Schubert’s Last Sonatas


To my knowledge, Artur Schnabel and Eduard Erdmann were the first pianists to play Schubert’s last three sonatas in one evening. After one of my own performances of this wonderful, if strenuous, program, a Viennese newspaper pronounced that even if I, as somebody who had turned his back on Vienna, wanted to deny the fact, I must have “experienced” these pieces while I was resident in Schubert’s city. How Schubert’s sonatas, his Winterreise and Heine songs, the Mass in E flat or the String Quintet, could be “experienced” in Vienna these days was not disclosed. Not that Schubert had ever been the kind of regional musician that a cosmopolitan like Busoni chose to see in him. There is no shortage of elements in his music that came from outside the boundaries of his city: we detect a Hungarian flavor in the finale of the B flat sonata, Bohemian dances (polka and sousedská) in the third of his Posthumous Pieces, and even a tarantella in the macabre finale of the C minor sonata that relates in spirit much less to Schubert’s painter friends Kupelwieser and Schwind than to the black fantasies of Goya (who, incidentally, also died in 1828).

What is a “Viennese composer”? (Besides Schubert, the critic mentioned Mahler and Alban Berg.) Is he somebody whom the Viennese punished because he did not compose like Johann Strauss—somebody whose uncomfortable music had to be administered to the Viennese belatedly, and with a great deal of effort? In a letter of 1827, Schubert describes Metternich’s Vienna as follows: “It is admittedly rather big, but makes up for it by being devoid of cordiality, openness, true thought, sensible words and, in particular, spirited deeds.” Even today, Vienna may be the right place to teach musicians what a Strauss waltz is about. But to claim that there ever existed, or still exists, a Viennese Schubert tradition is wishful thinking. Apart from Brahms, the North German, few musicians took any interest in Schubert’s instrumental music in nineteenth-century Vienna. (The Schubert enthusiasts Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Dvorák, and George Grove were occasional guests from abroad.) How many of the great Schubert singers or conductors originated from Schubert’s home town or home country? Where, until fairly recently, were the Viennese pianists who might have championed Schubert’s sonatas? For Sauer, Rosenthal, or Godowsky, these were of no consequence. They owed their discovery to the Berlin of the 1920s—to Schnabel and Erdmann. Schnabel did indeed study in Vienna; but even if he had been advised to look at Schubert’s unexplored sonatas, his teacher Leschetizky would hardly have told him how they ought to be played. Significantly, Schnabel’s enormous influence as a teacher did not permeate Vienna at all.

These days, Vienna does not provide more clues about Schubert than any other city. Admittedly, the panorama from the Belvedere has hardly changed since Schubert’s time. Do people, however, still live in one-room apartments—as did Schubert’s father with his family—and give birth to their children in a small…

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