The ‘heavenly length’ of Schubert’s late works

1st May 2018 | Concerts, Inspirations | 1 comment

This week I’m preparing for the last of my lecture-recital series in The Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh. On Saturday afternoon I’ll be speaking about – and performing – Schubert’s late A major piano sonata, one of the masterpieces of his last year.

These lecture-recitals have brought out a different sort of audience, perhaps one which has more in common with a book festival audience. They’re people who believe in the power of words. Naturally you can understand music deeply without needing words at all, but there seem to be plenty of people who find words helpful.

In his last years, Schubert wrote some of his greatest pieces, which are also his longest. Why was he so keen on writing long pieces, especially if he suspected that time was running out? In the last twelve months of his life he wrote the 9th Symphony (just under an hour to perform), the C major string quintet (55 minutes), the B flat piano trio (40 minutes), the E flat piano trio (50 minutes) the three last piano sonatas (about 40+ minutes each), the three-movement Fantasie for violin and piano, the F minor piano duo sonata, and the song cycle ‘Winterreise’. Schumann, who did a lot to bring Schubert’s late music to public attention, steered our reaction in the right direction by writing about its ‘heavenly length’. Not everyone agreed. In 1840s London the string players burst out laughing when they first rehearsed the finale of the Ninth Symphony with its many-times-repeated rhythmic patterns, but gradually everyone learned to love it.

Just to write down the notes of these works on manuscript is an enormous labour, and that’s to say nothing of the time involved in thinking them up first. If I were given the task of simply copying out all of these works with pen and ink in a single year I would protest at the unreasonable amount of work.  But in addition to composing those pieces and more, Schubert found time to meet with friends, attend musical evenings, correspond with publishers, go walking, read novels, and sit up late in cafes – despite the fact that his health was declining.

It doesn’t seem possible that he did all the things he did. Like Mozart, he appears to have had more than 24 hours in each day, or to have been able to bend time to his will – as indeed he does in his music.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Cohen

    From my teenage years, I have always loved the ‘longer’ Schubert works. They draw the listener in to a different appreciation of time. Such a paradox that they must, as you observe, have been written down at great speed.


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