The Sonata D 812 in C Major was written in the summer of 1824 when Franz Schubert was appointed music instructor to the two daughters of Count Esterhazy at Castle Zseliz in Hungary. At this time Schubert was gradually emerging from a severe crisis: he had just completed a long course of medical treatment to cure syphilis, leaving him exhausted, and far from the best of health. But he had also suffered other setbacks: the daily struggle of earning a living as a freelance composer, his disputes with music publishers, the failure of his opera Rosamunde which was a total flop in Vienna, and the breakdown of friendships which meant a lot to him. According to Schubert's descriptions, these events were the catalyst for a psychological process which involved many dark thoughts but which in the end constituted a very important step in his development. On July 18th 1824 he wrote the following to his brother Ferdinand: “Should this letter give you the impression that I am not well or not in good spirits, I hasten to assure you of the contrary. Of course, we no longer live in those happy times when every experience seems pervaded by youthful glory: instead we harbour the fatal knowledge of our miserable reality which I attempt to beautify as much as possible through my powers of imagination (Thanks be to God!). One tends to believe that happiness can be found in places where one has already experienced it (...) I am now much more capable of finding inner happiness and peace than in the past. You will see the proof of this in a great sonata and variations on a theme of my own invention1, both for four hands, which I have already composed.”
The workings of Schubert's inner mind are certainly the major contributing factor to the fact that this sonata did indeed become “great”, though surely a significant event in May 1824 also left its mark: this was the premiere of Beethoven's 9th Symphony in Vienna which Schubert attended. This monumental work, with which Beethoven once more demonstrated the inexhaustible potential of this very familiar classical sonata form, must inevitably have influenced Schubert's work on his C Major Sonata. This was perhaps also sensed by Robert Schumann who, years after Schubert's death, discovered the score and immediately declared the sonata a piano arrangement of a symphony which had not yet been orchestrated, stating “Prolific composers like Schubert do not put much thought into titles, and so he hurriedly called his work a sonata when it actually already existed in his head as a symphony.”
It is very interesting to contemplate why Schumann, an ardent admirer of Schubert, could possibly entertain such serious misjudgement. This is probably due to the high level of performance required – here the demands of Schubert's work are much greater than players of four handed pieces were used to. If we compare the C Major Sonata with its predecessors, this exceptional status becomes clear: the feasibility of reproducing the sound of this music on a piano has become, apart from the exuberant pianistic final, completely irrelevant in view of its epic greatness. If this “grand duo” is to be taken seriously as a visionary work for piano, more than just time and practice is necessary to master Schubert's spiritual and technical requirements. Both pianists must be gifted with extreme technical control, tonal sensitivity, power of imagination and a restrained ego to guarantee perfect consensus. And due to these demands, which the duo pianists of that time could hardly been expected to meet, even Robert Schumann was blind to the true nature of the piece.
The Rondo in A Major D 951 is in quite a different category, and it is significant that Schubert was commissioned to compose this work by the music publisher Domenico Artaria. It is arranged in a manner much more suited to the piano; neither does it attempt to surpass the nature of the instrument. The Rondo is Schubert's last piece for four hands – Artaria commissioned the work in June 1828 and published it in December, only a month after the composer's death.
If we consider this work in the light of Schubert's biography, there is one thins that we should always keep in mind: despite all posthumous legends there was no reason whatsoever to believe that he would suffer such an early death. On the contrary, 1828 was an extremely successful year: in March, Schubert gave a highly acclaimed concert to a full house, thus earning him public recognition and enough money to pay off all his debts. His output was immense and can hardly be attributed to someone whose ailing health was leading him to his deathbed. In October he even felt that his health was good enough to undertake a journey to Eisenstadt, and it was not until his return that he was afflicted by the abdominal typhus which rapidly caused his demise.
So looking at it rationally, Schubert – while composing the Rondo – had no reason to believe that he would not live to see his 32nd birthday. However, as he had already long entertained thoughts about death, this can be felt in nearly all of his later works, more so than with any other composer. Grave melancholy is a major hallmark of Schubert's late works. But the Rondo is an exception: it begins with a simple traditional theme which flows freely, meandering in warm natural tones, intensifying through frequent repetition and leaving a deep impression on the listener. This music radiates a rare lyrical tranquillity and stills our restless thoughts. Could Franz Schubert really have been thinking about death? If so, his spirit was probably already in the unknown realms of the next dimension.
Translation: Rosie Jackson
1 This refers to the A flat major Variations D 813