Schubert: Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959
959 lies at the center of a triptych of sonatas written in the last months of Schubert’s shockingly short life. (Forgive the hyperbole: The death of a poor man from syphilis at thirty-one might not have been breaking news in 1828 Vienna. But that Schubert was able to write close to a thousand works in that lifespan — even setting aside the small matter of their genius, that is nothing short of staggering.) While these sonatas are generally regarded with awe, they have also had nearly every synonym for “long” attached to them, many of them carrying a pejorative tinge: “discursive,” “meandering,” “sprawling.” The source of people’s discomfort, I think, is the ever-shifting narrative in these works: the way one moment fails to prepare us for the next.
The middle of D. 959’s Andantino is, by a large measure, the most unprepared and discomfiting moment of all. The movement’s opening is from the world of song; Schubert is so often in the world of song. While its character is certainly mournful, it is resigned — the fist is not shaking, it is mostly not even clenched — and the predictability with which it unfolds is almost reassuring. For forty measures, the vocal lament is underpinned by harmony that moves with great deliberation, and by a left hand whose rhythmic regularity is absolute. Nearly every bar features a quick, sizeable rise, followed by a more deliberate fall: a gentle defiance of gravity. In the last four measures, deliberation becomes stasis. The bass line ceases to move; so too does the melody. Sleep comes.
And when it does, hell breaks loose straight away: We go from zero to berserk in a matter of measures. The resignation of the opening is revealed to have been a front, a brave face worn while conscious: Now, in an unconscious state, a terrified and terrifying id is unleashed. Each phrase takes us to a harmonic destination that cannot be foreseen; each phrase sees the melodic line (such as it is) careen more and more wildly from register to register. The music at first suggests a person groping in the dark, and then, finally, running in circles at the realization that there is mortal danger in every direction. The motion grows simultaneously more aimless and more hysterical until, with a shriek, it stops.
Among music’s greatest marvels is the power in its silences. Sometimes they offer repose, but just as often they question, or challenge, or menace. They have an expressive vocabulary that is nearly as extensive as that of the notes themselves, even though without the surrounding notes they mean nothing. This silence is pure terror. It is the stillness of a person who is desperate to escape but knows there is nowhere to escape to. It is a nightmare most of us have had, translated into a sound by a genius consumed with death thoughts.
—Jonathan Biss, Coda (Kindle Single), 2017
The fourth installment in the project podcast series explores the late style of Schubert.
This work was performed on the third concert of PCMS' Departure & Discovery Project at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.