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About this Piece

Conciseness is not generally seen to be one of Schubert’s sonata attributes, some movements exhibiting enough repetitiousness to warrant reasonable criticism. The present A-minor Sonata, however, represents the composer in an economical frame of mind: It has only three movements, and each is of modest proportion. Composed in 1823, a year after the Wanderer-Fantasie, the essentially intimate sonata, though not without its dramatic outbursts, is something of an antidote to the vigorous extroversion of the earlier work.  

The first movement opens with a whispered, misterioso phrase given almost entirely in single notes, hands an octave apart; the slightly more chordal second phrase mirrors the first in contrary motion. Within these two short phrases, a two-note figure—long (loud)–short (soft)—occurs four times, and then becomes a kind of pervading motif throughout the movement, in the accompaniment as well as melodically. Another, mournful idea in ascending notes, punctuated by the two-note figure, and a vigorous passage in a dotted rhythm are, individually or combined, the materials Schubert uses in the development section, the major-key secondary theme playing its tender role only in the movement’s two outer sections. On its last appearance, this second theme gains in piquancy through a slightly changed rhythm, but the two-note figure claims its prominence, and the pervading soberness returns even though the movement ends in major. 

The Andante second movement is one of those pieces that seems to have a poetic existence quite apart from mere musical tones. The movement is primarily concerned with a main theme of rapturous warmth, at the ends of whose phrases a strange little figure enters quietly yet somehow menacingly. This figure is destined to have something of a life of its own, first introducing an agitated triplet section, later forming the retransition before the last, abbreviated statement of the main melody. In its final appearance, this lovely main theme seems to have lost its strength, and indeed the taut, fatalistic last movement—even its lyric second theme is tinged with sadness—confirms the pessimism therein suggested. At sonata’s end, the pessimism turns to anger in one of the composer’s most implacable statements. Schubert here is almost certainly responding to his dire physical condition. —Orrin Howard