The following are the program notes for Shai Wosner’s season opening concert. They were prepared by Jessica Chisholm and provide insightful background to help you enjoy the concert even more.

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The piano sonata as we know it today was originally conceived in the Baroque era as a piece for various instruments “to sound” (sonare), as opposed to a cantata “to sing” (cantare). The genre and term, being admittedly vague, evolved over the subsequent generations to include works for solo instruments. The early development of the solo keyboard sonata is generally traced to the works of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) who wrote over 500 such pieces, and the genre took on increasing importance throughout the eighteenth century. Keyboard sonatas came to be written in three or four movements; the first movement usually composed in what is known as sonata form - a three-part structure that expands upon two contrasting themes.

The development of the keyboard sonata also coincided with the development of the piano itself, from a low-volume, plucked-string harpsichord, to a pianoforte (a light action instrument used by Mozart capable of some dynamic variety), to the experimental models requested by Beethoven (who sought a stronger, more durable instrument with a wide pitch range). The virtuosic effects, “violent” chords, and desire for aggressive expression displayed in many of Beethoven’s keyboard sonatas were hardly thinkable on the pianoforte, and he was known for breaking strings and causing structural damage to his keyboard instruments. Such instances prompted the development of the more “heavy duty” instrument used today.

An example of such a virtuosic work is Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 21 in C major, Op. 53, more commonly known as the Waldstein Sonata. This sonata was completed in the summer of 1804, during one of the more precarious periods of Beethoven’s personal life as he began to process the reality of his hearing loss. This sonata, immediately following the third symphony (the “Eroica”), marks the beginning of what scholars term his middle period: consisting of compositions generally characterized by technically challenging virtuosity and psychologically heroic themes.

The Waldstein Sonata receives its name from Beethoven’s dedication to Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein of Vienna, a patron as well as a close personal friend. This sonata is also known as “L’Aurora” (the Dawn), for the sonority of the opening chords of the third movement. Of the three movements, the outer movements of the sonata are the most substantial, each taking about eleven minutes to perform. The first movement, in sonata form, opens with repeated chords played softly, devoid of a clearly defined melody, yet still portraying an excited and somewhat agitated mood. The second theme, marked dolce, is a chordal theme in E major. Though not unprecedented, the movement to the key of the third scale degree (the mediant) is a notable change from the traditional move to the key of the fifth scale degree (the dominant). The second movement, the Introduzione, is a short Adagio that is paradoxically described as both haltingly angular and tranquil. The Introduzione replaces an earlier longer middle movement that was later published separately as the Andante favori. The third movement, Rondo, contains one of Beethoven’s more technically difficult passages: a continuous trill plus melody in the right hand accompanied by rapid scales matching the trill speed in the left hand. While Rondo movements were traditionally regarded as a more light-hearted contrast to the sonata form movements, Beethoven infuses this movement with the aggression, passion, and emotional contrast that previous composers would reserve for their first movements.

Franz Schubert represents the epitome of the modern conception of a “Romantic” artist: he was deeply interested in personal expression, he had very little money, he was not widely recognized for his genius in his own lifetime, and he died very young (age 31). In his short life, he managed to compose almost 1000 works: some 600 art songs, 9 symphonies, liturgical music, operas, and a large body of chamber music. 

Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major, D.959 is the second of a trilogy of sonatas (D.958-960) written within the last months of Schubert’s life between the spring and autumn of 1828. They were not published until about ten years after his death, and like many of Schubert’s piano sonatas, they were virtually neglected during the nineteenth century. Some scholars feel that this was due to a biased public comparison with the structurally complex and dramatically compelling sonatas of Beethoven. Over time though, public and critical opinion has changed and these three last sonatas are now considered among Schubert’s most important mature compositions. The three sonatas furthermore contain specific allusions to some of Schubert’s other compositions. Some feel that these connections point to a turbulent emotional content embedded within the sonatas, particularly ruminating upon the composer’s knowledge of his own eminent demise, and they are described as highly personal and autobiographical.

While much of Schubert’s music is popularly described as “ambiguous,” the A Major Sonata is marked by clarity and extroversion. The first movement, in sonata form, opens with dramatic stately chords that give way to a more gentle melodic style. The harmonic exposition moves through its own dominant (or the fifth scale degree of the key built on the fifth scale degree); a rather radical move for Schubert. However, a series of key changes by major thirds generates the forward harmonic movement while actually ending in the same key in which it began. The second movement, Andantino, is a poignant and lamenting movement in ternary form. The middle section involves an improvisatory fantasia-like character, with rather harsh sonorities culminating in fortissimo chords before returning to a more calm state. Many view this movement as the most psychologically profound of the entire sonata, with its mesmerizing and mysterious sonic qualities that some describe as existing on the verge of an erupting storm. The third movement, Scherzo, is a light and high-spirited contrast to the second movement, yet still contains a considerable level of craftsmanship. The fourth movement, Rondo, consists of an almost relentless triplet rhythm overlayed with an endless songful melody. 

The last years of Schubert’s life were happily marked by a growing public acclaim for the composer’s works, and he even made arrangements to continue his musical studies with the counterpoint master Simon Sechter, yet his health continued to deteriorate. Schubert had been struggling with syphilis since 1822 and suffered from weakness, headaches, and dizziness. However, up until the last weeks of his life in November 1828, he continued to compose an extraordinary amount of music, including the A Major Sonata. The cause of his death was officially diagnosed as typhoid fever, though other theories have been proposed, including mercury poisoning (a then common treatment for syphilis) and the tertiary stage of the disease itself. The last musical work that he requested to hear was Beethoven’s String Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131. The violinist Karl Holz, who was present at the gathering five days before Schubert’s death, commented, “The King of Harmony has sent the King of Song a friendly bidding to the crossing”. At his own request, Schubert was buried next to Beethoven, the composer whom he had admired all his life.