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Franz Schubert - Sonata in A minor, D. 784

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On 8 May 1823 Schubert wrote a poem called 'Mein Gebet' (My Prayer), in which he expressed a longing for the comfort of death. He was in his mid-twenties, and his despair was no doubt caused by the first manifestation of the venereal disease that was to kill him at such a tragically early age. In the summer of that same year he composed several of the songs in his cycle of love betrayed, Die schone Mullerin, during a stay in hospital; and it is certainly not difficult to see a reflection of his state of mind in his first great work of 1823, the Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 784.

Far removed from the in tone, style and outlook, this astonishingly grim and turbulent work (excepting the very beautiful slow movement) is more like the implacable voice of fate itself than a fist shaken in its face. It was the first of his piano works to reveal his full stature as a tragic composer, and the publishers wanted no part of it as the amateur market in an increasingly escapist Biedermeier Vienna was in no mood to stare into the eyes of a musical terrorist.

Nevertheless, by every objective test one might care to put it through, the work is a masterpiece of exceptional power, and, in the finale, of chairgripping excitement. It is at once the bleakest and the most anguished of his sonatas, and the sighing melodic interval which rounds off its mysterious, intense opening theme permeates the entire first movement, lending the music an extraordinary feeling of world-weariness. Not even the consolatory second subject which presents a less angular version of the same theme, can more than momentarily dispel the atmosphere of despair. Much of this music appears to have been conceived without regard for the limitations of the piano: the powerful tremolandos that herald the approach of the second subject, and the massive chords flung across the keyboard during the development section, are among the many moments that betoken a conception in orchestral terms.

Following so violent an opening movement, it is fitting that the slow movement should unfold for the most part at the pianissimo level. Its warmth is the more welcome in view of the chill wind that blows through the finale. Once again, this closing movement is a piece of altogether orchestral weight. and its concluding bars, in sweeping double octaves, confront the pianist with an almost insuperable problem if he has chosen an appropriately swift tempo for the remainder of the piece.

I. Allegro giusto
II. Andante
III. Allegro vivace

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