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Piano Sonata in C major, D840


In 1826 Schubert’s imposing Sonata in A minor, D845, was his first to be published thanks to the Viennese firm of Anton Pennauer. Given this encouragement, and its positive notice by the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, it is curious that he made no attempt to return to his Sonata in C major, D840 begun in April 1825 (only shortly before D845) and later abandoned after only completing its first two movements. In this form it was finally published in 1861 under the misleading title 'Reliquie' ('relic'). It is perhaps his largest unfinished piano sonata, yet its remarkable sense of space suggests it had the potential for being one of his most important four movement works.

The opening Moderato is built on two related themes; a 'plain-speaking' phrase in bare octaves with an answering chordal idea, is followed by one in the unrelated key of B minor that exploits the first theme’s initial interval of a sixth. This secondary theme also echoes the rhythm of the opening phrase and its syncopated accompaniment had initially appeared in an assertive restatement of the main theme. Continuity achieved thus far in the exposition is further underlined in the harmonically discursive development where earlier triplet figuration now contributes to its Beethovenian drama. This is eventually subdued by a subtly altered version of the main theme, its pianissimo 'false' reprise soon finding resolution in the right key (C major) before an extended coda and much renewed momentum brings a final quiet reminiscence of the chords heard near the outset.

For the ensuing rondo-form Andante, initially in C minor, Schubert alternates self-absorbed melancholy with peaceful acceptance in five extended paragraphs. Each finds room for brief moments of disturbance marked by falling sevenths (in the minor key sections) and rhythmic outbursts in the major key episodes. Both unsettling moments heighten the movement’s restless undercurrent which, despite a change to a bright C major with the return of the gentle flowing passage, closes with no small degree of resignation.

from notes by David Truslove © 2020

When I was much younger I decided to complete two unfinished piano pieces, Albéniz’s Navarra and Schubert’s Sonata in C major, D840; I don’t make a habit of this and haven’t tried it with any other music, but I did feel a need fifty years ago in both these instances. Today I might have found such projects presumptuous; maybe they are.

Early in the last century there was an international contest to finish out the two incomplete movements of Schubert’s 'Unfinished' symphony. Clearly, even if there was a winner, we’ve never seen or heard it, and the work is often heard in concert in its unfinished state. In contrast, to me the D840—as with the Navarra—has never sounded complete to me.

I recall playing the completed sonata for Darius Milhaud for his composition class at the Paris Conservatoire, either in 1959 or somewhat later. The consensus among Milhaud and the class was that the sonata was too long, then also the agreed-upon opinion among musicians about the three last Schubert sonatas. (Now these are not uncommonly played as a full concert program—how the world of music has changed in fifty years!). To me D840 is a presage of that hallowed trio of sonatas, D958 through to 960. Though much of the Schubert piano oeuvre reflects mostly Beethoven, these works stem more from the Weber sonatas in form; perhaps Schubert was still getting used to those sonatas’ longer, looser atmosphere (which might explain in part why the Menuetto and final Rondo were left as they were by their composer). I could draw on so much existing Schubert to help me; I thus had the advantage of approaching it from the other side, as it were.

The sonata has elements that would find more mature form in his later music, written just a short time afterwards. Two observations:

One, I can see why Schubert might bail out, wondering how the last bars of the Menuetto fragment should land, the existing music seeming to have gone so far afield harmonically. (I’ve found why many of my own unfinished pieces are unfinished—I just gave up on them.) With the completion, the Menuetto’s melancholy Trio can now be heard. I can’t help wondering: might he have returned to the movements and finished them? There evidently wasn’t time in his short life.

Two, the Rondo fragment ends in A major, and my immediate, rather shocking shift to A minor—pivoting back and forth to A major—is from the same harmonic trick bag as in the Menuetto. As it happens the subdominant of A major as the fragment ends is only a half step away from the movement’s home key of A flat, allowing a dramatic resolution recalling the wrenching harmonic shifts found in Schubert’s last song cycles. I also cribbed elements from the last sonatas here and there in the completions; compare for example the ending of this Menuetto and that of the B flat sonata. (For me the mood of the Rondo recalls Schubert’s Rosamunde ballet music.)

I make no pretense to providing music commensurate in quality to the Schubert original; all I really wanted to do in my filling-out of Schubert’s designs was to allow the many beauties in the fragmentary movements to be heard, and to make the Sonata feel comfortable enough as a whole for listeners’ enjoyment. I’m also thrilled that both completions have now been recorded by superb pianists, so many years after I did them.

William Bolcom © 2020


Schubert: A Schubert Journey
Studio Master: SIGCD645Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Schubert: Piano Music, Vol. 7
Studio Master: SIGCD837Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Movement 1: Moderato
Track 1 on SIGCD645 CD7 [16'46] Download only
Track 1 on SIGCD837 [16'46] Download only
Movement 2: Andante
Track 2 on SIGCD645 CD7 [10'57] Download only
Track 2 on SIGCD837 [10'57] Download only
Movement 3: Menuetto: Allegretto
Track 3 on SIGCD645 CD7 [6'22] Download only
Track 3 on SIGCD837 [6'22] Download only
Movement 4: Rondo: Allegro
Track 4 on SIGCD645 CD7 [9'43] Download only
Track 4 on SIGCD837 [9'43] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD645 disc 7 track 1

Recording date
1 February 2019
Recording venue
Floating Earth Studios, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Judith Sherman
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch
Hyperion usage
  1. Schubert: A Schubert Journey (SIGCD645)
    Disc 7 Track 1
    Release date: November 2020
    Download only
  2. Schubert: Piano Music, Vol. 7 (SIGCD837)
    Disc 1 Track 1
    Release date: June 2020
    Download only
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