Alfred Brendel playing Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat, D. 960.
Over the past few months, I’ve been going through a little bit of a gloomy period, and I think a big part of the reason why I was feeling melancholic was that I wasn’t playing or making as much music as I had been, and not nearly as much as I’d like. One of my summer resolutions to change that is to start tackling a piano sonata that I’ve really fallen in love with, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat.
One consequence of not getting into classical music in a serious and studious way until I started college is that there are still large gaps in my knowledge of the canonical works and composers of the past, even as I try and nurture all of my interests in music. One of those gaps is Schubert. Outside of a couple of lied, I really don’t have much exposure to his music (as it turns out, however, my sister (also a pianist) has been working on an Impromptu that she presented in recital a week ago). I was introduced to this piano sonata through a school assignment, and discovered that Schubert’s piano writing calls to me deeply, both as a pianist and as a listener.
I’m not a great pianist. I took some time away from serious keyboard study in high school, which could have been a very productive and fruitful time of study. I have a very strong ear that I have to work to control, and so learning piano and learning to improvise have always gone hand in hand. I’ve also always had a great love for chords; if I had had different teachers or different exposure when I was younger I might have had a lot of fun playing jazz. I don’t want to equate myself and Schubert, but I can imagine that we might mess around at the piano in the same way, albeit at different levels of skill. Schubert’s piano music is almost entirely chords and chord voicings. There are long stretches of the sonata that are composed of nothing but melody embedded in chord voicings and arpeggios.
But how good are those voicings? It goes so far beyond chord inversions, or what the bass note of the chord is. To play his music is to realize that he had control of everything: what the root and bass note of the chord is, how much space needs to be around the melody for it to be heard within the texture, how much repetition can be used without becoming monotonous, how to arrange the intervals within a chord. And he does it with standard chord progressions and very controlled amounts of dissonance.
Schubert presents completely different problems for a pianist than, say, Bach or Beethoven. It’s much easier, in a sense. There’s little to none of the counterpoint that makes Bach difficult, and he doesn’t (in this piece) call for the virtuosic tricks that Beethoven might have wrote. In fact, I’m sure that there are many child prodigies that have the technique to conquer this piece. What they might not have is the hand span to do so. Six- and eight-note chords are common in this piece, and it requires a tremendous amount of control to play them evenly. It’s even harder to play them softly, as Schubert calls for. His practice of embedding the melody in large chords also means that the performer has to switch smoothly and often between wide hand positions, and I can see that this is going to be a big difficulty for me. Another difficult point of classical technique are his smooth, sweeping broken chords. They carry the melody as well, so there’s nowhere for bad technique to hide.
I’m pretty confident in my ability to get this under my belt, and I’m excited to dig into the piece.
Digging Into Schubert