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 Harmony: functional and dysfunctional

 by Professor Wilfrid Mellers

 Part II: Three classical romanticists: Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms (A)

Beethoven overrode categories; we don't think of him as classical or romantic, because he was both. A division becomes perceptible, however, in the Great Romantics who were his successors, Schubert being the closest to Beethoven both chronologically, and also in the sense that he revered the Master only just this side of idolatry. Viennese by birth, as was Beethoven by adoption, Schubert composed sonatas - and symphonies, quartets and trios in sonata form - throughout his short life, dying only one year later than Beethoven. Predictably, his instrumental music emulated both Mozart's lyricism and Beethoven's dynamism; nonetheless, his sonatas differ profoundly from their models, and perhaps most profoundly in the three large-scale piano sonatas posthumously published. All three sonatas belie subservience to their Viennese traditions in their harmonic audacities and modulatory startlements; and if we think the third and last sonata of the group, in B flat major, the greatest and most uniquely Schubertian, that's because the thematic substance of the long first movement is lyrical with an almost folk-like innocence, as compared with Beethoven's 'motivic' punch, while the movement's tonal and harmonic escapades are even more mysterious than those of the two companion sonatas.

Ex. 1: B flat major sonata, from the beginning of the development. Played by Adrian Williams. Schubert: B flat major sonata, example 1

Listening to that, we'll understand why the intense drama of Schubert's late sonata movements demanded his 'heavenly length'; similarly, the aria-like slow movement of this sonata undermines the formality of aria to become the ultimate Schubertian Dream. We are lulled to bliss by the seductive melody's barcarolle rhythm, the key of the movement being the remote upper mediant (C sharp, standing for D flat, minor) until the softest enharmonic modulations open the ground beneath our feet. When, finally, the barcarolle tune appears in seven-sharped C sharp major the effect is visionary, yet also profoundly melancholy because its radiance is ephemeral. Unlike Haydn, Schubert had no humanitarian morality to succour him; nor did he have the deep and broad awareness of human nature typical of the operatic Mozart; nor the mystical salvation to which Beethoven battled through. He had only his exquisitely tuned senses, which proffered moments of ecstasy pitifully subject to Time. Awed by death, as by mountains and lakes which are impervious to human feeling, he nonetheless conquered fear in his pantheistic acceptance of his pettiness. This is the tough core of his romanticism.

Schubert: B flat major sonata, example 2 Ex. 2: B flat sonata, slow movement, from the recapitulation of the first theme to the end. Played by Adrian Williams.

Copyright © 1999 Wilfrid Mellers

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