Sonata No. 17 in D Major, Op. 53, D. 850
It is a cruel fact that much of Schubert’s output languished unpublished for years after his death. His “Great” C-major Symphony was unknown until discovered among the late composer’s papers by Schumann in 1838. And of Schubert’s 12 complete solo piano sonatas (and almost as many incomplete sonata fragments), only three saw publication during the composer’s lifetime. Eclipsed by Beethoven’s work in the medium, Schubert’s sonatas fell into obscurity for nearly a century before being recovered by pianists and audiences alike.
Of those three published sonatas, the Sonata in D major, D. 850 was the product of what might have been the last untroubled time in Schubert’s life before the darknesses of his final years. In May of 1825, following a period of ill health, Schubert embarked on a journey away from his native Vienna to the spa towns of Gmunden and Gastein, with side trips to Linz and Salzburg. The spectacular scenery of craggy peaks, green valleys, and mountain lakes sparked an explosion of work. The Sonata we hear tonight and at least the beginnings of what would be the “Great” C-major Symphony were both conceived during this summer holiday – they share a similar grandeur.
There is nothing tentative about the Sonata’s opening Allegro – it is kinetic and torrential. Less than two minutes in, there is a sudden slowing of tempo and a noble, possibly Alpine theme is declared. This theme will recur as several static triumphant moments against the hurrying texture of the entire movement.
The second movement, which we expect to be a slow movement and which possesses the gravity of a slow movement, is in fact not a slow movement at all. In the first printed edition the movement is labeled Andante con moto, but subsequent editions retained only the con moto heading – with motion. What might be the most lyrical and touching movement in all of Schubert is dominated by two great themes. The first, flowing and yearning, seems distant – the second, full of passion and vigor, utterly present and immediate. Only in this movement does the composer deploy a triple fortissimo (fff), a dynamic indication virtually unheard of in his sonata output. Schumann wrote of Schubert’s music and its “heavenly length” – certainly a perfect description of this movement.
The dancing and rhythmical third movement Scherzo leads into the deceptive simplicity of the concluding Rondo. To allow the first measures of this final movement to determine our expectations of the rest is a mistake. The child-like tune soon gives way to bursts of virtuosic speed.
We also expect, at the end of such an enormous work, and one of such symphonic scope, a crashing exultant climax, but Schubert is too shrewd to allow such a facile conclusion. When the emotional summits have been so majestically and unfailingly attained earlier, what remains should be gentleness and release. The Sonata ends quietly.
- Grant Hiroshima