Many music-lovers think of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) as having been deeply unappreciated during his lifetime, which he doubtless was when judged by the standards of success normally applied to composers. His compositions were almost never presented by top-tier artists, and he had few occasions to hear his pieces in formal surroundings. Even his symphonies were premiered not by orchestras of professionals but rather by a group consisting of students and amateurs (with a few professional “ringers”) who gathered at the concertmaster’s home simply to feed their passion for music—even if, one suspects, their passion may have often outpaced their technique.
Moreover, Schubert did remarkably well when it came to publishing his music. By the time he died, at the shockingly young age of thirty-one, he had achieved about a hundred publications, many of which consisted of multiple works. All in all, 422 individual pieces appeared in print while he was alive—counting, for example, a set of thirty-four Valses sentimentales as thirty-four separate works—and quite a few more were in the pipeline. This is an astonishing tally, and it is rather at odds with the widespread perception of him as an unrecognized genius—even if his publications provided very little in the way of financial success.
Whereas most composers operated in a world that revolved around concert halls, general-purpose theaters, or at least well-appointed salons, nearly all of Franz Schubert’s performances took place in what we might call domestic surroundings—at the Schubertiads, at which his circle of artistically inclined friends gathered, or at similar get-togethers inspired more by genial companionship than by social pretensions or upward aspirations. Chamber music in its various formulations was perfectly suited to assemblies of this sort, as were the “little genres” that make up such a huge part of Schubert’s catalogue: dances for solo piano, music for piano four-hands, part-songs, and of course solo songs.
Reports of Schubert-the-pianist vary, with most witnesses acknowledging that although he was not a keyboard virtuoso of the first order, he brought special qualities to the task. A recollection by Schubert’s friend Louis Schlösser, later the Capellmeister at Darmstadt, describes the composer’s pianistic style: “How spontaneous it sounded! How his eyes shone. I listened to the sounds with indescribable excitement—and yet, from the standpoint of virtuoso performance, the piano playing could not in any way compete with the world-famous Viennese master pianists. With Schubert, the expression of the emotions of the world within him obviously far outweighed his technical development.”
The Klavierstück (Piano Piece) in E-flat minor is one of three shortish piano solos that are grouped together under the number 946 in the catalogue of Schubert’s works assembled by the musicologist Otto Erich Deutsch. (Sometimes they have been called impromptus.) These were apparently written in May 1828, so six months before he died, and it seems that he planned to add a fourth piece to the group, making it analogous with his other sets of piano impromptus. These were not among the works he saw into print; in fact, their manuscripts suggest that they were works-in-progress he was still subjecting to substantial revision. Their publication waited until 1868, when they were edited anonymously by Johannes Brahms.
The piece in E-flat minor (a rarely employed key) bustles along apace (Allegro assai), with its second theme curiously calling to mind a phrase from the tenor aria “Comfort Ye” in Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio with which Schubert was well acquainted. A dream-like middle section (Andante, in B major) includes gentle eruptions of decorative scales; and at its end, arcane harmonic modulations deliver the piece back to revisit its opening music in E-flat minor and a hopeful shift to E-flat major for the final page. —James M. Keller
James M. Keller is longtime Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats.
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