Making music in a small ensemble was once the priviledge of the nobility. Throughout the patchwork of German kingdoms and duchies and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire a prince with sufficient means would keep a small ensemble and a composer to supply musical entertainment. With the rise of the bourgeoisie both to economic and political influence in the 18th and 19th century and therefore to wealth, this form of entertainment was co-opted by rich merchant and industrialist families. As amateur musicians they would play together and buy sheet music, supplying contemporary composers with an income. Chamber music in the German speaking world after the Vienna Classics era stands for the democratization of music.
Times of social upheaval
This time coincides with the birth of German Romanticism, when poets, novellists and composers would express a sentimental longing for a better past in times of rapidly changing social, economical and political environments. And who starts his quest for social recognition and economic survival at this turning point of musical history? Franz Schubert.
Today we will explore three of Schubert’s early works for a violin and a piano, the sonatas in D major (D. 384), in A minor (D. 385) and in G minor (D. 408), recorded by the violinist Julia Fischer and the pianist Martin Helmchen. The sonata in D major, written in March 1816, is the shortest – it has only three movements – and sticks very closely to what we call today the classical sonata form with exposition, development, and recapitulation and the exploration of two themes or subjects are according to pre-defined key relationships. Schubert cautiously approaches this form and his disciplined way makes it a compact piece of music, very pleasant without being superficial or exclusively entertaining.
Schubert’s formal experiments
Schubert wrote D. 385 the same month, but it substantially differs from the previous sonata. He shows much flexibility on formal aspects: a main theme in the first movement, rather sketched than set in stone, an irregular modulation resulting in a three-tier-structure (A minor, C major and F major). This accounts also for the central part of the second movement: the tonality moves from A flat major to D flat minor, C sharp minor back to F major. Aside from these strictly formal aspects, this piece’s overall character is earnest, calm, alluding to a comfortable get-together of two musicians to enjoy themselves… and I can imagine Fischer and Helmchen fully concentrated to deliver a perfect performance, true to Schubert’s spirit without being academic.
The sonata in G minor presents in its first movement melodies that will sound familiar: Schubert explores thematic material that he would use in 1823 in his piano piece in A flat “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (D. 774). The themes are more strongly developed than in the A minor sonata, and Schubert uses again a threefold modulation. Like in D. 385 he blends the sonata form with the rondo form.
A time of innocence
Schubert wrote these lovely pieces in a time of relative innocence. He was not afraid of experiments. Being unknown, he was not afraid of failures. He had little to loose by trying. He would probably listen to his musical comrades-in-arms, respect the opinion of his father and his teacher Antonio Salieri – and do whatever he likes. He had finished training as a teacher, he had a job as an assistant teacher at his father’s school in Vienna, and while his talent as a musician was obvious, the decision to become a composer still lay ahead. And so did the many professional and emotional setbacks that would define Schubert’s life.
© Charles Thibo