Returning Cycles: Contexts for the Interpretation of Schubert's Impromptus and Last Sonatas

By Charles Fisk | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Recovering a Song of Origin
The Sonata in A Major, D. 959

I

For both its beginning and its ending, the finale of the A-Major Sonata draws on sources outside itself. As is well known, it appears to take its theme (ex. 8.1a) from a much earlier piece, the E-major Allegretto quasi Andantino of the Sonata in A Minor, D. 537 (ex. 8.1b), which was composed in 1817. Schubert cannot have intended his reuse of this theme in the A-Major Sonata of 1828 to be heard as a self-quotation, however, for the early A-Minor Sonata was not published until the early 1850s. It is not even certain, although it is surely likely, that he realized that he was quoting an earlier composition. In contrast, the use of the first movement's opening to end the AMajor Sonata (see ex. 8.2a–b) is unmistakable in its intent; striking and unique, it is a stratagem that Schubert employs only in this one instance.

On first reflection, the occurrence of these two very different kinds of allusions in the same movement may make little sense. No matter how we ultimately understand its presence—even as nothing more than the framing device that Rosen has called it 1—the reference of the finale's ending to the first movement's beginning is unquestionably a unifying gesture, one of the most manifestly cyclic moments in all of Schubert's instrumental music. But the reference to the earlier sonata can seem quite the opposite: indeed Godel cites it as his first evidence for his claim that Schubert's finales “virtually abandon their contexts and, entering the scene from outside, hazard a new start. ” 2 How is it that Schubert ends the very same movement that begins with a seeming reference to a different sonata with one of his most patently

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