I’ve recently started learning Schubert’s humungous last piano sonata, D960 in Bb major. Written in 1828 just months before his premature death at the tender age of 31, the sonata is a poignant farewell to life with a mixture of joyous melodies and angry outbursts. Heavily influenced by meeting Beethoven, who died just a year earlier, Schubert penned three last piano sonatas around the same time, all published posthumously, of which this is the last and perhaps most serene. Despite languishing in obscurity for decades, all three of these last sonatas are now considered master works.
The sonata has taken me a while to really understand, but it has been well worth the effort! We are taken on an incredible lyrical journey, from an epic first movement, through a heart-breaking second moment, followed by an energetic scherzo and finally a dramatic rondo. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to hear Paul Badura-Skoda playing this piece live in concert last month. With the benefit of a lifetime’s study, he created an incredible sense of intimacy and his interpretation sparkled with insight. Have a listen to one of his many recordings of this piece:
Because the first movement in particular is so long (for a single movement), I decided that taking an analytical approach early on in the learning process would be useful both to increase my understanding of the piece and to help with memorisation. The movement is in classical sonata form, which essentially means that it has three clear sections with certain ‘rules’ linking them:
(1) Exposition – the first subject is presented in the tonic key, followed by a second subject usually in the dominant; the whole exposition is usually marked as repeated
(2) Development – substantial development and modulations of the themes
(3) Recapitulation – a return to the exposition, but ending in the tonic and capped with a coda to finish
Formal analysis can be quite daunting, but having just read In Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding (ed. John Rink, Cambridge University Press, 2002), I was inspired to take Peter Hill’s advice and study the score away from the piano. In the same book, John Rink describes a number of ways to go about analysing a piece for the benefit of performance, which includes identifying formal divisions and creating a tonal plan. Doing a fairly basic analysis is actually quite fun, incredible informative and really not that difficult!I worked from the start of the piece in chunks, trying to identify sections and themes, and recorded just four things about each chunk:
- bar numbers (for ease of reference)
- principle key
- theme (or its derivative)
- overall dynamic
To analyse the first movement only took about an hour with pencil and paper and at the end of the hour I was much clearer about the musical material in the piece and its organisation. I’ve referred repeatedly to my sheet of A4 throughout memorising this movement, and it has helped create a map of the piece. There is a very clear structure to the piece, with a clear arrangement of thematic material makes, and knowing this makes it easier to focus on potentially tricksy transition points. There are some shocking tonal transitions (from F to C#m between the exposition and development for example!), but nonetheless the same basic thematic material is used both economically and creatively. Particularly useful is the realisation that the Recapitulation is almost identical to the Exposition, except that Theme II and III are transposed up a fourth. The beautifully simple main theme (Theme I) appears nearly a dozen times throughout the movement, from the start to the final coda, providing familiar ‘safe’ territory for listener and performer alike.
Here’s my analysis (which comes with my usual health warning: I’m not a musicologist, so there may be errors, and the definitions of thematic boundaries are my own). I’ve colour-coded it by theme to highlight the structure and give a bit of clarity. Inevitably, a great deal of detail is lost when paring a sonata down to this level, but nonetheless I think it provides a useful frame of reference. Perhaps it will prove helpful to someone else too?