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FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Sonata in G major, D. 894, op. 78 (“Fantasie”)

January 19, 2020: Paul Lewis, piano

In October 1826 when Schubert wrote his G major Piano Sonata he had just moved into new lodgings near his old school where his friend Franz von Schober and his mother had taken up a new residence. Another longtime friend, Josef von Spaun, paid him a visit there, and Schubert played him the almost completed first movement of the Sonata. Spaun’s pleasure in the piece resulted in his receiving the dedication when the Sonata was published the following year—“for I like to do something to please you when I can,” he reported Schubert as saying.

The 1827 publication of the Sonata employed the title Fantasy, Andante, Minuet, and Allegretto, a fabrication of the publisher either to attract customers or to recognize a new concept behind a work that began in a very moderate tempo and with the relaxed-sounding meter 12/8—unusual for a sonata first movement. This title served to confuse early critics and to keep the work from being considered a sonata for a number of years. Robert Schumann, however, recognized the Sonata for what it was, and in an 1835 review of three Schubert sonatas called it “the most perfect in form and substance.”

Despite the early designation of fantasy for the first movement, it follows true sonata form, even though its course is primarily a leisurely and lyrical one. Commentators have found links between this movement and the opening of Beethoven’s G major Piano Concerto, which Schubert certainly knew, and also with a procedure he employed just three months earlier in his own G major String Quartet—that of immediately repeating the entire dancelike second theme with soaring ornamentation. The central development section explores some of the more impassioned possibilities of his songful melodies. Though Schubert did not always confine excursions to distant and colorful keys to his development sections, he largely did so in this movement.

As in many of his slow movements, Schubert presents his serene main theme three times, alternating with two stormy episodes. His first return to the main theme is somewhat infused with the energy of the intervening episode, so that when the main theme makes its final appearance in its calm guise, it brings a sense of rounding-off and closure.

Schubert’s Minuet continues the Sonata’s moderate pace where a scherzo might have seemed too brash. Much in the character of a Ländler (Austrian precursor of the waltz), the main Minuet section and its return encompass one of Schubert’s true gems—a delicate trio that grows out of a little figure heard at the end of the Minuet.

In the finale Schubert may again have found inspiration in Beethoven—in this case the Rondo of the G major Piano Sonata, op. 31, no. 1, which like Schubert’s movement is marked “Allegretto.” Schubert’s rondo, though not so-labeled, features a tuneful refrain, based on a long note releasing into shorter and repeated notes. The refrain alternates with scenic episodes, of which the second contains a poetic minor-mode section with a magical shift to major. The movement ends with a quiet yet sparkling coda that peaks just before making a final hushed reminder of the rondo theme—a fitting close for such a lovely, unhurried work.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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