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Schubert's Sonatas

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Schubert composed his piano sonatas at a time when the genre was in decline. The earliest of the works, the sonatas in A minor, D. 537, B major, D. 575 and (at least in its original form) the E flat major, D. 568, were written in the same year that Beethoven began work on his monumental 'Hammerklavier' Sonata. Only three of Beethoven's sonatas were still to come; but that awe-inspiring figure was in any case very much law unto himself.

As for Schubert, his ambitions to be taken seriously in the field of large-scale symphonic works were continually thwarted by indifference on the pan of public and publishers alike. Of the twenty-odd piano sonatas he composed, only three were published during his lifetime. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Schubert had greater success with his shorter pieces, such as the Moments tnusicaux and the Impromptus.

Schubert's piano sonatas can roughly be divided into three periods. More than half of them, including a good few works he left in an unfinished state, belong to the years 1815-1818. Then, in 1825-26, came four works all conceived on a grand scale: the unfinished C major Sonata, D. 840, the A minor, D. 845, the D major, D. 850 and the G major, D. 894. The last three sonatas, D. 958, D. 959 & D. 960, from the autumn of 1828, mark his final period of Sonata writing.

Only two sonatas fall outside these three periods: the genial A major, D. 664 and the A minor, D. 784 of 1823, the most terse and austere of them all. Schubert's last 3 sonatas were not specifically conceived as a trilogy, as far as we know, but they feel like it. They were composed at astonishing speed, one right after the other.

The first one, the Sonata in C minor, D. 958 is the most dramatic, intense, poignant and frightening of the three, and the most Beethovenian in spirit; The Sonata in A, D. 959 is a gentler, more lyrical affair, and the theme of the last movement is amongst the loveliest things ever composed. The Sonata in B flat, D. 960 is purest Schubert, and is now probably the most played of them all. For all their striking individuality, each of the three works actually pays overt homage to Beethoven, most notably so in the case of the first of them, in Beethoven's defiantly dramatic key of C minor. One notable difference between the sonatas of Beethoven and those of Schubert lies in the devising of the movements. As the older composer developed, his sonatas grew more unconventional in their pattern of movements; his variety is considerable, both in the number of movements and in his departure from classical sonata pattern. Schubert, on the contrary, grew more conventional: for him sonata form clearly meant a pattern of four movements, with the slow movement occurring second, the Scherzo and Trio third. His first movements are always strictly composed according to classical form, and his finales never depart from the rondo or rondo-sonata, in quick tempo.

Although Franz Schubert began work on twenty-two piano sonatas, he only completed eleven, three of which were published during his lifetime (D. 845, 850, 894). Six of the unfinished sonatas are missing one movement; Three others contain only a fragmented first. In 1843 a publisher took five unrelated movements and incorporated them into what was called a "sonata" as well (E major, D.459). There are perhaps 20 works that can be considered complete enough to be included in recitals, and they extend throughout Schubert's working life, from 1815 to 1828.

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