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About this Piece

SCHUBERT Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960 (Op. posth.) (1828)

Molto moderato
Andante sostenuto
Scherzo: Allegro vivace con delicatezza
Allegro, ma non troppo

The great B-flat Sonata, written only weeks before his death in November 1828, closed forever Schubert’s catalog of solo piano works. What a final-year legacy: three grand piano sonatas, three smallish piano pieces, and the superb String Quintet in C. Even taking into consideration all the incalculable strokes of genius existing in the Schubert canon, the B-flat Sonata must be considered extraordinary. Like the first two of the last three sonatas, it is an expansive composition, each of its four movements built on a large scale. Yet, unlike many another Schubert masterwork “of heavenly length,” there is not a wasted note here. From the exalted opening measures to the exuberant final ones, pure inspiration never faltered; substance and craft are married in a miraculous union.   

This well-nigh perfect sonata begins with a theme of other-worldly serenity, at the end of the first statement of which a trill in the lower depths of the bass rumbles quietly but ominously on two notes foreign to the key—G-flat and A-flat. After the main theme is repeated, another low trill takes us directly into the unrelated key of G-flat, where now the theme smiles with almost heartbreaking tenderness. This kind of expressiveness, intensified by sudden modulations and tonal ambiguity, is one of the most conspicuous and lifelong marks of the Schubert genius; in the mature works the effect can be overwhelming. One could easily get caught up in a detailed account of this movement’s wonders, but suffice it to mention only the development section. It starts with the main theme in tragic C-sharp minor in a marvelously lean fabric, and then travels a gripping course, ending in D minor just before the exquisitely poised recapitulation, heralded by that now familiar low trill.   

For the slow movement, in C-sharp minor, Schubert takes us to a remote place of austere and poignant calm, the rhythmic regularity acting as hypnotic momentum leading to an extended consoling section in A major. The main theme returns with elaborate ornamentation, and the movement ends with an “amen” benediction in C-sharp major.   The scene changes completely with the arrival of the third movement Scherzo. Here it is bounding, stylized, spiritualized joy in three-quarter time, breezing along with only a brief interruption by a solemn Trio in B-flat minor.   

C-minor (!) makes a surprise appearance at the beginning of the last movement, but it is quickly ejected, and the movement proceeds on a buoyant and humorous B-flat-major course. The opening seriousness is a recurring element in the proceedings, and there is a forceful section in F minor. But always the clouds part, and finally there is a very fast and exhilarating passage that closes the Schubert piano sonata ledger with brilliant, breathtaking finality.

—Orrin Howard