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On 25 July 1825 Franz Schubert wrote a long chatty letter to his parents from Steyer, in which we read: 'They particularly enjoyed the variations from my new sonata for piano solo, which I performed quite successfully, and several people assured me that under my fingers the keys began to sing. If this is sincere, it makes me very happy since I cannot stand the wretched hacking which is typical of even excellent pianists, as it pleases neither the ear nor the heart.'
The new sonata was the one in A minor, D. 845, the first of Schubert's three sonatas to be published during his lifetime, and its slow movement is, indeed, among the composer's finest variation sets. The sonata begins bleakly, with a subdued theme in bare octaves; and although the mood lightens during the course of the exposition, with the introduction of a dance-like second subject in C major,
Schubert soon returns to his opening theme in a still more plangent version. This has drastic consequences for the shape of the recapitulation: because the reintroduction of this intensified version of the main theme in the home key would run the risk of sounding repetitive, Schubert omits the main theme entirely, and fuses development and recapitulation in a seamless burst of energy. It is a splendid inspiration, and one of the most remarkable moments in what was surely the composer's finest sonata opening movement up to this time. The earlier mentioned slow movement with it's variations is particularly subtle in the way by which the final cadence of each half of the theme is harmonically altered in the succeeding variations.
The second variation introduces a tinge of minor at this point, a harbinger of the C minor variation that is to follow. The C minor variation, in turn, casts its shadow over the remainder of the piece, in particular, the concluding variation, whose delicate horn calls hover constantly betwen major and minor. At the end, the horns recede into the distance, and the piece comes to a close in an atmosphere of utmost calm.
The dynamic Scherzo unfolds for the most part in five-bar phrases - an irregularity that is counterbalanced by the gentle Landler-like Trio. As for the finale, with its constant flow of quavers, it seems to take its point of departure from the corresponding movement of Mozart's great A minor Sonata, K310. Both have a subdued theme based on a constant pattern of quavers, and feature a central episode in the major which is at once more radiant and more poignant than the music that surrounds it.
At the end, Schubert accelerates towards a headlong conclusion in which the music appears to be spiralling away into the distance, before two emphatic chords bring the proceedings to a dramatic full stop. By the time he composed the A minor Sonata, Schubert felt confident enough in his powers to invite comparison on the highest level: he dedicated the work to Beethoven's staunchest patron, Archduke Rudolf of Austria, and it duly appeared in 1826, as his Premiere Grande Sonate. The picture with regard to Schubert's preceding sonatas is rather different. Although several have come down to us in their entirety, others were left in a fragmentary state; and Schubert's carelessness with regard to his manuscripts (sometimes written on the blank pages of earlier compositions), coupled with a tendency to write isolated movements as the inspiration took him, has even left posterity with decisions to be made as to whether certain individual pieces were intended as parts of the same work.
II. Andante poco moto
III. Scherzo - Allegro vivace
IV. Rondo - Allegro vivace
Listen to Sonata in A minor, D 845