What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas?

Posted by: Lotte

What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 10:41 AM

Are there any particular features of Schubert's piano sonatas that sets them apart from other composers' piano sonatas?

How can you recognise a Schubert piano sonata when you hear one?
Posted by: Orange Soda King

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 10:52 AM

Originally Posted By: Lotte
Are there any particular features of Schubert's piano sonatas that sets them apart from other composers' piano sonatas?

How can you recognise a Schubert piano sonata when you hear one?


Well, there aren't a WHOLE lot of them, so for me, I can listen to them and become familiar with them, just like with Beethoven.

Is this the prompt for a homework assignment question?
Posted by: FreddyChopin

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 11:37 AM

Beethoven had an immense influence on his sonatas. Especially the late ones so there aren't many features. A well known feature is that Schubert's piano sonatas often have a great length. His famous late sonatas (D958, D959 & D960) don't fit on a single album.
Posted by: Mark_C

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 11:46 AM

Great question, and hard to answer. The first thing that would come to my mind is that he has long lyrical themes, but, I can't really think of any sonata besides the "little A major" (D. 664) that has such a theme that's particularly longer or more lyrical than in other composers, and heck, look at that melody in Chopin's B minor sonata (2nd theme of 1st movement) but then again that's Chopin and we don't really think of him when we're talking about sonatas.....

Schubert's sonatas are full of surprises and all kinds of different things, but so is Beethoven, probably even more......heck, what does characterize Schubert's sonatas....

I don't know. smile

And with Schubert in general, for most of us, I think we can't even necessarily say "we know it when we hear it." I think if we do recognize his pieces, for most of us it's mainly because we know the particular piece, rather than recognizing the composer. Like, there was this story that I told on here a while ago....
Posted by: BDB

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 12:08 PM

Unlike Beethoven's or Mozart's sonatas, they were written by Schubert. Another difference is that they are very awkward for the pianist.

The last sonata is the one that I have heard performed live more than any other: Rubinstein, Bachauer, Johanneson, Serkin, and a few others. It seems everyone was playing it.
Posted by: eric_626

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 03:54 PM

I'm not overly familiar with the Schubert sonatas outside of D664 and the final trilogy (D958, D959, D960), but I do notice he tends to favor using four movements in his more mature sonatas.

I've also noticed that in a few of his first movements, he uses Moderato rather than the usual Allegro, e.g. D894.
Posted by: Mark_C

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 03:56 PM

Originally Posted By: eric_626
.....I've also noticed that in a few of his first movements, he uses Moderato rather than the usual Allegro, e.g. D894.

Great point! That's as close to any generalization that I think we could make. Even when it's not marked "Moderato," often it sort of is.
Posted by: sophial

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 05:11 PM

Schubert's harmonic modulations are a recurrent feature and really wonderful in shifting mood and tone within the sonatas. Plus as someone else said.... they are long!!
Posted by: DameMyra

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 05:44 PM

Originally Posted By: sophial
Schubert's harmonic modulations are a recurrent feature and really wonderful in shifting mood and tone within the sonatas. Plus as someone else said.... they are long!!


Yes, he changes modes (major-minor-major) probably more than any other composer I am familiar with. Also much of his harmonic modulations are by 3rds.
Posted by: David-G

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 07:34 PM

Originally Posted By: Mark_C
And with Schubert in general, for most of us, I think we can't even necessarily say "we know it when we hear it." I think if we do recognize his pieces, for most of us it's mainly because we know the particular piece, rather than recognizing the composer. Like, there was this story that I told on here a while ago....
Mark, I enjoyed your story! However, I do tend to recognise Schubert when I hear it. Even if I don't know the piece. It just sounds ... "Schubertian".
Posted by: Mark_C

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 09:37 PM

Originally Posted By: David-G
Originally Posted By: Mark_C
And with Schubert in general, for most of us, I think we can't even necessarily say "we know it when we hear it." I think if we do recognize his pieces, for most of us it's mainly because we know the particular piece, rather than recognizing the composer. Like, there was this story that I told on here a while ago....
Mark, I enjoyed your story! However, I do tend to recognise Schubert when I hear it. Even if I don't know the piece. It just sounds ... "Schubertian".

Except when it sounds "Beethovenian"! ha
Posted by: tomasino

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 11:06 PM

It's more than modulating between major and minor on the same tonic. He likes to get to a dimished 7th chord and then modulate in quite a few different ways from there, rather than simply resolving the bottom note upward to the tonic. He also regularly goes to the flatted sub-mediant, which has a certain emotional effect that I recognize as Schubert.

I think of him as the father of the "music trance." Listen to the opening bars of "Nacht und Traueme" to see what I mean, (it sounds almost Wagnerian, or strangely, minimalist). Also, the g flat major impromtu is a music trance to me, almost in its entirety. Other composers, mostly later, did it too, but to me, it is his signature, and what causes me to recognize him. The modulation may be how he gets to the trance, but to me, it is the more subjective idea of the trance itself that is his signature.

Another thing to listen for is the long thematic line, as opposed to motivic development--the cello melody of the unfinished symphony, for example. Also, he could write a melody so intriguing that it can stand alone in lieu of any other musical context--the melody of Staendchen, without even a guitar accompaniment, can hold its own next to symphonies and sonatas.

He takes criticism for length and for not fitting his music to a pianist's hand. I like his length, and I find that at least some of it fits my hand extremely well. I don't find it, in general, to be a poorer fit than most other composers. I know that this not fitting the hand criticism is a common one, so maybe I just don't know.

All in all, I think he is a very great composer.

Tomasino
Posted by: jeffreyjones

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/18/11 11:38 PM

Schubert often uses repetitive rhythms (especially dotted) and melodic material at great length and it doesn't get old. At least not in competent hands.

There is also a certain blend of classical form and a restrained Romantic language which is hard to mistake for anyone else. The closest analogue would be Brahms or Schumann, but their sonatas are much wilder and rougher than Schubert's. Mendelssohn's sonatas, on the other hand, are too light to be mistaken for Schubert.
Posted by: Numerian

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 12:57 AM

Tomasino has some very perceptive things to say about Schubert's style. Schubert's ability to modulate from major to minor, from bar to bar, within a bar, and sometimes by merely shifting one note in a chord, gives his music a sense of melancholy. This is easy to imitate on paper and many composers have tried, but there is an instinct that Schubert had for this bittersweet emotion that no one has been able to duplicate. His reliance on the diminished seventh as a stepping stone to unexpected chords is also characteristic.

His harmonic inventiveness is part of the sheer beauty of his music, but I think what moves people the most are his incredible melodies. He seemed to have an inexhaustible spring of lyrical treasures; he complained sometimes that he couldn't stop his brain from inventing them. He kept notation paper next to his bed so when he woke up he could write down what his brain had been working on while he slept.

Schubert was not the inventor of the long lyrical line in vocal music - Mozart certainly preceded him there - but he was the inventor of the art song in Romantic music, which relied on the lyrical line to match the meter and length of the line in the poetry chosen for the song. Schubert was also unmatched in his use of the piano as a partner to the vocalist. His writing for the piano was sparse - the pianist rarely plays the same note as the vocalist is singing. But his use of the instrument to mimic nature, such as babbling brooks, crows cawing, wind howling, a horse cantering, was unique. Schubert was an extremely gifted miniaturist because of his song writing skills, and this shows up in his piano solo and four hand pieces.

When he applied these talents to the piano sonata, his weaknesses became apparent. He wasn't very good at developing themes or creating interesting structure in his sonatas, so he often fell back on merely repeating entire passages in different keys. In this respect Schubert was a mere shadow compared to Beethoven's great talents in thematic development and architecture. But to accomplish what he did, and to imbue his music with the passion that he felt was the most essential ingredient, Beethoven used melodic motifs - little building blocks of his musical cathedrals (think of the opening of his 5th Symphony or almost any of his piano sonatas). Schubert was the complete opposite, using lyrical lines in his sonatas at the expense of architectural development. This is why his attempts at passion often sound forced. But we listen to his sonatas nonetheless because they are simply so beautiful melodically, and who then really cares that they are repetitive or too long?

Do not underestimate the importance of the "music trance" Tomasino discusses. Schubert did indeed invent this in piano literature, and his only rival in creating this effect on the piano has been Chopin. In his slow movements in his sonatas, Schubert overcomes his development problems by weaving a trance that can last ten minutes and keep you spellbound to the repeating beauty. He is especially good at this in his impromptus, which are shorter and more congenial structures for him, and in which he was able to create masterpieces.

Schubert wrote so much music that we often can't identify his unfamiliar pieces. But once you get used to his composing style, his voice becomes unmistakable and certainly that of a genius. Schubert worked hard at maintaining his own style; he often frequented the same tavern as Beethoven and was urged by his friends to go over an introduce himself to the great man. Schubert refused, somewhat out of timidity, but especially because he didn't want to get swallowed up in Beethoven's aura, and start mimicking his style. This allowed Schubert to become a very great man in his own right, and Beethoven predicted just before he died that Schubert would become an even greater composer that he was (and Beethoven was not shy about his own greatness). If Schubert hadn't died a few years later, Beethoven's prediction might well have come true.
Posted by: Percival

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 01:55 AM

I can tell a Schubert sonata just by looking at the score because everything is sort of neatly arranged and logical. It's hard to explain.
Posted by: Mark_C

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 03:07 AM

Numerian: Great post!
But hope you don't mind if I quibble a tiny negligible bit about this part.... smile
Originally Posted By: Numerian
.....Do not underestimate the importance of the "music trance" Tomasino discusses. Schubert did indeed invent this in piano literature, and his only rival in creating this effect on the piano has been Chopin....

You forgot Scriabin. smile

And also arguably Beethoven, at times.

But you and Tomasino mostly nailed it. This "trance" thing has been one of my own reasons for keeping on playing in public. Yes, it's a thing that can happen when we play for ourselves or for whatever, but for me, it can happen in a public performance to a much greater extent. I 'discovered' it in one of my first recitals, right on the spot (in a Chopin mazurka), and that was really what kept me going with the performing. In fact, for my next recital, I consciously tried to pick only "trance" pieces. smile
(One was a Schubert sonata.)

And I'd never thought of it till I saw Tomasino's post, but yes, I would agree that Schubert may have "invented" it in piano literature, or at least was the first one to give it such a presence. Funny.....this is such a subjective thing -- what is such a trance? where does or doesn't it appear? Yet, from Tomasino's post and yours (including your mention of Chopin), and from my own impression, it seems that this is something on which people might well agree on the specifics -- which surprises me, pleasantly.

While I wouldn't put Scriabin on the same plane as these other composers that we're talking about, and so maybe he's not even in the discussion, if we do consider him "eligible" I would put him on a tier with anybody in this "trance" department, especially with his later works but also even many of the earlier ones.
Posted by: eric_626

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 03:39 AM

Really great insight, tomasino and Numerian! That "musical trance" definitely is something I've noticed in Schubert, especially in the D959 and D960 Sonatas, but I never knew how to put it in words. The passage that comes to mind for me when I was reading the post was the "B" section from D959's Rondo. Schubert almost manages to make you lose your sense of time and space (as if you were dreaming) just by repeating and modulating the relatively simple melodic material in that section before finally building up to the re-appearance of the Rondo theme ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39Cn76IRCpc from 1:52 to around 4:28 ).

It's definitely something that separates Schubert from Beethoven.
Posted by: Mark_C

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 03:48 AM

Originally Posted By: eric_626
....It's definitely something that separates Schubert from Beethoven.

As per my above post, I'm not so sure.
Beethoven's late works, especially parts of the last 3 sonatas, are definite "trance pieces" to me.
And also, provided we're able to play it with a fresh vision, which isn't easy, IMO so is Fur Elise.
Posted by: eric_626

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 04:17 AM

Originally Posted By: Mark_C
Originally Posted By: eric_626
....It's definitely something that separates Schubert from Beethoven.

As per my above post, I'm not so sure.
Beethoven's late works, especially parts of the last 3 sonatas, are definite "trance pieces" to me.
And also, provided we're able to play it with a fresh vision, which isn't easy, IMO so is Fur Elise.


Didn't see your post at first, I think I was typing at the same time you posted.

Yeah I think you're right about Beethoven's last 3 sonatas. Now that I think about it, the Arietta from Op. 111 definitely contains some trance-like passages, especially in the second half. Perhaps what I meant was that I just feel there is a distinct difference in the means in which the two composers attain that state in their music.

Late Beethoven to me always seems to be more meticulous, as if every note meant something, whereas late Schubert is more likely to contain long spacious passages like the section from D959 I mentioned.

Most of my opinions are from listening though, much of late Beethoven/Schubert is still out of my league for playing. I've only played parts of D959.
Posted by: Bart Kinlein

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 04:27 AM

Quote:
"trance pieces"


Not sure if I'm on track here, but Schumann's Traumerei seems to do it for me. Whenever I play it I think of the Horowitz encore performance in Moscow.

Maybe that's my trigger for a trance, at least as I understand the intent of the phrase.
Posted by: Numerian

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 08:02 AM

Traumerei definitely counts for me as a music trance, and the way Horowitz captured his audience's attention with this piece suggests he knew exactly how to best weave a hypnosis from such music. I have noticed a small phenomenon in concerts where a music trance is being created: the audience begins to breathe in and breathe out together. There are a number of composers who can use the full majesty of an orchestra and/or opera stage to produce such an effect as well: the ending moments in Puccini's La Boheme, the ending trio in Der Rosenkavalier, and the slow movements of some Mahler symphonies. In piano, we cannot leave out Beethoven in some of his slow movements (Ninth Symphony, last sonatas). Notice, however, that Beethoven still relies on the short motif, as in the broken chord of the Moonlight Sonata (1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 over and over), which allows the harmony to set the trance first. The late Romantics had their moments, as in Debussy's Claire de Lune, and I think Mark is right about Scriabin.

But in all these other cases, the composers happened upon a particularly gorgeous or arresting melody to create a spell. What sets Schubert and Chopin apart is that producing such melodies seemed almost routine for them, and they composed music trance pieces much more frequently and you might say deliberately. All of the Chopin Nocturnes seem to seek this effect, on purpose, and with such success that you feel like you are bodily transported away from the recital hall. You forget about analyzing the music, you forget about the performer - you simply let your mind travel wherever it wants to go under the trance. It is a remarkable experience with the right composer and the right performer.

Two other composers who deserve credit in the musical trance department are JN Hummel and Franz Liszt. Hummel was writing music trance slow movements before Chopin was born. Chopin clearly borrowed Hummel's technique and style in his own slow movements to his piano concertos, or the endings of some of his impromptus, or in the Berceuse. Chopin in his letters was very honest in giving Hummel credit for this style, and even went so far as to write that Bach, Mozart and Hummel were his gods (no credit whatever, by the way, to Beethoven, whom Chopin did not esteem).

The thing about Hummel is, when you try to create the trance by playing his music, it often fails. There has to be some trick or technique Hummel used in his own performances of his work that captivated his audiences and kept them riveted in their chairs. Everyone agrees that he kept a very strict tempo while performing, and since he is cramming so many notes into a bar in many of his filigree, delicate passages, he absolutely had to create a way for these little cadenzas to breathe within the strict tempo. Whatever it was, Chopin "got it", and he too by all accounts used a much stricter tempo in his own music than we hear today from performers.

As to Liszt, he is probably the only pianist/composer who entranced his audiences in even the stormiest of his music - not just the slow parts. This is the one universal constant in what people wrote about him: everything he played was mesmerizing. People were emotionally drained after his concerts, and mass hysteria sometimes occurred. Sadly, after he died it began to be evident that hardly anyone could play his music as effectively as he could, and so he often is ranked as a second tier composer.

Posted by: tomasino

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 09:05 AM

I really want to get back into this thread, but, I'm playing a little recital for friends in my home this evening--Franck, "prelude, chorale and fugue, and a friend is playing some Schubert, Schumann and Granados--and I haven't vacuumed my rugs, or purchased the wine and cheese or anything. So I'm a little panicked today.

I hope the thread stays alive through Sunday and into Monday. I have some things to say vis-a-vis Schubert and the New German school. But I haven't got time today. Please stay tuned.

Personal note to Daniel (Redicosolamente), I wish you were still here in Minneapolis to participate tonight.

Tomasino
Posted by: Tim Adrianson

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 09:43 AM

I'll throw in one observation regarding Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op 90 -- I've always regarded the 2nd movement as Beethoven trying to emulate Schubert, though historically the situation appears to have clearly been the other way around. The main theme is openly songful, with a long lyrical line; and the subsequent treatments never depart from that warm, open-hearted, sweet-sad quality Schubert was so good at. And, like in Schubert's Sonatas, proper tempo and pacing in that movement is VERY difficult to achieve -- too slow, and the repetitive character will begin to dominate, making the listening experience "endless" in the bad sense; too fast, and the gentle -- well -- trance-like character begins to be compromised.
Only other comment: you really have to be careful with the damper pedal -- Schubert can quickly turn to mush otherwise.
Posted by: BDB

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 11:45 AM

The negative characteristic of Schubert sonatas is that he was not good at condensing the recapitulations. That is where the length tends to become tedious, and the movement become tedious.

He had a penchant for false endings, as well. You think he got to the end, and then he goes on.
Posted by: Mark_C

Re: What are the defining features of Schubert's piano sonatas? - 02/19/11 11:53 AM

Numerian: Very beautifully said. I agree also about Liszt and almost mentioned him. About Hummel, I'm a bit of a fan but never had this impression about him. Maybe I haven't heard enough of his pieces, or maybe, it's what you indicated about depending on the performance.

BTW: I had extra appreciation about the 'audience breathing' thing because of your having said something like that about one of the performances at the Chicago competition. smile

Tomasino: Thanks for starting us on "trance"!

Tim: Interesting about the 2nd movement of Beethoven's Op. 90 -- you could be right! For sure I think it has a Schubertian quality.

BDB: Good point about the "false endings"! Let me say that nobody can match Weber's false ending of Invitation to the Dance ha but Schubert could be a close second. Like, the 1st movement of the little A major is a little tricky in a quiet way at the end.....