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PROGRAM NOTES: Sir András Schiff, piano

by Eric Bromberger


The concept for this concert grew out of a curious coincidence in the careers of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. All four of these composers wrote three piano sonatas late in their lives. Haydn wrote a set of three large-scale sonatas during his final visit to London, perhaps inspired by the powerful English pianos he encountered there. Beethoven wrote his final three piano sonatas (Opp. 109-11) during the years 1821-22, just as he was emerging from a long fallow period. Those three sonatas initiated–in fact, helped define–what we know as his Late Style. Schubert wrote three massive piano sonatas all at once in September 1828. He was ill as he wrote them, and he died just two months later. The situation is more complex with Mozart: he wrote his final three piano sonatas over the space of about one year, though they were composed separately and do not form a discrete group.

On this recital Sir András Schiff performs the first of each of these four composers’ final three sonatas. These are the next-to next-to last sonatas of each of the four, their antepenultimate piano sonatas.

Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob.XVI:50
Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria
Died May 31, 1809, Vienna

Haydn’s approximately sixty keyboard sonatas are almost unknown to general audiences, who are daunted by their sheer number and more readily drawn to the famous nineteenth-century piano sonatas that followed. Yet there is some very fine music here indeed. The Sonata in C Major is one of a set of three he composed in London in 1794 and dedicated to pianist Therese Jansen, presumably with her talents in mind. Everyone notes the full sonority of these sonatas, but this has been explained in different ways. Some believe that these sonatas consciously echo the sound of the series of grand symphonies Haydn was then writing for London orchestras. Others have felt that the brilliance of these sonatas is the best evidence of Therese Jansen’s abilities, while still others explain it as a sign that the English fortepianos were much more powerful than the instruments Haydn was used to in Vienna.

Whatever the reason, Haydn’s Sonata in C Major rings with a splendid sound. The opening Allegro is full of forthright energy. The initial pattern of three notes repeats throughout: it is sounded tentatively at first, then quickly repeated in full chords. Haydn plays this pattern out with great energy and brilliance across the span of a fairly lengthy movement (more than half the length of the entire sonata).

The central movement is an expressive Adagio in abbreviated sonata form whose main subject is built around the rolled chords heard at the very beginning. The concluding Allegro molto, barely two minutes long, is full of high comedy. It feels like a very fast waltz that starts and stops and modulates throughout, as if the composer cannot quite make up his mind how he wants it to go. Haydn of course knows exactly how he wants it to go, and this lurching, stumbling dance should leave us all laughing.

Piano Sonata in E Major, Opus 109
Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

The years 1813-1821 were exceptionally trying for Beethoven. Not only was he having financial difficulties, but this was also the period of his bitter legal struggle for custody of his nephew Karl. Under these stresses, and with the added burden of ill health, Beethoven virtually ceased composing. Where the previous two decades had seen a great outpouring of music, now his creative powers flickered and were nearly extinguished; in 1817, for example, he composed almost nothing. To be sure, there was an occasional major work–the Hammerklavier Sonata occupied him throughout all of 1818–but it was not until 1820 that he put his troubles, both personal and creative, behind him and was able to marshal new energy as a composer.

When this energy returned, Beethoven took on several massive new projects, beginning work on the Missa Solemnis and making sketches for the Ninth Symphony. And by the end of May 1820 he had promised to write three piano sonatas for the Berlin publisher Adolph Martin Schlesinger. Although Beethoven claimed that he wrote these three sonatas–his final piano sonatas–“in one breath,” their composition was actually spread out over a longer period than he expected when he committed himself to write them–he completed the Sonata in E Major immediately, but ill health postponed the other two.

The Vivace, ma non troppo of the Sonata in E Major opens with a smoothly-flowing theme that is brought to a sudden halt after only nine bars, and Beethoven introduces his second subject at a much slower tempo: Adagio espressivo. But after only eight measure at the slower tempo, he returns to his opening theme and tempo. The entire movement is based not on the traditional exposition and development of themes of the classical sonata movement but on the contrast between these two radically different tempos. Also remarkable is this movement’s concision: it lasts barely four minutes.

The Prestissimo that follows is somewhat more traditional–it is a scherzo in sonata form, full of the familiar Beethovenian power, with explosive accents and a rugged second theme. But once again, the surprise is how focused the music is: this movement lasts two minutes.

It was often characteristic of the music Beethoven’s heroic period that the first movements carried the emotional weight, as did the opening movements of the Eroica and the Fifth Symphony. But in the Sonata in E Major, the opening two movements combined last barely six minutes, not even half the length of the final movement, and this final movement ultimately becomes the emotional center of the sonata.

The Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo is a theme and six variations, followed by a repetition of the opening theme. The form is not remarkable, but the variations themselves are. In his youth Beethoven had made much of his reputation as a virtuoso pianist, and one of his specialties had been the ability to sit at the keyboard and extemporize variations on a given theme. The variation form as he developed it in his late period is much different from the virtuoso variations he had written in his youth. This set of variations is not so much a decoration of the original theme as it is a sustained organic growth in which each variation seems to develop from what has gone before. The theme itself is of the greatest dignity, and to Beethoven’s marking in Italian–molto cantabile ed espressivo–he further specifies in German Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung: “Singing with the deepest feeling.” Curiously, Beethoven never changes keys in this movement–the theme and all six variations remain in E major–and despite the wealth of invention and the contrasts generated by the different variations, the mood remains one of the most rapt expressiveness, perfectly summarized by the restatement of the original theme at the sonata’s close.

The Sonata in E Major is dedicated to Maximiliana Brentano, the daughter of Antonie Brentano, whom recent scholarship has identified as Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved.”

Piano Sonata in C Major, K.545
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

One of the “miracles” of Mozart was his ability to separate so completely the details of his personal life from his art, and there are few better examples of this division than this charming piano sonata. It comes from one of the darkest moments in the composer’s life, the summer of 1788, when–beset by financial problems–he moved his family to a cheap apartment in the suburbs of Vienna and appealed to friends for financial help. Working at white heat during that awful summer, Mozart composed his final three symphonies, but he wrote other music that summer as well, including the Piano Sonata in C Major. The manuscript for this sonata is dated June 26, 1788, the same day that saw the completion of the Symphony No. 39. Three days later, Mozart’s infant daughter Theresia died at the age of six months.

That symphony shows no trace of the pain in Mozart’s personal life, and neither does this sparkling little sonata, which Mozart called Eine kleine Klaviersonate fur Anfanger: “A Little Piano Sonata for Beginners.” Only ten minutes long and clearly written for the use of his piano students, the sonata is in an “easy” key. But C major is also a key that called forth some of Mozart’s greatest music, and this gentle sonata glows with that same bright C-major spirit. The opening Allegro is a miniature sonata-form movement with two themes built on beautifully-balanced phrases. A quick minor-key development leads to the close on the little fanfare that marked the end of the exposition. In the G-major Andante Mozart simply develops one theme, built on graceful turns; the theme may become more elaborate as it is varied, but at no point does it lose the poise of its first statement. The concluding Allegretto is a rondo that begins with the two hands in canon. Even with a minor-key episode along the way, the movement lasts barely a minute and a half.

Mozart the man and Mozart the composer were two separate people, and he observed that division carefully. From the depths of one of the worst moments of his life, Mozart could think of his students and produce for them a sonata that would be fun to play and that would delight audiences two centuries later.

Piano Sonata in C Minor, D.958
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna

The year 1828 was both a miracle and a disaster for Schubert. The miracle lay in the level of his creativity: he completed his “Great” Symphony in C Major and several works for piano duet during the winter and spring, the Mass in E-flat Major over the summer, three piano sonatas in September, and the Cello Quintet in October. The disaster, of course, was his health. Never fully well after a year-long illness in the 1822-23, Schubert went into sudden decline in the fall and died suddenly in November at age 31. Yet even at that age (an age at which Beethoven and Haydn were virtually unknown), Schubert had achieved an artistic maturity that makes the works of his final year among the most remarkable and moving in all of music.

Schubert began work on the Piano Sonata in C Minor on September 1, though evidence suggests that he was working from sketches made as long as a year earlier. Everyone feels the influence of Beethoven on this sonata; Schubert’s biographer John Reed believes that he was consciously trying to assume the mantle of Beethoven (who had died the previous year), and certainly the choice of key, the dramatic gestures, and the character of the thematic material suggest the older composer.

The beginning of the Allegro resounds with echoes of Beethoven, both in the emphatic opening chords and in the muttering, nervous main theme. Yet quickly this theme turns serene and flowing, reminding us to value this sonata as the music of Schubert rather than searching for resemblances to other composers. The chordal second subject is pure Schubert, and the extended development–built around the collision of these quite different kinds of music–brings a great deal of emotional variety. It also takes the pianist to the extreme ends of the keyboard before the (quite Beethovenian) close on a quiet C minor chord.

The Adagio, with its elegant, measured main theme, has also reminded many of that earlier master. Schubert marks the opening sempre ligato, yet with its fermatas and pauses and pounding triplets this movement too brings a range of expression. The Menuetto seems at first more conventional: the initial statement of the main theme is in octaves in the right hand, and soon Schubert is inserting one-measure rests that catch us by surprise as they break the music’s flow. The finale begins as what seems a conventional tarantella, yet it is remarkable for its rhythmic and harmonic variety. Throughout this extended movement, Schubert maintains the expected 6/8 meter of the tarantella, yet he accents that meter with such variety that the pulse sometimes feels completely different. Similarly, he moves with graceful freedom through a range of unexpected keys, including B major and C-sharp minor, so that this movement–while long–seems to be constantly evolving, right up to the two thunderous concluding chords.