Monday, October 22, 2012

Sonata allegro form: Schubert E-flat Sonata, Op. 122

Today I start a sample of four posts on the subject of a particular composition.  I am offering a premium to subscribers who reach a certain amount on their subscription: the soon-to-be-reconstructed website will give further details.  Watch for the announcement of its opening which has been delayed due to unforeseeable technical difficulties beyond my control....The premium is that you get to pick a composition for piano or chamber music as the subject of four blog posts with the invitation to pose specific questions or enter into an email or on-line discussion on the subject.  I will keep the tone as much as possible of general interest: i.e., instead of discussing particular measures or passages in the work I will treat items of general musical relevance, such as tempo, timing, recognizing allusions, meter, etc.

The key of a sonata is its subject matter.  It is not possible to abstract ideas on the piano from the key in which they are written.  This is, I realize, an item of considerable controversy.  One of the myths underlying piano instruction is the interchangeability of tonalities, a myth disproved by simply listening to the difference in sonority between an E-flat and a D major triad.  (I treat this subject in What Might It Mean? An Uncommon Glossary of Musical Terms and Concepts for the Stuck, Bored, and Curious:, to which I will be making frequent reference.)

The very opening sound of a sonata movement evokes either stability or its opposite.  The malaise of a unison opening -- left and right hand playing in octaves with no accompanying harmony or complementary rhythm -- is palpable.  Beginning a large composition this way feels like teetering on the edge of a one-dimensional world.  Doubly upsetting is an opening in which, as in this instance, everything is in question: the root of the tonic triad is hidden in the broken chord and a reliable downbeat is nowhere to be found.

How you deal with that depends on your gut connection to the effect of those opening sounds.  Once you have digested (or not digested, depending on your disposition) you may then launch a movement worthy of Schubert.

A sonata is like a game in which the composer engages you as partner, rather like tennis doubles in which Schubert is the one who serves.