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In 1815, an 18-year-old Schubert composed his first piano sonata. That year Beethoven had already published 27 of his eventual 32 sonatas. The musical and pianistic revelations made by Beethoven in these sonatas were not just formidable, they were overwhelming. Yet, although it could easily have appeared to the teen-aged Schubert that there was nothing that remained to be said in the form, the blissfully naïve young man struck out on the well-trod path, armed with the inner self-confidence of genius. From our vantage point it is not surprising that there were definitive statements yet to be made by this incomparable musician. As he almost invariably did, Schubert listened only to his own muse. In the writing of sonatas, rather than doggedly emulating Beethoven’s terse and highly organized developmental procedures, Schubert tended to fill the Classical forms with melody after melody, and to rely heavily upon harmonic coloration rather than upon Olympian struggles or transcendental musings. In deploying his own methods, Schubert was leading with strength: as a melodist, he was second to none; his sudden shifting of key, guided by the keenest spiritualized inner-ear, is one of music’s miracles; as a lyric dramatist, his manipulation of tension and its release was founded on a superb instinct for the delineation of wide ranges of emotion.
Granted that his last three sonatas of 1828, his final year, find Schubert at his most exalted in pure inspiration and craftsmanship, the present D-major Sonata (from 1825) comes within inches of being a comparable masterwork. The first movement, filled with propulsive energy and dominated by a repeated chord figure and swirling triplets, presents in its first phrases two pervading Schubertian characteristics: the major-minor shifts (the main D-major idea appears in D minor in the fifth measure); and the unprepared, far-reaching modulations (from F major to C-sharp major in the third phrase). The movement continues with nearly unrelenting energy, there being relatively few moments of repose.
The second movement has unusual thrust for a section that must pass as the Sonata’s slow episode; significantly, the movement is marked con moto, a direction that is built-in by the music’s strong forward motion.
A dotted-eighth/sixteenth-note complex marks the Scherzo’s main section, and a repeated-note syndrome the Trio, yet the whole is amiable and appealing.
The beginning of the finale, like some of Haydn’s last movements, is disarmingly simple and folk-like. But in the same way the older master so often built a striking edifice on a small foundation, so too Schubert develops a Rondo movement of amazing variety and considerable consequence from modest materials.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.