Schubert: E-flat Major Sonata, F Major Variations, Four Impromptus

Sonata in E-Flat Major, D. 568


Composed in 1817 during Schubert’s twentieth year, this sonata would not be published until 1829 (as Op. 122), one year after the composer’s death.  It is the last, longest (taking about a half hour to perform), and undoubtedly greatest of Schubert’s earlier essays with the form. In fact, some scholars have suggested that the 1817 year of publication may be apocryphal given its structural unity and complexity, which would seem to make it a fitting direct precursor (along with the “Gasteiner” D major sonata and late G major sonata, D. 850 and D. 894, respectively) to the tripartite cycle of late sonatas (D. 958960). This potential disparity regarding the E-flat sonata’s date of composition is underscored by the music itself. While superficially it is an ebullient early work characterized by a quasi-Haydnesque affability, its outward charm belies a brooding melancholy that is characteristic of Schubert’s late works.

The two outer movements, in addition to carrying the tempo designation allegro moderato, are both written in waltz-like meters, the first in 3/4, the fourth in the compound 6/8 equivalent.  One can see the introductory measures of both movements as a sort of “invitation to the dance,” a gradual quickening of the steady pulse that finally manifests itself in the fluid undulating passagework in sixteenths that is at each movement’s rhythmic core. However, the rich Alberti basses and lush orchestral sonorities bespeak a depth of expression far beyond that of a mere dance. The last movement adds to these features a complex Bach-like counterpoint, with several melodic themes that are ingeniously interwoven. The extended phrases, wistful smorzando taperings, and understated climaxes of these two movements exemplify romanticism in music, then in its nascence.

The second movement is briefer and more rigorously organized than most of Schubert’s other slow movements, including several in the earlier sonatas. Written in G minor, it follows a fairly regular ABCABC pattern, switching back to the sonata’s key of E-flat major for the majestic marchlike motif that emerges at B in a surprising subito contrast. In typical Schubertian fashion, the minor is subtly emphasized in the lead-in back to the variation on theme A. After the B-flat major permutation of theme C, the movement culminates in a three-bar modulation back to the tonic, at which point Schubert reintroduces a fragment of the theme he presumably omitted intentionally at A’. In keeping with the movement’s pervasive somberness, the brief coda concludes with a pensive bass melody that sounds as if it was strummed on a cello.

The minuet is the most quintessentially Viennese of the four movements, especially evident in the waltzing melody that bridges the development and recapitulation. In the trio, Schubert further explores the dotted rhythmic patterns he established in the menuetto. The ubiquity of the dotted rhythms in this movement is a rarity among classic-period minuets, which tend to proceed much more regularly and deliberately. The ornate figurations endow this movement with a spritely and fantastic quality, as if the composer had intended it as a dance for wood nymphs and fauns rather than ladies and gentlemen.

Schubert: Sonata in E-Flat Major, D. 568, I: Allegro Moderato


Schubert: Sonata in E-Flat Major, D. 568, II: Andante Molto

Schubert: Sonata in E-Flat Major, D. 568, III: MenuettoAllegretto 

Schubert: Sonata in E-Flat Major, D. 568, IV: Allegro Moderato

Ten Variations in F Major, D. 156

This delightful youthful work (composed in 1815), shows that even at this early stage, Schubert was already a master of the variation. Because Schubert was not a virtuoso like Mozart or Beethoven, he did not think of the variation form as a vehicle to showcase his own technical approach to the instrument. It is undoubtedly for this reason that Schubert did not write a solo set of variations in his more mature years (though several sets of variations he contributed to the four-hand literature were masterpieces). Nevertheless, these 10 variations are anything but a mere student piece; they encapsulate multifarious moods and pianistic textures and demonstrate a distinctly Schubertian theatricality that is evident in few of the composer’s other piano works.

One of the most notable features of this set is its fairly frequent shifts in tempo direction, indicative of a more romantic approach to the form. The unwritten rule for performance of classic-period variations is that they all be in the same tempo unless indicated otherwise. Mozart, for example, with the exception of the penultimate slow variation, minore/majore contrast, and final allegro or presto, rarely alters his overall tempo marking. However, Schubert does so three additional times in this set. The più moto (variation III), which is perhaps uncharacteristically vigorous for Schubert, serves as an apt contrast to the lugubrious, highly polyphonic minore in variation IV. Variation V (andante con moto) represents another mercurial shift, this time to an ethereal dance among the clouds. After the robust octave march in variation VI, the brisk scherzando in variation VII represents an angelic laugh at the preceding pomp and circumstance.

Schubert saves the best for last.  In the heavenly adagio (variation IX), he employs extended right-hand trills and chromatic scales to create a harplike effect while the melody capriciously wanders. The allegro (variation X) features mordant Alberti basses and downward-cascading octaves. The cadenza, while not as facile as those by Mozart, displays a uniquely Schubertian sense of timing and richness of texture. After an adagio return to the theme, the work finishes in a two-handed F major scale flourish.

Schubert: 10 Variations in F Major, D. 156

Four Impromptus, D. 899 

The two sets of Schubert impromptus are his most frequently played solo piano works and are arguably his greatest. They stand at the threshold of romanticism, combining elements of classical rhythmic and developmental tension with lyrical spontaneity, lush orchestration, polyrhythmic and polyphonic complexity, and epic scope. Though the term “impromptu” suggests a quasi-improvisation, the pieces are tautly structured. In fact, it has frequently been suggested that each set is really a four-movement sonata in disguise, consisting of two outer faster movements, a minuet or scherzo, and a slow movement. Others have contested this notion, arguing that the sets lack a sense of structural unity in the aggregate. Whatever the case may be, because of their programmatic variety, Schubert seems to have intended each opus to be played as a group.

Although Schubert did not originate the impromptu, having borrowed the form from the Czech composer Jan Vorisek, Schubert’s are unquestionably the first great impromptus, leading many other romantic-era composers, notably Chopin (who also wrote four of them) and Scriabin, to assimilate the form. And while often tightly structured, the dramatic mood shifts in Schubert’s sets convey a sense of spontaneity that is the impromptu’s eponymous quality.

Impromptu 1, C Minor

The first impromptu in C minor, along with its F minor counterpart in the second set, is probably Schubert’s greatest single piece for solo piano, so convincingly does it juxtapose the masculine and feminine aspects of the composer's style. Two distinct themes are interwoven: a militaristic march and a plangent, expansive melody. 

The wandering, epic quality of this impromptu is enhanced by the pervasive key ambiguity and frequent modulations. Schubert establishes this from the outset with the opening fortissimo octaves on G. In the march that ensues (theme A), Schubert does not firmly accentuate the tonality until measure 9 at the cadence in C minor.

The following section in A-flat major presents Schubert the master song writer. The right-hand melody, while appearing disparate from that in the march, is actually an expansion on theme A, proceeding disjunctly as well as conjunctly to produce lines of soaring transcendence. Yet the dotted rhythms and repeated notes of each phrase have been adapted from the march to give the two sections a tight overall coherence. The left hand has a line of its own in the first note of each triplet, which should be held slightly to accentuate the legato. Despite the romantic sentiments conveyed, the phrases display a certain classical organization, proceeding quite neatly by fragments of four or five bars. Schubert seems to have finally arrived at the crux of his musical vision, when, while still in A-flat major, the piece suddenly unfolds into an exquisitely elegant line reminiscent of a soirée de Vienne (melodic theme B). This is also the point at which the piece’s orchestration becomes fuller, demanding from the performer a heightened awareness of tonal balance.

Having resolved these tender yearnings, Schubert returns to C minor in a variation on theme A, though this time the repeated-note accompaniments make the marchlike gesture less explicit. The primary function of this section seems to be to create a sense of foreboding for the tempest that emerges in the work’s central climax. Here we see Schubert at his most sweeping and tempestuous, throwing classical reserve to the wind in the manner of the coda of a Chopin ballade. The pointed accents in the densely layered bass further increase the dramatic tension of the treble's shrill, agitated cries. Using his characteristic repeated-note patterns, Schubert then relieves the tension, fading to pianissimo and switching the key to G minor in the next section. For the first time since the transition from theme A to theme B, the underlying rhythm is varied—from triplets to sixteenths—requiring the player to balance the main theme over an accompanimental texture in the same hand. This section proceeds through several variations before resolving in G major at the return to theme B.

In the coda, Schubert once again subtly contrasts the minor and the major, transferring the tonality from the dominant, G major, to C minor and unassumingly passing into C major to conclude. Whispers of the minor dart in and out almost until the last bar, however, and it is only two measures before the end, when the same chord pattern repeats, that we know the tension is fully resolved. Few passages in music bring such repose to the senses as these last few bars of the C minor impromptu.

Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 899, I: Allegro Molto Moderato in C Minor

Impromptu 2, E-flat Major

In a marked contrast to the first impromptu, this piece begins with light and pearly fleet scales that require a “jeux perlé” execution. On the page, the piece resembles an etude, given the continuity of its figurations and the particular technique emphasized (i.e., scales and thumb transmission). The musical difficulty lies in applying subtle shadings of rubato and dynamics so that the pulse is not overly metronomic yet precision and tempo are maintained. This impromptu illustrates the use of tonal ambiguity to achieve suspense as well as to convey the polar extremes of the composer's musical personality, perhaps akin to Schumann’s Eusebius and Florestan.

The work follows a simple ABA + coda pattern. However, the A section is also subdivided into an E-flat major and E-flat minor section. The vague disquietude generated by the scales and arpeggiations in the minor section constitute a faint foreshadowing of the piece’s arresting conclusion in E-flat minor.

The middle section, beginning in B minor, seems a salient example of an agitato, though it is not marked as such. This section frequently modulates, from F# minor to C# minor, back to B minor, then E minor, before finally arriving, interestingly enough, at E-flat minor—presaging the return to the E-flat major repeat of theme A and hinting at the overall tonality.

The coda begins the same way as the middle section but shifts abruptly to E-flat minor after only one four-bar phrase, after which this harmonic pattern repeats. The piece concludes with scale fragments and resounding portato chords. 


 Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 899, II: Allegro in E-Flat Major


Impromptu 3, G-flat Major

Arguably, this is among the greatest melodies ever written, rivaling if not slightly surpassing even those of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. What makes the lines in this impromptu particularly notable is their continuity. The tune, as well as its undulating accompaniment, is never interrupted for an instant by filigree, as is sometimes the case with a Chopin nocturne. The closest parallel elsewhere in piano music is probably the Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, though this single piece by Schubert may well contain more emotional depth than Mendelssohn’s entire collection.

Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 899, III: Andante in G-Flat Major

Impromptu 4, A-flat Major

Like the E-flat major impromptu, this piece vacillates between the major and minor mode, in this case A-flat major and A-flat minor. In fact, both keys are often given when its tonality is listed, probably because, unlike its predecessor, it begins with the minor. However, many sources cite only A-flat major, which may make better sense since the A-flat minor sections are written in A-flat major with accidentals.

The overall structure of this impromptu is also similar to the E-flat in that it has a well-defined middle section with a complete, unvaried reprise of the opening section. Thus, it can be said that despite the evocative nature of the images conveyed, these two pieces are more classical in form than the C minor impromptu, which paints a vaster landscape through freer form.

Schubert’s frequent use of modulation is also exhibited in the fourth impromptu. The opening section switches between C-flat major and B minor before ultimately reaching A-flat major, which remains until the extroverted middle section in C-sharp minor. The A-flat major section is notable for the sonorous depth of its bassline melodies and the waltz-like rhythm that is emphasized in the leap from the single low note to chordal accompaniments. The middle section, labeled a trio, is lushly textured in the lower register of the instrument, necessitating an especially singing line in the treble melody. This section also briefly modulates to C-sharp major before returning to the minor, at which point it returns to the A-flat minor primary theme through rising broken seventh-chord arpeggiations.

In recent times, this seems to be the impromptu to appear most frequently on recital programs. Besides being relatively easy to memorize, this impromptu appears the most suitable for the technique and timbre of the modern piano. The broken chords on which the thumb is constantly replaced with the second or third finger create a mysterious rippling effect while demanding a considerable lateral wrist flexibility on the part of the performer. The allegretto marking should most likely be seen more as a reflection of the overall mood than as a metronomic tempo indication. For the figurations to sound effortlessly smooth, they should be played rapidly, fluidly, and lightly with flutter pedaling. 

 Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 899, IV: Allegretto in A-Flat Major      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016