Sadness transfigured with sublime delicacy

Roses soothe the pain. © Charles Thibo
Roses soothe the pain. © Charles Thibo

Ian Bostridge, the English tenor we have met in the context of Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise“, notes in his book “Schubert’s Winter Journey” that Schubert wrote jolly music when he was gloomy and gloomy music when he was jolly. Judging from the first and second movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in A minor, D.784, the composer should have had a joyful moment when he wrote it. It reminds me of a funeral march and more specifically of Franz Liszt’s “Trauermarsch” S. 206. But this should not keep you from listening to it. There is a beautiful recording by the Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires.

Reveling in rosy memories

Sadness permeates this piece, that Schubert called “Grande Sonata”, but as so often with Schubert, he wraps it into a light, soft, silk sound blanket. It does not make me feel sad, quite to the contrary, hearing Schubert’s plaintive melodies warms my heart and make me revel in pictures of a rose garden in Eastern Germany I often visited at the time I lived there. And I then there is the third movement, unexpectedly jaunty and engaging.

The first two movements are sparse, no floral ornaments, Schubert comes straight to the point. Some musicologists have compared it to the reduction for piano of a symphony, expressing the general melody of a work for orchestra. Only the third movement gives the pianist the freedom to show his brilliance.

Sickness and pain

So what now? Well, for once, Schubert seems to have written music that was related to his state of mind at the time he wrote it. Though Piano Sonata No. 14 was published only in 1839 after Schubert’s death as Op. 143, it was written as early as February 1823. By that time, the composer was aware of the fact that he suffered from syphilis, a common disease in Europe before the invention of penicillin, spread mainly through a promiscuous lifestyle. Testimonies of Schubert’s friends reveal that the composer was no stranger to sexual excesses, and he was an easy prey for a venereal disease. Upon the advice of his doctor, he stayed indoors to soothe the symptoms of the first stage of syphilis: painfully swollen lymph nodes in the groin.

Schubert must have been aware of the nature of his sickness, though he covered it up in letters to his friends. And he must have known that syphilis was incurable at the time. Death would come – but how soon? In the light of this, the third movement can be seen as wishful thinking – so typical for human beings. All will turn out well, the music suggests, although it is obvious that it will not. Poor Franz, I have been hard on you today. Forgive me.

© Charles Thibo

Editor’s note: This post is an anniversary post. I started this blog exactly a year ago (cf. the very first post), and I would like to thank all readers for their support, their input and their loyalty. Champagne for all!

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de Chareli

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