The violin was Schubert’s first seriously studied instrument – barring some piano lessons with his older brother Ignaz – and a family string quartet offered him a chamber music laboratory as a young teenager. The years 1810-1811 were filled with string quartets, and in 1816 Schubert turned to solo violin works in groups of dances (including four comic Ländlers for two violins) and a set of three Sonatas for violin and piano. These were first published by Diabelli posthumously (1836) as Sonatinas, in an appeal to the domestic amateur market. Schubert’s original manuscript, however, identified them as “Sonatas for piano with violin accompaniment,” following the common practice of the time and earlier, including the violin sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven. Schubert wrote the first two sonatas of the group in March 1816, and the third in April. Schubert was 19 years old and working on his C-minor “Tragic” Symphony at the time. (To say nothing of the usual mob of songs and keyboard dances.)
Schubert’s signature combination of utterly apt lyricism with harmonic sleight-of-hand is apparent throughout. The first movement is a rather busy Allegro moderato in sonata form, searching for style options and formal assurance. It slips into F major for the operatic closing section of the exposition, and after a brief development exploring only the first theme, launches the recapitulation in D minor. The movement fades away as quietly as it began.
The importance of F major in the opening movement prepares us for the Andante in that key, though hardly for its remarkably pliable form and harmonic adventures. The movement mixes elements of song form, rondo, and developing variations, and takes us from F to A-flat major (via E-flat minor!) and back, with a characteristically astonishing sequential modulation. Violin and piano share the wonders with egalitarian poise.
The robust Menuetto is in D minor, with a truly odd little Trio that is basically just an extended modulation, with no bass line.
At this point it is probably no surprise that the concluding rondo features F major prominently, nor that it proceeds with idiosyncratic freedom. The main theme suggests the gently mournful lyricism of the urbanized gypsy music that would prove so influential to later Viennese composers, and Schubert uses an insistent triplet rhythm and chromatic sequences to drive a furiously dramatic section that provides high contrast.