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Here we are obliged to embrace all of the darker connotations of a “late” work. And we might notice how ironic it is that we can even refer to the work of a man not yet 32 years of age as being “late” at all.
The musicologist Donald Francis Tovey noted that in a musical dictionary published in 1827, “Beethoven is given one of the largest articles and treated as unquestionably the greatest composer of the day. Such was Beethoven’s fame in the year of his death. Schubert died in the next year. There are five Schuberts in this dictionary, but Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is not among them.”
Yes, Beethoven was the musical titan of the first decades of the 19th century and Schubert’s reverence for Beethoven’s work was common knowledge among his circle of friends, but was the extraordinary productivity of Schubert’s last year instigated by the death of Beethoven – the burden of struggling under the shadow of the master’s career now lifted? Or was Schubert, long aware of his own eventually fatal illness, spurred to creativity while he still had time?
Of the three piano sonatas Schubert completed in his last months, the Sonata in C minor, D. 958, seems to most directly grapple with the shade of Beethoven. The choice of key is a significant one. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the “Pathétique” Sonata, the Third Piano Concerto, and the final Piano Sonata, Op. 111, all inhabit the key of C minor, as does the popular 32 Variations of 1807 to whose opening theme Schubert alludes as his Sonata begins. It is a grim key in Beethoven, a key of conflict, though, particularly in the Fifth Symphony, one that can lead to triumphant resolutions.
For Schubert the prevailing mood of the first movement Allegro is one of disquiet and restlessness, and any momentary appearances of a major key tonality have no conviction or permanence and are soon subsumed in the original C-minor gloom. As though unable to withstand the relentlessness, the movement ends in resignation.
The deepening contrasts of dark and light are starker still in the second movement, which opens with a serene melody in A-flat, but with the grinding presence of sadness always intruding. This movement is the only instance of an Adagio indication in any of the mature sonatas of Schubert, drawing attention to the steady hammering of the minor against the dignified pace of the opening melody.
Some tranquility is found in the Menuetto, but the graceful dancing pulse of that movement is banished with the furious and desperate tarantella rhythms of the concluding Allegro. There is to be no Beethovenian triumph at the end. The galloping night-ride ends in darkness.
Schubert’s publishers were not sympathetic to music of such “difficulty” and publication was delayed. The three final sonatas would not appear for a decade, by which time Schubert (who would die within weeks of submitting these sonatas to his publisher) was dead. Nearly a hundred years of obscurity would follow before they were rediscovered by audiences in the 20th century.