Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough

Writings

Schubert: Sonatas

To listen to someone is to put oneself in his place while he is speaking. To put oneself in the place of someone whose soul is corroded by affliction (malheur), or in near danger of it, is to annihilate oneself.

Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in the world but people capable of giving them their attention [ ... ] nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity, are not enough.

– Simone Weil

SCHUBERT, in his late piano sonatas, is revealed more as a listener than a speaker, the 'heavenly length' being that open-ended time which it takes for a person to respond to the suffering of another. The composer and performer thus enter into an intimate communion of hearts, and the audience can only ever be eavesdroppers. There is a contrast here with Beethoven, the declamatory prophet, whose individualism tends to manifest a will to power, to overcome; Schubert's individualism is more a withdrawal into solitude, and a sense of being overpowered and overcome.

Both composers reached full maturity only to discover that they had serious, debilitating physical ailments - one a loss of hearing and the other syphilis; and there is something curiously enlightening in the nature of these afflictions which almost becomes manifest in their musical personalities. Deafness is like a brick wall to be confronted, it is tangible and local; whereas syphilis is more like an ocean to be waded into, uncertain, intangible, its horror creeping up on a victim unawares.

There is not really affliction where there is not social degradation or the fear of it in some form.

– Simone Weil

The Sonata in A minor, D784 (1823), and the Sonata in B flat major, D960 (1828), are the first and last of Schubert's mature works in this form, and the former was almost certainly written at the time that Schubert first learned of the seriousness of his illness. The chilling desolation of its first movement's first subject seems to be a direct response to that tragic news, the 'strong-weak' appoggiatura in bar 2 sighing wearily or angrily throughout the entire movement in both melody and accompaniment. However, as in so much of Schubert's work, it is the moments of major tonality which seem the saddest. Perhaps only Mozart equals Schubert in this ability to transform the sunshine of a major key into a mood of heartbreak and pain.

The second movement is strangely unsettling for three reasons: because of the almost enforced normality of its theme after the bittersweet bleakness of the first movement; because this theme is doubled in the tenor voice, a claustrophobic companion seeming to drag it down; and because of the constant, murmuring interjections (ppp) between the theme's statements. The helter-skelter finale introduces a note of panic, as triplets trip over themselves in their scurrying counterpoint. Here, as in the first movement the glorious second subject, in the major, seems unsure whether to laugh or cry, calling to mind Ruckert's poem Lachen und Weinen which Schubert set the same year.

Beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right to the soul. Beauty is a fruit which we look at without trying to seize it.

– Simone Weil

The opening movement of the Sonata in B flat major goes beyond analysis. It is one of those occasions when the pen has to be set down on the desk, the body rested against the back of' a chair, and a listener's whole being surrendered to another sphere. Here there is neither the superficial gloss of refinement nor the mawkish self-consciousness of profundity; rather Schubert's miraculous ability to bare his soul without a trace of narcissism - a combined result of his humility, universality, and an exquisite unawareness of either.

Art is waiting: inspiration is waiting. Humility is a certain relation of the soul to time. It is an acceptance of waiting.

– Simone Weil

This movement's nine first-time bars ( 117- 125) have been the subject of a certain controversy for two reasons: first because of their strange, dislocated character; and secondly because they force the pianist to repeat the movement's exposition. Hence they have often been omitted. I feel that they are important, not only because the same genius who wrote the rest of the work also wrote these bars, but also because their radical nature should alert us to a hidden message beyond the obvious. This weird, stuttering, hesitating passage has an important psychological significance in the structure of the movement: it emphasizes the fact that even in the most lyrical moments there lies disquiet; it contains the only example of the shuddering bass trill played ff- a terrifying glance of 'recognition'; it is a premonition of drama to come in the development section, and it enables both the return of the opening bars and the C sharp minor second-time bar to have a greater, magical effect. The other objection - that repeats for Schubert were a convention he was unable to shake off, and that to hear the exposition once is enough - doesn't convince me. These nine bars are as far from convention as is possible, and a repeat is never a duplicate. It is ultimately a matter of patience, with the music, with oneself - of allowing something time to unfold and to grow.

Affliction is by its nature inarticulate. The afflicted silently beseech to be given the words to express themselves.

– Simone Weil

With the second movement a new dimension of isolation and alienation seems to be introduced which is underlined by a contrast and separation of texture. The right hand's sorrowing song of lament seems in another world from the left hand's detached, almost oblivious accompaniment a shadow of dance making the poignant melody even more heart-rending. The contrast here is not opposition, but incomprehension. Again the paradox of Schubert's tonality: the central section, in sunny A major, should be consoling, but there is no music more anxious or troubled, a desperate attempt to remain cheerful amidst overwhelming sorrow.

The third movement's marking con delicatezza seems to refer more to a fragility of emotion than just a delicacy of touch; and the finale's extraordinary subtlety of major/minor nuance, with its alternating use of playful and tender articulation, displays Schubert's ability to prise open the most resolutely locked human feelings, and to touch the most hidden nerves.

There are many fragments which were given the optimistic title of 'sonata' by Schubert. Abandoned in mid-flight, they range from virtually complete movements to mere sketches. Some of them were obviously put to one side because they lacked inspiration; others, perhaps, because they had wandered far into a strange forest and the composer felt unable or unwilling to rescue them. The Sonata in C major, D613 (1818), is an example of this latter type. Two movements survive, each peters out upon the approach of the recapitulation, and the music possesses a combination of eccentricity, charm, awkwardness, and originality which is endearing. Hummel (the original dedicatee of the B flat Sonata) is a clear influence in some of the passagework in both movements; but where the elder composer effortlessly spins yards of smooth yarn, Schubert becomes entangled in wildly spooling figuration in some of the most ungrateful writing ever conceived for the instrument. Whose hands could find bars 113-116 in the second movement anything other than like riding a one-wheel bicycle on a skating rink? Some have courageously chosen to complete these fragments, which is a fascinating undertaking; but on this recording I present them exactly as they were left by Schubert - an apt metaphor perhaps for the composer's unfinished life.

Simone Well (1909-1943) - 'A woman of genius' (T S Eliot), 'The only great spirit Of Our times' (Camus). Apart from wearing unprepossessing spectacles and dying tragically young in her early thirties, Weil had little obviously in common with Schubert; she was French, Jewish, an intellectual, a political activist, and a social critic. But her writings on affliction, attention and beauty, and her stand as an 'outsider', seem to me to give her a hidden connection with the composer across the century and beyond the confines of their different artistic disciplines.

Poetry: impossible pain and joy [...] A joy which by reason of its unmixed purity hurts, a pain which by reason of its unmixed purity brings peace.

– Simone Weil

All quotes are taken from The Simone Weil Reader (Moyer Bell Ltd: New York 1977)

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