Schubert – Three Sonatas- a new project takes off

Posted on November 7th, 2014 by



Young Schubert – a violinist’s journey (by Peter Sheppard Skærved)

For many years, I have been enchanted by Schubert’s early works for the violin, his work with his violin-playing brother, Ferdinand (1794- 1859), and the windows that this music and their collaboration opens into his mind and creative world. This resulted in two distinct approaches to the violin, and to its place as a chamber and solo instrument in Schubert’s total output.

The first of these was a particularly virtuosic version of to the instrument,  clearly audible from in Schubert’s earliest instrumental works; not only in the two major concertante  works with orchestra (the  A Major Rondo and the  D Major Konzertstück), but also in the three early symphonies and even in the first significant orchestral work,  composed before beginning lessons with Antonio Salieri. The ultimate evolution of this style is the fiendish violin writing of his late G Major Quartet, the C Major Fantasie and the B minor Rondeau – matched in these two lasts, by equally challenging pianism.  

Schubert’s other ‘take’ on the violin, is that heard in the three Sonatas for piano and violin written in the spring of 1816; here the violin and piano are woven together in perfect balance of technical and musical concision. At first sight, the writing might appear simple, but it is far from it. It takes a total command and understanding of any instrument to write for them with such succinctness and expressiveness.

The salient characteristic of the latter approach is economy, most obviously manifest in the chosen ‘tessiturae’. the ranges of notes used on each instrument. The violin part reaches from the lowest open string on the instrument, G, to the E just over two octaves above middle C (this is an octave short of the range used, say, in the last String Quartet, the G Major). The piano range is from the F two octaves and a half below ‘middle C’ up to the G two-and-a-half octaves above ‘middle C’, albeit used sparingly. Of course, this tells is a lot about the keyboard instruments available to Schubert in the 18-teens, but adds to the impression laconic expression, or perhaps more particularly, of understated intimacy.

The use of narrow tessitura, and the economy of means, was certainly not a feature of Schubert’s earlier works. His intensely dramatic C Major/minor Overture D.9, written in July of 1811, is marked out by vertigo-inducing violin writing, as are the three first symphonies. To me, it seems that the ‘modest’ writing in the three sonatas can be read as an aesthetic choice, a deliberate turn to classical economy of means, also reflected in the structure of three pieces are a group, both in intention and in composition. The exquisite manuscripts of the sonatas were dated by the composer – the first two ‘March 1816’ the and the last the April of the same year. Perhaps more tellingly, Schubert inscribed ‘Sonata II’ and ‘Sonata III’ on the A minor and G minor works respectively, making it clear that this is how he viewed, and perhaps most importantly, composed the works. Such a grouping is the very essence of the classical style, reborn, if you like.

When the pieces were published, twenty years after their composition, and eight years after the composer’s death, the publisher, Anton Diabelli (1781 – 1858), kept them as a group. Diabelli had purchased a large tranche of Schubert’s from Ferdinand after the composers’ death, and cannily released the unknown works piecemeal in the 1830s and 40s. He clearly viewed the three sonatas’ apparent simplicity as a money-making opportunity (the house which he founded with Pietro Cappi in 1817 made considerable profits from the burgeoning amateur market). So, the first edition of the works (1836) presented them as ‘Three Sonatinas Op 137’, implying that they were ideally suited for dilettante violinists and pianists. Inevitably, the perception grew, that these were pedagogical pieces (the same thing happened with Friedrich Kuhlau’s (1786-1832) eponymous Op 55 set, published in 1823). Consequently, they are treated with a certain affectionate condescension by ‘grown-up’ players, and almost never studied as the fascinating works they undoubtedly are.

Of course, this misapellation, as often the case, yielded benefits. The last chamber work which Antonín Dvo?ák would write during his 1893 sojourn in America, was a G Major Sonatina Op 100 for violin and piano. This work was written for his talented children to play, and the composer wrote that although it was ‘[…] intended for youths (dedicated to my two children), even grown-ups, adults, should be able to converse with it.’ Its melodies, tessitura, and form are modelled on Schubert’s three sonatas, and many young players (including me) grew up confusing the two composers as a result!

How and where should these works be played?   Schubert and Beethoven’s generation were determined to control the environments in which their chamber music was heard. Beethoven, famously, wrote to Sir George Smart (in 1816, as it happens) about his F minor Quartet Op 95 that it was ‘never to be played in public’, and doubted whether his Horn Sonata Op 17 would be loud enough to be heard in a hall hold about 100 persons. By the 1820s, the practice had grown, in Vienna, of presenting chamber works in non-salon environments, but this was the exception rather than the rule, and there was clear separation in the public mind between works intended for what concert-style audition and those intended for intimate surroundings, which by definition, meant homes. Whatever its scale, a home is domestic: intimacy certainly does not preclude profundity – indeed the most of us experience the propensity of emotionally affecting situations in our homes, or others’. A number of times, in my early life as a musician, I heard performances of these works which attempted to resolve the questions surrounding these works through choice of instruments. When I was 13 or 14, I was struck by a performance of one of the sonatas given by Richard Burnett and my teacher, Ralph Holmes, using a Stradivarius violin and a Graf fortepiano. This combination had worked very well for Beethoven sonatas and Hummel fantasies, but I was dissatisfied with the results for these Schubert works. The combination of two such dramatic instruments overwhelmed the music, which did unable to take the strain. Talking with my duo partner, Julian Perkins, we lit on the idea of trying these works with a square piabno.  I was immediately struck by the exciting possibilities that might result from bringing such instrumental delicacy. to this music. We started experimenting, both in rehearsal and in public workshop settings, in open discussion and experimentation – particularly in the SoundBox sessions which I run at RAM. A a wealth of possibilities emerged. Some of these were practical, prosaic even, others had a dramatic impact on how we approached the material, even the integrity of the score itself.  At one of these sessions, Benjamin Hebbert, luthier and historian, provided a further insight to the sound that we were looking forward, at one of the public workshops we presented in the year running up the recording. At that point, I still planned on using a 17th century Italian instrument. Ben was struck by the domestic intimacy and intricacy which the square piano was offering, and suggested that we might like to consider one delineation between violin making north and south of the Alps. The critical factor, he pointed out, for instruments in a chamber environment was the acoustics of the rooms being used. North of the Alps. Violins built for such spaces tend not to project, but are full of nuance and colour, close up. We discovered that a Leopold Widhalm (1722 – 1776) violin heard on this recording. This, combined with an extraordinary early Tourte bow, proved an intimate foil for the Clementi Square piano, which we found in a private collection, which proved to be the ideal for this project.

But the question of instruments was only a small part of the research, rehearsal, informal performances that let up to the eventual recording of these pieces (this stretched over an 18 month period). A central aspect of this, for us, was the question of ‘faithfulness’ both to the score and to the improvisational grounding of the composer and collaborator who first brough these pieces to life; throughout, tried to respond as we imagine two composing/improvising musicians of the day might have worked with this material. There were a number of outcomes: questions about the placing of repeats and the use of ‘petites reprises’ were explored to the fullest. Octave displacement, seen as a change of voice, even of ‘Fach’ was used. ‘Portes des voix’ were used extensively, and a vocal approach to vibrato-as-ornament. Part-swapping on repeats was explored. Written out (the composer’s) cadenzas were elaborated and extended.


  1. G minor Sonata
  2. Allegro giusto

Schubert’s use of G minor is particularly Mozart-ean here – there are echoes of the 25th & 40th Symphonies, not to mention the String Quintet in the same key, which elicited a similarly stormy mien from this young composer. Twelve bars into the first movement, the experimentation with unison writing between the players takes a new turn, when the violin, playing on the G String doubles the piano left hand at the octave. Stated baldly like this, such a gesture might not seem worthy of note, but the low tessitura on the violin is striking, especially as it means that both melody lines are below the tremulous right hand of the piano.

In this movement, as in the first movement of the first sonata, we found that it seemed most natural to place the repeats to reprises of the exposition and development before the finial cadences of each section. But, perhaps more notably, it seemed obvious that the dramatic fermata prior to the recapitulation was a place, on second playing, where a pianist of the early 1800s would be unable to resist extending the cadenza material which the composer has already provided.

  1. Andante

Playing these works, so full of repeats and reprises, the question of ornamentation inevitably arises. This Andante offers an example of how the composer did it, and how integrated it could be in his hands. From my perspective, it’s a model for other places in the set of sonatas. This movement begins with a rising and falling violin motif 4th-6th, 3rd-5th, which is never heard in the piano. A memory of this figure initiates the middle section of the movement, augmented, both by being stretched thin over four bars, and shadowed with ghostly octaves in the piano. The piano response to this opening violin melody, from the 9th bar of the movement starts to introduce falling gestures of ‘four demisemiquavers-quaver’, which becomes the dominant figure of the middle section. When the violin reprises its opening figure, these drooping demisemiquavers trigger ornamentations, but now inverted, rising, even optimistic.

  • Menuetto


This Haydn-esque minuet is disarmingly simple. A binary gesture of eight bars, forte -piano is repeated, verbatim four times. After the double bar, its variant is stretched to twelve bars, leading back to the opening figure, again. This obsessive repetition inevitably makes players and listeners long for something else, maybe a lyrical trio section? We are suitably rewarded.

The ‘trio’ section of this movement is all Lied, most particularly the sound world of Gretchen am Spinnrade, which Schubert had composed almost exactly two years earlier. It’s exquisite, with the violin melody marked Dolce, and we are grateful, (perhaps the composer was too) to find ourselves, in the enchanted world of Goethe’s Faust, from which the song was drawn.

The ‘petite reprise ‘was commonly used throughout the 18th century – it’s demanded throughout the solo works of Giuseppe Tartini. This gesture is most often found in binary or ternary movements (divided up in repeating sections – though not all are as repetitive as this minuet!). At the end of the minuet before the final two chords (which we chose to play only at the end of the complete movement), I inserted an unaccompanied ‘petite reprise’ – the drooping figure which I play throughout the movement – but with a simple double-stopped harmonisation.

  1. Allegro moderato

At first sight, this finale might seem to be the slightest of the three in the set. The last movement of the D Major Sonata has 245 bars, the A minor, 311, but here, only 149.  If nothing else, this illustrates why the convention of ignoring second repeats in Viennese classical/early romantic movements is ill-advised. When the repeats are observed, the movement is 298 bars long (and in our version is 308, as we simply can’t resist playing the last ten bars twice). It’s fair to say, that observing the repeats in these three pieces puts the lie to any idea of their being ‘sonatinas’. In scale, the closest equivalent group would be Beethoven’s three Sonatas Op 30.


This movement reintroduces a style of violin writing which is also heard in the pastoral finale of the first sonata of Schubert’s set – today we might call it ‘fiddling’, and it includes elements that would later find their way into the American ‘bluegrass’ and ‘mountain styles’ which evolved over the following 100 years. One might call such playing ‘rustic scrubbing’, and it can be found in the more folk-music influenced chamber music of Haydn and Mozart (the finales of the D Major Quartet Op 64 ‘The Lark’ and the C Major Quartet K465 ‘Dissonance’ are great examples). Schubert’s use of the technique with which the violin perorates this whole cycle, is a reminder that in the 18-teens, thousands of strolling musicians thronged Vienna, playing in the parks, courtyards and local eateries, accompanying the many sideshows and mountebanks who plied their trades on the streets. Their numbers grew so many that by 1821, the police started issuing permits, and only to veterans or the disabled. Healthy folk musicians were seen as at best, ne’er-do-wells, and at worst, a public menace!

First thoughts – as the project began in 2015

Exploration of Schubert, working with Julian Perkins;  three 1816 Sonatas for piano and violin. There is much that I will be saying about this, but just to say, that after months of technical work and analysis, today, sitting down, and playing these works with the a wonderful 1801 Broadwood Square piano, has revealed these works as miracles of refinement and  colour. 

Interior of the 1801 Broadwood Square Piano

Interior of the 1801 Broadwood Square Piano

To hear these works for the first time, with this piano, come to:

SOUNDBOX, Tuesday 11th November 1230 Piano Gallery-Royal Academy of Music 

Peter and Julian at work-11 11 14

Peter and Julian at work-11 11 14

Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Julian Perkins explore the Schubert Sonatas with instruments by Broadwood and Amati

audio extracts:


On Bariolage, on dissonance:

Sonata No 1 (D384)(D major)-Andante:

Exploring haze, not hearing everything, stroking the keys:

On unities, on duty:

Sonata No 1 (Allegro Molto):

On Structure, on dynamics:

My performing score of the D minor Sonata D385

My performing score of the D minor Sonata D385

Playing Ernst's transcription of Schubert's 'Erlkonig', surrounded by the work of Meriele Neudecker, Tate St IVes, 2004. Photo: Richard Bram

Playing Ernst’s transcription of Schubert’s ‘Erlkonig’, surrounded by the work of Meriele Neudecker, Tate St Ives, 2004. Photo: Richard Bram

A note from Julian Perkins:

Gothic Delights

The innate lyricism and sweet melancholy of Schubert’s works can distract one from getting to the heart of his music. Working with Peter on some of the keyboard instruments at York Gate has compelled us to confront the less comfortable features of Schubert’s so-called ‘Sonatinas’, including sudden surges in volume cut short by pianos, inconsistent syntax, and sparse keyboard textures within which the violin looms as a spectral presence. This ‘smudging of the makeup’ is ideally suited to the intimate hues of the Broadwood square piano, while the sonic possibilities of theHeichele fortepiano have encouraged us to explore the mercurial interplay within the composer’s music. Moreover, there is a distinct dialectic between the violin and keyboard parts that gives rise, for instance, to opposing dynamic levels and accents, obliging us to provoke each other with our playing. After all, so often it is more interesting to disagree than agree – wouldn’t you agree?

Hard at work with Julian Perkins-at the British Museum, December 2013

Hard at work with Julian Perkins-at the British Museum, December 2013


Schubert at the Violin

Discussion continues within the Quartet as to where Schubert’s crazy late violin writing comes from. Imagine him handing the last movement of the G major Quartet to his violinist brother Ferdinand. One supposes that the initial reaction would have been: “What the hell is this?”! However, if we go back ten years, and look at the two major concertante works composed for Ferdinand, we will see that nothing had really changed. Judging by the coda of the giant Rondo for violin and strings, the two of them share a long-term predeliction for really nutsy arpeggio writing in awkard keys.

Schubert’s early relationship with the violin has been largely over looked. There are three concertante works for violin, dating from the second decade of the nineteenth century, and two of them, the well known Rondo for violin and strings, as well as the Konzertstuck, which is to all intents and purposes, a violin concerto, use the violin in startlingly brilliant manner. In fact, this kind of writing is sprinkled all across Schubert’s output, bespeaking an anticipation of virtuosity from his leaders, which perhaps sits a little uncomfortably with the pseudo-democratic notion of chamber music with which later observers and critics applied to the Viennese tradition. The flashing scales of Schubert’s Quartettsatz of 1820, clearly belie this, and speak of an expectation of transcendent playing; this may help to explain Schubert’s later rapture over Paganini.

Not much is known about Ferdinand Schubert as player, or his training. He was an amateur musician, that much is clear. But amateurism was a status which certainly did not necessarily indicate lower standards, and to a degree, with the demise of patronage, and the rise of a new type of concert giving, many musicians were forced into other professions who otherwise would have been able to live as salaried artists.

In 1826, Schubert met for the first time with the Bohemian violinist Josef Slawik. Slawik was not in Vienna to meet with Schubert, whose fame had scarcely penetrated the confines of the city. Slawik had come to the city to try and obtain composition lessons with the one time second violin of the Schuppanzigh Quartet, the Polonaise King, Josef Mayseder. Mayseder was one of the most highly regarded performing composers in the city; Beethoven himself would describe him as “The Genius Boy.” Mayseder was too busy-this was the height of the Polonaise craze, and this no doubt left him not needing, and probably disinclined to give lessons, which were usually the way that a starving composer without a benefactor kept the wolf from the door. So Slawik had to settle for the less desirable option of playing chamber music and studying with the 29 year Schubert. Mayseder never travelled, but this was not a measure of some weakness of musicality or technique. Ehrlich pointed out that “Paganini, who heard in in Vienna, quickly recognised his brilliant technique and stule of playing.” [Erhlich 69]

When Chopin met Slawik for the first time in 1830, he was similarly impressed:

  “I met Slawik, a fine violinist, though still quite young; 26 at the most. I liked him after Paganini, better than anyone. He also to a fancy to my noble self, and we agreed to write a piano and violin piece together. An idea which occurred to me in Warsaw. He is a great violinist of real genius.”

In December of the same year, he wrote:

 “Since Paganini, I have heard nothing like him; he can take 96 notes staccato on one bow, and so on; incredible-then I started getting homesick for the piano and come back with the intention of writing out the Adagio  if the variations on a Beethoven theme, which we are writing together.”

In 1831:

  “Slawik is one of the few local artists whom I enjoy and with whom I get on. He played like another Paganini, but a rejuvenated Paganini, sometimes surpassing the first one. He strikes his hearers down, he makes people weep; more he makes tigers weep.”

It is quite impossible to imagine the last string quartet of Schubert, or more particularly, the string quintet, which was completed in the last few weeks of his life, without the impact of these new breed of virtuosi being recognized. I feel that I need to say new breed, as Paganini was very much prima inter pares; there were many emerging, beginning to supplant the lyrical discipline of the post revolutionary French violinists with a new kind of romantic rapture, and to a degree, gothic oddity. They were truly the violinists of their time.

One of the great tragedies of the violin repertoire is that Chopin and Slawik never wrote, or maybe never completed, a work that they were discussing writing together. This would have been a set of variations for violin and piano, on a theme by Beethoven. Of course, Chopin did write a joint work , his Introducion and Polonaise , with the cellist Auguste Joseph Franchomme (1808-1884); to reiterate, this is not a piece by Chopin, but a piano part by Chopin and a cello part by Franchomme-both hands appear in the manuscript. This was the type of collaboration that the Pole and the Czech had in mind, but they never actually did it. Or so it was thought. Manuscripts in Chopin’s hand of an uncompleted work for violin and piano have surfaced in the Pierpont Morgan library in New York. Tantalisingly, these were owned by Franchomme at some point; but it is too soon to tell.

However, Slawik’s arrival in Vienna, as a proto-Paganini, before and after the fact, and his presence there at the time that Paganini was in the city was a crucial force in Schubert’s approach to the violin. The impact of his transcendent virtuosity can be felt, not only in his approach to the violin, but also for the piano. This resulted in three important pieces, the B minor Rondeau Brilliant, the C Major Fantaisie, and the almost unplayable violin part of the last string quartet, the G major-Minor quartet, which was premiered with Slawik leading, and Schubert himself playing the viola part.

Slawik’s influence primed Schubert for the arrival of Paganini. Schubert had a benefit concert in Vienna, the night thatPaganini was making his much anticipated debut. Schubert was less upset by this than one might have expected; it is worth noting that the receipts that Schubert netted from his were roughly 30 times less than the amount that Paganini raked in from his performance.

The following day, Schubert wrote to his friend Bauernfeld: “I tell you, you have to come-you shall never see the fellow’s like again. And I have stacks of money now, so come on!” As a result of his performance, Schubert was able to buy tickets for Paganini’s expensive concert.

It had been as a result of Paganini’s diplomatic contacts in Rome that he eventually found his way to Vienna. The Temple Bar magazine remembered:

“ While he played the greatest violin authorities known in Vienna, violinists of European fame like Mayseder, Boehm etc, stood there perfectly annihilated, the head drooping, the tears in their eyes, as if the revelation of Paganini’s playing had  shown them how small they were, and Boehm said to an old friend of mine, how often afterwards repeated it ‘ I should consider myself wanting, not in modesty but in common decency, if I ever played in public again.’” (This from the violinist who Beethoven entrusted with the true premiere of his Op 127 in 1825)

Such was the wild enthusiasm that Paganini’s playing aroused in the Austrian capital, that a medal was forged to honour him, much to the disgust of the correspondent of the Hamburg  Borsenhalle. The inscription on the medal read: “Vienna 1828. Perituris sonis no peritur a Gloria. “ (Whilst the sounds might perish, the Glory, never…)

The Hamburg ‘Borsenhalle’ 20th December, 1828:

         ‘Oh foolish world ! O marvellous taste of the enthusiastic Viennese !  Never have I fallen so suddenly from my heaven as through this – virtuoso.  I cannot understand how people who have heard Romberg, Rode, Spohr, Lafont etc., can lend their ears for a single moment to such Harlequinades as these.  I attended one of his concerts, and never again will he see me at another.  He possesses great facility in the left hand, which can be attained by practice, without possessing talent, genius, spirit, feeling, or understanding, it is a purely mechanical facility. The principal features that are repeated indefinitely are an unbearable squeaking near the bridge which is no well-regulated tune at all, but only a chirping of sparrows-and then, at the end of each variation, a rapid pizzicato with the left hand, consisting of six notes; something that every fiddler, if he desires to learn so useless a thing, can acquire with half-a-year’s practice.           His compositions (and he plays only his own, which he has probably performed two thousand times in the last fifteen years) are beneath all criticism.  The so-called ‘Campanella’, over which the Viennese almost went insane, what is it?  The following: – In the orchestra someone strikes a small bell twice, ‘pik, pik’.  He goes up there, takes an harmonic on the E-string and moves his bow from the lower part upward, so that the result exhibits a very distinct resemblance to the tone of the bell; but which, after all, only sounds like two harmonics on the violin.  His solitary pair of notes, which almost every violinist here imitates – this is the whole ‘Bell-Rondo’. His bowing is the most miserable conceivable; there is not a single musician here to whom it would ever occur to break his violin in despair (as has been said was done in Vienna), but they laugh at him and at the Viennese. His facility in a few useless and unpleasant artificialities will be acknowledged, and after that – ‘Basta!’

It was even suggested at the time that Paganini may himself have been responsible for the above article to raise voices in his defence, but it didn’t have that effect.  This unpleasant review was printed, and that was the end of the matter as far as Paganini was concerned.

The most consistent distinguishing feature of the beginning of Schubert’s performing and composing life was his collaboration with his brother, the violinist Ferdinand Schubert. It is very clear that Ferdinand was no mean violinist, as anyone who has performed the early Rondo in A for violin and strings knows; this is extremely knotty, even awkward violin writing. Perhaps Schubert’s late encounter with these two extraordinary violin virtuosi reminded him of his early excitement as to the excitement, the power of instrumental brilliance. In many ways, the lyricism of the early and late Rondos, the Fantasie, and the last quartet  arises from putting the players in extremis, ‘throwing them off the side of a cliff.’ It would be left for Wilhelm Ernst to take the implications of this to the maximum, with his notorious, and wondrous, version of the Erl-King!

Schubert-B minor Rondo

Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Violin (Stradivari 1714 ‘Maurin’)
Aaron Shorr-Piano
Live Performance-Svendborg ‘Guldsalen’ 1996