Sonata in B flat D.960

Composer: Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)
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Composer: Franz Schubert (b. 1797 - d. 1828)

Performance date: 30/06/2019

Venue: Bantry Library

Composition Year: 1828

Duration: 00:40:30

Recording Engineer: Ciaran Cullen, RTÉ

Instrumentation: pf

Instrumentation Category:Solo

Artists: Finghin Collins - [piano]

Franz Schubert [1797-1828]

Sonata in B flat D.960 [1828]

1. Molto moderato

2. Andante sostenuto

3. Scherzo – Allegro vivace con delicatezza

4. Allegro ma non troppo

With this stupendous sonata, we all know that we have reached endgame in Schubert’s battle with the black angel. As one critic has put it, there is no late period Schubert – so every lover of Schubert’s music is tantalised by the ‘what if’ question. Scholars have been tormented by his half-sketched Tenth Symphony and have pointed out that if had been blessed with Beethoven’s span of life, he would have been seen as a contemporary of Chopin and Liszt, Schumann and Berlioz rather than of Beethoven and Hummel. The B flat Sonata has an aura of valediction about it, but in another context we could have seen in it the broad spaces of the first Razumovsky Quartet or the Archduke Trio. There is no doubt that its completion a bare two months before his death colours our perception of the work, for we know what his magisterial vision has cost him.

This epic first movement opens with a theme that defies time with its unhurried flow and noble solemnity. When it reaches its cadence, the music pauses and a long, menacing trill shudders in the bass before the theme is repeated. The second trill leads directly into a song-like version of the theme before it is unleashed at full power to overwhelming effect. The second subject group has two sections, the second a combination of dancing triplets and short chords that become progressively more fragmented leading eventually to the strange stuttering nine first-time bars that force the pianist to repeat the exposition. Something is terribly wrong, these bars seem to say, as the sinister bass trill is worked up to a double forte. Now at the repeat our perception of everything is subtly changed by our memory of that chill of fear. The development has moments of high drama before the return of the main theme is heralded by appearances of the bass trill. This mighty movement, nearly twenty minutes long, concludes with a last miraculous song before that trill speaks its menace one final time.

This almost peaceful Andante has much in common with that of the String Quintet, that same air of profound spiritual contemplation in a place where time stands still. The central section resounds to another of Schubert’s magisterial themes as if he has risen above the pain and can contemplate it from afar. It is divided into two sub-sections, each varied repeat becoming more active. When the first theme returns it has a new murmuring bass figure linking each bar to the next, slowly bringing the contemplative mood to earth. This is emphasized by C sharp minor melting into C major to radiant effect.

The airy, dancing Scherzo enters at the same dynamic level so as not to disturb the mood too drastically while the unusual marking con delicatezza underlines the point. The tune swings from treble to bass to middle voice, scurrying from one unlikely key to another. The brief trio still dances but the step is more stately.


The sonata-rondo is Schubert’s preferred last movement style for it suits his tunesmith genius. The movement opens with a bell-like chord that announces his joyful rondo theme and reappears each time the theme comes around. No darkness troubles this carefree movement where the interest never flags for a second and the unfettered outpouring of tunes can only amaze and astonish. A presto coda closes with a final pulse-quickening crescendo. 

Francis Humphrys