Masterpieces for Solo Piano
by Franz Schubert
Recommended Ages: 14+
|20 works?! A later edition?
Who is Franz Peter Schubert? He was an Austrian composer who lived from 1797 to 1828—just shy of 32 years. He wrote some notable orchestral and chamber works, such as the famous "Unfinished" Symphony, the "Trout" Quintet for Piano and Strings, the "Death and the Maiden" String Quartet, several settings of the Mass, and incidental music for the play Rosamunde, to name just a few pieces representative of his varied output. His greatest legacy, however, remains his songs for vocal solo and piano. Hundreds of them, including the Song Cycles Die schöne Müllerin ("The Fair Milleress"), Die Winterreise ("The Winter Journey"), and Schwanengesang ("Swan Song")—songs that challenge professional singers to the utmost, and yet also reward the efforts and appreciation of amateur musicians and private music-lovers.
Schubert was a younger contemporary of Beethoven, who lived a longer life but died only a year earlier. His early works are recognizable, to those in the know, by the way they make one think, "Haydn could have written this, but I don't think he would have." As he matured, his music developed along unique lines that were never followed up by a direct musical successor, but that independently paralleled some of the progressive tendencies in late Beethoven: more expansive musical structures, combined with more passionate Romanticism, more adventurous harmony, and (to a lesser degree) more intricate counterpoint.
He never knew Beethoven's fame in his lifetime, though. Many of Schubert's masterpieces were first performed years, even decades after his death. In his time, Schubert was appreciated mainly by his own circle of friends, whose gatherings to listen to his music were known as "Schubertiads." Music lovers to this day are enchanted by Schubert, and frustrated by his legacy of unfinished masterpieces. Among the Schubertiads you can enjoy are Luciano Berio's Rendition—one of several attempts to realize the fragmentary sketches for Schubert's "Tenth" Symphony, left incomplete when the composer died; Leopold Godowsky's Passacaglia for piano on the theme of the Unfinished (Eighth) Symphony; several composers' orchestral arrangements of the "Seventh" Symphony (which Schubert completed in piano score but never took any further); and strangest of all, a dubious text of an "1825" Symphony (committed to CD by Gerhard Samuel and the Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra), which sounds exactly as though someone took apart Schubert's Ninth Symphony and put it back together in a different order with a different set of tunes. No one seems to hold out much hope that this piece is really by Schubert. I just mention it to give you a feel for a composer who, perhaps more than any other, inspires music lovers around the world to mull over "what if" scenarios.
list of his piano works. This book makes no attempt to be a complete collection of them, as you can readily see. For a more complete collection, or for full sets of specific genres such as the sonatas, you will have to look into more expensive editions, perhaps an Urtext. But for the purposes of giving my testimonial as an amateur player, I can only bear witness to the book I have.
It begins with one (the first) of the Two Scherzi D 593, written in 1817, after dozens of earlier works in a variety of genres. This Scherzo in B-flat major is one of those pieces to which I have already alluded, of the "Is this by Haydn? Surely not!" persuasion. I'm not sure how to put into words the reason for the "Surely not!" Haydn, though often remembered for high polish and sparkling blandness, often—especially in his maturity—pulled surprise tricks and introduced rugged, spare effects, touched by harmonic daring and a droll wit. Any of these characteristics would be easy to confuse with Schubert's youthful brashness and the occasional roughness of his technique. The difference is really between the Classic period at its fullest flowering and the Romantic period in embryo—a difference you can't miss if you know how to listen for it, but that might elude you otherwise.
Next, skipping over several fragmentary works in the catalog, the book includes the Sonata in A major, D 664, also published posthumously as Op. 120. It is not Schubert's first piano sonata, though some of his earlier ones survive only in fragments. Nor is it Schubert's last sonata; at least seven of his piano sonatas are both later and greater than this, and yet are not included in this book. Written in 1819, it is early enough to have (again) a whiff of Haydn about it, though with less tendency to subtlety, rhythmic variety, and textural intricacy. It's very playable, fun to play and pleasant to hear. Artistically, it isn't much more than a pleasant diversion.
Following this is Schubert's greatest virtuoso showpiece, the Fantasy in C major, D 760, op. 15, written in 1822, around the time he unfinished the Unfinished Symphony. You may have heard of it under the popular nickname "Wanderer Fantasy," which comes from the fact that the theme of the second movement is based on a song of his called "The Wanderer." In structure it is very similar to a four-movement piano sonata; but as a single work played without a break, it is more than usually unified by the use of the same motive in all four movements—also derived from that song's theme. Movement 1 (Allegro con fuoco ma non troppo) is a sonata-form movement of a very loud, flashy, extroverted persuasion, focusing on one theme throughout. Movement 2 (Adagio) is a set of increasingly decorated variations on the aforenamed song. Movement 3 (Presto) stands in place of the customary Scherzo—a quick, energetic piece in 3/4 time. The last movement (Allegro) broadens out into 4/4 time and gives the opening motive of the work a fugal treatment, tending increasingly toward the spectacular. I only dare to play select parts of this masterpiece, and them below tempo; to fully enjoy this piece, I rely on recordings like this.
The next little bit of this book is given to the Eleven Écossaises, D 781, written in 1823. Écossaises are a style of dance originating in Scotland and popular throughout Europe in the early 1800s. They are characterized by a sprightly 2/4 rhythm and sudden contrasts between loud and soft; they often have an "oom-pah, oom-pah" accompaniment, and if one is to judge by Schubert's examples, they tend to fall into a compact and predictable form. Allow me to be unsparing in my opinion. Schubert's 11 Écossaises are of very slight artistic merit. In fact, to be perfectly frank, they are completely boring. Each one is sixteen bars long, not counting repeats, and has little harmonic or melodic interest to enliven it. I can only think of two things in their favor: first, the sight-reading practice value of mastering pieces in keys with four, five, or six sharps or flats (which accounts for 6 out of 11 numbers in the set); and second, the appeal for those interested in actually dancing the Écossaise today, in a series of brief dance figures that can be played straight through without a break.
After this, however, comes a set of Twelve German Dances, D 790, op. 171, also written in 1823 and usually referred to as Ländler, although that is not Schubert's title. (He did give the name Ländler to quite a few piano pieces.) A Ländler, for your information, was a type of dance in 3/4 time, originating in the neighborhood of Austria and Switzerland, and now thought to be an evolutionary ancestor of the Waltz. By the time of Schubert this dance of the village watering-hole was being taken over by the dance-hall set, and its impact on European culture is attested by the echoes of Ländler in the music of Beethoven, Mahler, and Bruckner. This set of piano Ländler is comparable to Brahms' Waltzes op. 39—not great masterpieces, but interesting miniatures of considerable quality. Most are half a page long; the last three all fit on one page; only the first takes up a whole page in the Dover edition. Their charm is such that Schubert's feeling for the Ländler becomes obvious. And again, seven of the twelve give the amateur player good practice in keys with four or more sharps or flats.
Then there are the Impromptus, in which this book's tendency toward selective omission becomes most irksome. Schubert wrote eight Impromptus late in his career: four Impromptus D 899 (op. 90), and four Impromptus D 935 (op. 142), all written in 1827, though the latter set was published posthumously. Unfortunately, Dover's editor only saw fit to include four of the eight Impromptus in this book—Nos. 2 and 3 of the first set, 3 and 4 of the other. If anything will spur me to invest more money in a better edition of Schubert's piano works, it is the hope of playing through all eight of his Impromptus. The title "Impromptu" was supplied by Schubert's publisher; the evident care with which each piece was written gives it the lie. 899/2 in E-flat major is a lively exercise in playing running triplet eighth-notes with the right hand. Again I see a prophecy of Brahms in the middle section. 899/3 in G-flat major (six flats) is a study in harmony with a "Moonlight Sonata"-type texture, with rolling eighth-notes in the middle above left-hand chords and a tenderly lyric melody on top. 935/3 in B-flat is a set of variations on a simple melody full of naive loveliness. And 935/4 in F minor is a scherzo that also contains, embedded within it, a scale-playing exercise in octave sixteenth-notes.
Concluding this collection are the Three Piano Pieces, D 946, which some say Schubert wrote in 1828, shortly before his death, as part of a planned third set of Impromptus that he never completed. Others allege that at least some of this material came from an earlier stage in Schubert's career, around the vintage of the Moments Musicaux. Either way, they were not published until 1868, under the editorship of Brahms himself, and are somewhat overlooked in comparison to the Impromptus and the Moments. There are also disputes about what to call the pieces (some editors paste the title "Impromptus" above them) and whether or not to play a passage that Schubert crossed out in his manuscript (not included in this book).
No. 1 in E-flat minor is a dramatic piece with a growling triplet pulse, long stretches of 2:3 cross-rhythms, virtuosic flourishes, and a slower B section (structurally speaking) that happens to be in B major. No. 2 in E-flat major is a sort of rondo whose refrain is a sweet, gentle Allegretto in 6/8 time. This progresses to a C minor episode (later moving to C major) with threatening left-hand tremolos and hemiolas (i.e., bars with a 3/4 pulse alternating with 6/8). After a return of the refrain comes a very long second episode in A-flat minor (seven flats!) in which the melody is accompanied by repeated chords in the left hand and between-the-beats chords in the right. In the middle of this episode is a bonus passage in B minor which, in the context of repeat-signs and a return both to A-flat minor and finally E-flat major, comes over as an episode-within-an-episode.
Finally, No. 3 in C major wraps up the collection with a celebration of syncopated rhythms (weak-beat accents). Its central section modulates to a distant key and time signature, probably requiring an unmarked tempo change. The crudeness of Schubert's development of this theme suggests to me that this was an earlier work than Brahms believed. But its final page supplies an appropriate coda for a volume of often great piano pieces that, for the most part, are not too hard for a reasonably diligent amateur to play and enjoy.