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|Edwin Fischer (piano)|
Throughout his life Schubert was fascinated by the challenge of welding the various movements of a traditional symphonic form into a continuous, unified whole. His earliest surviving composition, written at the age of thirteen, is a Fantasy in G major for piano duet; and in the final year of his life came the last, and in many ways the most perfect, of his pieces of the kind — the Fantasy in F minor, D940. Between these two piano-duet works came two fantasies in Schubert’s grandest C major manner: the ‘Wanderer’ for solo piano, D760, and – barely a month before the F minor duet Fantasy – the Fantasy for violin and piano, D934.
The influence behind all these works was that of Beethoven – not only the two Piano Sonatas ‘Quasi una fantasia’, Op 27, the first of which is his only work of the kind to play continuously from start to finish, but also such cyclic late works as the Piano Sonata, Op 101, and the C major Cello Sonata, Op 102 No 1. The initial stages of Schubert’s Violin Fantasy, with its slow opening section followed by a sonata Allegro set not in the home key but in the relative minor, are clearly modelled on the last-mentioned of those Beethoven works. Schubert’s next section, however, is an elaborate set of variations on his famous setting of Rückert’s ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’, before the subsequent return of the work’s slow opening idea again hints at the influence of the Beethoven. If the reprise of the song theme immediately before the Fantasy’s final peroration is a somewhat self-conscious gesture, it at least shows Schubert’s overriding concern to unify his structure.
Such unity had been much more rigorously applied in the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, and it would be difficult to overestimate the influence the ‘Wanderer’ exerted on succeeding generations of composers. Liszt, who made his own highly skilful transcription of the work for piano and orchestra, was inspired by Schubert’s example to write his great Sonata in B minor; and the nature of Schubert’s Scherzo, as a skittish parody on the work’s imperious main theme, is one whose echo can be heard in the ‘Mephistopheles’ third movement of Liszt’s Faust Symphony. Unified one-movement structures similar to those of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy continued to make their mark until well into the twentieth century – not least, in the early works of Schoenberg.
Everything in the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, including the song fragment used in its slow second section, clearly derives from the dactylic repeated-note rhythm of its opening bar. The second subject of Schubert’s opening section unfolds in the key of E major – an idea that clearly echoes the plan of another C major work, Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, whose far-flung keyboard gestures also left their mark on the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy. From this second subject Schubert later derives a third theme – a long-spun melody which, in turn, is to generate the material for the Scherzo’s trio section. Small wonder the work’s first publishers, Cappi & Diabelli, were at pains to stress the originality and inventiveness of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy’s form in the advertisement they placed in the Wiener Zeitung of 24 February 1823:
The Fantasy has always been acknowledged as the type of composition in which the art of the composer, freed from the chains of form, can most clearly display itself and prove its worth. Herr Schubert has confirmed his mastery in this newest work, in which he shows that he not only possesses the gift of invention, but also understands how to develop his auspicious themes in the furtherance of art. The present Fantasy is worthy of comparison with the similar works of the foremost composers, and thus from every point of view deserves the attention of all artists and art-lovers.
The dactylic rhythm running through the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy is one that seems to have haunted Schubert for many years: among the many appearances elsewhere in his music, it permeates the song Der Tod und das Mädchen, the well-known Entr’acte from the ballet music to Rosamunde (and hence the related slow movement of the great A minor String Quartet, D804), and the B flat major variations from the second set of Impromptus. It is not unlikely that the origin of Schubert’s obsession is to be traced back to the fatalistic rhythm of the Allegretto second movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
While the C major Violin Fantasy takes an easy-going song melody as the basis for its central variations, the ‘Wanderer’ borrows not so much a song-theme as a song-fragment. Its slow middle movement is based on an eight-bar passage that appears at the centre of Schubert’s setting of Der Wanderer, to a text by the obscure Georg Philipp Schmidt ‘von Lübeck’. Schubert was not yet twenty at the time he composed the song, but he seems to have remembered it for the remainder of his life: his final instrumental work, the Piano Sonata, D960, unmistakably quotes its opening bars during the central development of its first movement. The text that accompanies the passage Schubert appropriated for the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy is worth quoting:
Die Sonne dünkt mich hier so kalt
Here the sun seems so cold,
It was at the time he wrote the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy, in the autumn of 1822, that Schubert first felt the serious symptoms of syphilis, and by the following spring he was too weak to leave the house. Since his other large-scale composition of the period was the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, it might be thought that the two works were a reflection of his state of mind – were it not for the fact that such a view is flatly contradicted by the triumphant tone of the Fantasy’s outer sections.
What is remarkable is that the quotation from Der Wanderer – and hence the entire second section of the Fantasy – retains the song’s key of C sharp minor. The resulting juxtaposition of keys a semitone apart is a highly unusual one, though it is also to be found in Schubert’s F minor duet Fantasy, where both the slow movement and the Scherzo are in F sharp minor. Such a key-scheme would have been unthinkable to Mozart; and even in Beethoven there is no more than a single instance – the C sharp minor String Quartet, Op 131, with its second movement in D major. All the same, both Beethoven and Schubert were surpassed in boldness by the intrepid Haydn: while they bridged the gap by means of a modulation, or at least a thematic link, Haydn’s last E flat Piano Sonata (Hob52) brazenly has its self-contained middle movement in E major.
The slow second section of the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy is no straightforward set of variations – its theme is too short for that – but a continuously developmental piece which incorporates at its centre a chain of variations on its song-fragment, in which the changes from minor to major serve only to heighten the music’s poignancy. The forceful climax of this section provides an anticipation of the type of violent eruption that was to figure with increasing frequency in Schubert’s later slow movements. Even so, of his subsequent piano works only the Andantino second movement of the A major Sonata D959 was to contain an outburst of comparable vehemence.
Scarcely less forceful is the piano writing in the Fantasy’s outer sections. Schumann aptly noted in his diary that ‘Schubert wanted to combine an entire orchestra in two hands, and the inspired beginning is a seraphic hymn in praise of the Deity’. Schubert’s orchestrally-inclined textures were to influence the piano writing not only of Schumann, but also of Liszt and Brahms, and it is difficult to imagine many pianists of Schubert’s day managing to master their virtuoso demands. They seem to have been beyond Schubert’s own considerable abilities: reliable legend has it that he broke down while playing the concluding fugue, and leapt up from the piano stool crying “Let the devil play the stuff!”
from notes by Misha Donat © 1996
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