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Franz Schubert - Sonata in A major, D. 959

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This is Schubert's penultimate piano sonata, also written about three months before his death. It is one of Schubert's most popular piano sonatas, enjoying currency on both the recital stage and in the recording studio. The work opens with dramatic, stately chords which yield to gentler music. Both the first and second themes of the Allegro are presented in ternary form.

The exposition goes traditionally from tonic to dominant (E major), and even prepares the dominant tonality in the Classical fashion – through its own dominant, V of V – the only first movement to do so in the mature Schubert. However, at two points during the exposition, a series of modulations by major thirds (e.g. A major to F major) appears, generating a full turn through the circle of fifths, thus creating an illusion of forward harmonic movement, while actually ending in the same key in which it began.

As in the previous sonata, the development section deals only with its own, new melodies and textures. Here, however, rather than developing the main thematic material of the exposition through successive modulations, the harmony constantly shifts back and forth between two tonalities – C major and B major. Later on, a passage in the tonic minor appears, followed by the retransition, which here has the unconventional role of only shifting to the major mode to prepare the recapitulation, rather than fully preparing the tonic key. The recapitulation is traditional – staying in the tonic, and emphasizing the tonic minor and the flat submediant (F major) as subdominant tonalities. The coda restates the first theme, this time in a much more 'hesitant' manner, pianissimo and with further allusions to subdominant tonalities. The movement ends with serene arpeggios.

The Andantino in F-sharp minor, in A–B–A form. presents a lamenting, poignant melody, full of sigh gestures, portrayed by descending seconds. The middle section is of an improvisatory, fantasia-like character, with extremely harsh modulations and sonorities, culminating in C-sharp minor with fortissimo chords. After this climax, a recitative section leads to a serene phrase in the major mode (C-sharp major), which in turn leads (as the dominant of F-sharp minor) back to the A section, here somewhat transformed, with new accompanimental figuration. Many take the view that the ensuing Andantino, though it is not the longest or grandest of the four panels here, is the most profound. Its mesmerizing main theme is dreamy and mysterious, but often seeming on the verge of erupting into a storm. The Andantino seems to pit serenity and violence, or even reason and madness, against one another.

The B section of the scherzo juxtaposes two distant tonal realms – C major and C-sharp minor. The music moves in and out of these keys without any modulatory preparation, as if by improvisation.[26] C major returns in the concluding A section, this time more tonally integrated into its A-major surroundings, by modulatory sequences. The trio is in D major, ternary form. Its middle section moves to F major. The Scherzo is delightful in its lightness and good spirits. Yet for all the effervescence here, there is considerable craftsmanship: the arpeggiated chords appearing at the outset are a variant of the somewhat sinister ones at the end of the Andantino.

The lyrical rondo movement consists of almost relentless triplet movement and endless songful melody. Its form is a sonata-rondo (A–B–A–development–A–B–A–coda). The second thematic group is written in the traditional dominant key; however, it is very long, modulating through many different subdominant tonalities. The development section, in contrast, culminates in a long passage in C-sharp minor. This leads to a false recapitulation in F-sharp major, which then modulates to begin again in the home key. In the coda, the main theme returns fragmented, with full bar pauses, which lead each time to unexpected changes of key. This is followed by a concluding, agitated presto section, based on the final bars of the main theme. This finale, pays tribute to Beethoven; yet, the only truly imitative element is Schubert's borrowing of a theme from the slow movement of his own A minor Piano Sonata, D. 537.

Ironically, the composer could not get this masterpiece published in the remaining months of his life. It would be published in 1839, though his reputation would not begin to grow appreciably until after 1856, when he was discovered and championed by English musicologist, George Grove.

I. Allegro
II. Andantino
III. Scherzo and Trio

Recommended recordings of Schubert Sonatas

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