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8.550420 - SCHUBERT: Violin Sonatas (Sonatinas)
Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828)
Sonata ("Sonatina") for Violin and Piano in D Major,
There are one or two small mysteries about the straightforward and, unproblematic set of three sonatas for violin and piano that Schubert composed in the spring of 1816. First, are they properly sonatas or sonatinas? Although until quite lately they were always listed and printed as "sonatinas", this is no true mystery at all; Schubert never called them anything but "sonatas", but like so much of his music they did not reach printed form until several years after his death, when the firm of Anton Diabelli (whose name has been immortalized by the monumental set of variations composed by Beethoven on his trivial waltz theme) put them out as "sonatinas" in 1836 in order to entice amateurs who might have felt dubious about their technical skill. And for more than a hundred years sonatinas they remained. (Nevertheless, if we should chance to feel that Diabelli was in some way belittling the wonderful composer by his use of the diminutive, we should remind ourselves that he had also published, in 1821, the first two of Schubert's compositions to reach printed form: namely, the two songs, Der Erlkönig, which appeared as Opus 1, and Gretchen am Spinnrade, which was Opus 2.)
A more significant puzzle concerns the decidedly simple -at times, almost naive-style of these three works; it is hard to realise that they are exact contemporaries of the Fourth Symphony, in C minor, which the composer himself named the "Tragic". We know that Schubert, in his veneration for Beethoven's genius, was strongly influenced by the older composer's example and to some extent by his style and manner of writing - at all events in his instrumental music (for he can hardly have felt himself to be a disciple of anybody in the sphere of song). For example, in 1800 Beethoven had written his hugely successful Septet, to which, 24 years later when the opportunity arose, Schubert responded with an Octet that in a" respects outstripped its evident model. By 1805, however, Beethoven had written and published nine of his ten Violin Sonatas; and the last of the series, the serenely beautiful and deeply original G major, Opus 96, though written a few years earlier, reached print in 1816 - the very year of Schubert's first three. Yet in these three works - and in their few successors - Schubert writes as though Beethoven did not exist; to all intents and purposes these are violin sonatas of the older, Mozartian type, with the violin still playing a somewhat subordinate role to that of the pianoforte.
This observation applies most to the first, D major, sonata, which for all its simple attractions makes a somewhat artless effect. In the two following sonatas, the A minor, D. 385 and the G minor, D. 408, the choice of the minor key seems to have more evidently stimulated the young composer's imagination: the A minor piece is especially strong and interesting in its material and structure.
The last two of the series of violin-and-piano pieces, the Rondeau brillant in B minor, D. 895 and the Fantasy in C major, D. 934, belong to quite a different tradition, having been written in the last year of the composer's life for the young Czech violinist, Josef Slavik, who was described by Chopin as a second Paganini. The Fantasy is a long and elaborate composition in seven sections, the third of which is a theme and variations on a slightly modified form of the melody of the 1821 song, Sei mirgegrüsst. The song is popular, and its melody both voluptuous and striking; its inclusion seems to have lifted the whole composition on to quite another plane from that of its predecessors. The faint atmosphere of the schoolroom perceptible in the three early sonatas is here entirely dispelled; the general effect is warm, romantic, brilliant.
In the course of its seven movements, the Fantasy oscillates in a curious way between C major (in which it begins and ends), A minor and major, and the softly glowing A flat major, in which key Schubert writes the variations on his song-theme. The piece as a whole has been criticisied for containing "a good share of that virtuoso element with which, since Hummel and Moscheies had settled in Vienna, all piano composers in the capital were practically bound to identify themselves." Nevertheless, it seems to have fallen somewhat flat with its earliest audience. When it was first performed by Slavik and Karl Maria von Bocklet in January 1828, a Viennese critic wrote:
The Fantasy occupied rather too much of the time a Viennese is prepared to devote to pleasures of the mind. The hall emptied gradually, and the writer confesses that he too is unable to say anything about the conclusion of this piece of music.
"This must be almost the only occasion", drily comments the late Professor Westrup, "on which a music critic has admitted that he left before a piece was finished."
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