics is most clearly expressed, but at the same time most clearly expresses the composer's own, deeply personal tone. The special status of this cycle as a compositional legacy was already mentioned in 1838 by Robert Schumann in an article on "Franz Schubert’s last compositions". For Schumann, they were located “where the fantasy is filled with the thought of the imminent parting through the sad 'very last thing'”. The sketches that have survived show, however, that Schubert spent an unusually long time working with these sonatas, i.e. that he had already sketched them long before the first signs of his terminal illness appeared in September 1828. Death and mourning, as they seem to speak from the middle movements and the development parts of these works, have rather been among his favorite topics since his youth, which were not directly linked to his own fate. In addition, one should not fail to recognize the features of the grotesque and ambiguous in these late works.

The last three sonatas are nevertheless a kind of compositional legacy, namely the culmination of Schubert's lifelong engagement with the genre of the piano sonata. To the music critic Schumann they appeared “strikingly different from his other (sonatas), in particular due to the much greater simplicity of the invention, due to a voluntary resignation to brilliant novelty ... As if it could never end, never embarrassed about the result, always trickling musically and vocal it continues from side to side, interrupted here and there by a few more violent impulses, which quickly calm down again. ”Surprisingly, Schumann misjudged the brokenness in many passages of these apparently so catchy works.

The B flat major sonata, D 960, is the last of the three late sonatas and therefore Schubert's piano work that is most surrounded by the nimbus of a “swan song”. Georgji described the sonata as "the crown of Schubert's piano works, ... the most beautiful that was written after Beethoven".

The first movement in the extended sonata form with three themes that is typical of Schubert is "one of the longest and quietest of his entire sonatas" (Malvin Berger). Cautiously, almost hesitantly, a lyrical B flat major tune begins, which is suddenly interrupted by a deep trill - a kind of mysterious drum roll, as it was in the Credo of Schubert's last Mass, the great E-flat major Mass from the same year, occurs. In both places you think you feel a shock from the mystery of the divine. The actual main theme, a melody sung in a high register as if by the strings, and the secondary theme with its lamenting manner wandering through the voices are felt to be just as orchestral. The large increases in the development are reminiscent of the string quintet composed at the same time.

The Andante sostenuto takes the slowing down of the harmonic rhythm so characteristic of late Schubert to extremes. Although it is not much more than “the gently floating atomization of an organ point tone” (Ernst Kurth), it practically eliminates the listener's sense of time. The ostinatian rhythmic figures and the typical third-octave relationships of Schubert's harmony contribute to this.

The third movement brings a lively contrast to the emphatically calm and very extended first movements. It is a light-footed Scherzo to play con delicatezza, sometimes even with echoes of the music of Carl Maria von Weber, whose Freischütz Schubert admired. The B minor trio sets a quiet, pensive counterpoint in just 32 bars.

The rondo apparently begins in the wrong key with an accented G, followed by a strangely penetrating dance theme in C minor. Only after eight bars does it find its way to B flat major and to a lively warbling melody that seems to come from one of Schubert's happier wandering songs. It is hard to hear from this dazzling beginning, the dimensions to which this movement expands in more than 500 bars. He mediates between the somewhat dogged cheerfulness of his rondo theme and the sublime style of the first two movements in the episodes of the rondo form. This is again - as always with late Schubert - extended into a hypertrophic monumental rondo.