The list of instrumental masterworks composed by Franz Schubert in his short life – he was not yet 32 when the end came, even younger than Mozart, who died at age 35 – is remarkable, especially considering his reputation as perhaps the greatest composer of songs. The “mature” works include string quartets, piano sonatas, trios, and masterpieces for piano duo, as well as symphonies.
The genre of the violin sonata did not figure significantly in his catalog, but one work for the combination of violin and piano stands above the others for several reasons. The late works of Schubert, if that’s the right term for music composed at age 30 or 31, find him exploring new harmonic, sonic, and emotional territory, and that is certainly true of the Fantasy (D. 934) for violin and piano.
The very title is one we find in just a few of Schubert’s compositions, such as the “Wanderer” Fantasy (D. 760) for solo piano and the Fantasy in F minor (D. 940) for piano four-hands. As with D. 760, Schubert employs thematic material from one of his many songs, in this case “Sei mir gegrüsst!” (D. 741). The text is by Friedrich Rückert, best known as the source of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and the Five Rückert Songs, one of which is the extraordinary “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world). Although the Schubert setting whose tune is used in the middle section of this Fantasy may seem sentimental and gushing (“Be greeted by me; be kissed by me…”), Schubert authority Graham Johnson is convinced the song is more epic and tragic.
There is much more to the chamber work, which takes nearly half an hour to perform. From the opening, hushed and almost ghostly in its tremolando way, Schubert moves into lyrical and virtuosic territory by turns, fully justifying the work’s designation as a Fantasy.