The Most Terrible Trill in All of Music

Schubert’s late works are filled with sorrow and grief. They are portraits of loneliness, regret and despair. For all the anger and chaos that fills Beethoven’s late works, you cannot help but feel buoyed by the great man’s inherent faith in mankind. Schubert offers no such respite. He is the composer who drives me to drink, and his final piano sonata, No. 21, is at the very top of that list.

Written just two months before his end, staring into the abyss, Schubert gives us a bleak soundscape devoid of hope or salvation. Instead, for the first time in music, we are confronted with nothing less than the black reality of death. Gone are the negotiations that dramatized Death and the Maiden—what we are left with is bleak acceptance of fate. Schubert’s Death approaches not with power chords, but with silence. An eerie whiff of hallucination falls like a shadow over the work—is this Schubert’s dying fever dream? Is this a reflection on his all too short life? This is particularly evident in the Scherzo, which seems to recall brighter days long since past. And what are we to make of the discordant note of hope at the end? This is when the whisky calls.

Consider the remarkable opening to the sonata. The main theme is introduced and expanded, coming to rest on a F-major chord. And then we get what has been called the most remarkable and terrbile trill in music history—a low F/G-flat/A-flat. It is nothing less than death’s calling and the immediate descent down the register is disconcerting in the extreme. It is life interrupted, signified by theme, which now begins to morph. By the time that that trill returns 20 minutes later, it is all resignation.

But I get ahead of myself. When Schubert died in November 1828, he left behind a remarkable legacy of works from that final year alone. We’ve already covered his remarkable final Mass and his final song cycle Wintereisse. He also composed three piano sonatas, which are a tryptich of sorts culminating in No. 21. In contrast to his other last works, the piano sonatas failed to make an impression, even on staunch Schubert devotees such as Robert Schumann, who pronounced them to be devoid of invention. But much like Beethoven’s last string quartets, Schubert’s final piano sonatas reach beyond the nascent Romantic movement to modernism. As Schumann observed:

[T]hese sonatas strike me as differing conspicuously from his others, particular in a much greater simplicity of invention, in a volunary renunciation of brilliant novelty. . .and in the spinning out of certain general musical ideas instead of adding new threads to them from phrase to phrase. . . It is as though there could be no ending, nor any embarrassment about what should come next. Even musically and melodically it ripples along from page to page, interrupted here and there by a single more abrupt impulses–which quickly subside.

Robert Schumann

Schumann is right: Schubert is up to something new here and completely inapposite from the emerging Romantic aesthetic. It would take a brilliant Frenchman to pick up this mantle half a century later before Schubert’s revolution would be fully appreciated.

Before diving into the music, a few notes. There is considerable debate regarding Schubert’s scores, due his notoriously poor handwritting. In particular, there is debate about whether certain notations indicate an accent or a diminuendo, as the latter is simply an elognated version of the former. His publisher routinely printed all such markings as accents, which is clearly wrong, and this debate allows for considerable variation in interpretation. Schubert also, as a good classicist, indicates that the exposition in his sonata form movements should be repeated. But as Schubert often scored lengthy movements, these repeats are often dropped, largely for practical reasons. The first movement of this sonata is no exception and great minds differ on the issue. In his recent Wigmore Hall lecture (link below), Andras Schiff notes that the great Alfred Brendel firmly believes that the repeats should be ignored, while Schiff takes the opposite view. I tend to side with Schiff, since the repeats allow for further exploration of coloration at the margins of Schubert’s themes. Finally, as noted previously with Beethoven, Schubert’s fortepiano had different pedals than modern pianos, including one that inserted a row of silk between the hammers and the strings. The quiet and ethereal sound created by this pedal cannot be duplicated on a modern concert grand. If you like this sonata, I urge you to see out a period instrument performance of it.

Now, to the music. Schubert opens his final piano sonata in what appears to be a peaceful mood. The tempo is noted not just moderato but molto moderato. Schubert’s clear instructions have been widely ignored, with many great pianists taking far too slow a tempo to be in any way moderate, let alone very moderate in pacing. This theme ambles along and conjures up the sense of sitting by the seaside, as observed by Schiff and many others.

I see a broad horizon, a calm ocean. It’s beautiful how often Schubert writes about the sea, even though he never saw it. Then the trill—a very distant murmuring, maybe of an approaching storm. Still very far, but approaching. It is not a pleasant noise, this murmuring. Maybe it is also the approach of death. And then silence. What other work is so full of silence? And then the original melody resumes. This is only speculation—I cannot say what it really means.

Andras Schiff (as reported by Alex Ross)

The theme of going to the seaside to die is an old one, but there is nothing about this first theme to suggest anything other than peaceful tranquility. The theme ends on a F major chord, which leads to that discordant G-flat trill, which allows Schubert to modulate the theme to G-flat major. Schubert provides for multiple fermatas in his score, indicating that the performer should pause before continuing. Some performers take these fermatas to extremes, believing that exaggerated pauses will add depth and meaning to the score. But Schubert has already cautioned–molto moderato. At least for the first pass, exaggerated pauses seem out of place to me. Schubert begins to modulate the music, first to F-sharp minor and then, finally, to F major and the second theme. This is of course where the first theme left off before the terrbile trill sent the music scurrying elsewhere. If there was any doubt that the exposition should be repeated, Schubert lays that to rest by composing different transition music to lead into the development section.

Any view that Schubert was not adept at harmonic development is laid to rest in this development section, where the music takes wild and wonderous harmonic leaps (so much so that I can’t really follow all of them), before concluding with that terrible G-flat trill. The recapitulation brings back the opening theme, now in B-flat major while the coda meditates on the contrast between that G-flat trill and what is now clearly the home key of B-flat major. It is an unsettling paring, since G-flat is foreign to both B-flat major and its dominant F major. Far from resolving harmonic conflict, the first movment ends with this conflict heightened.

The second movment brings us back to C-sharp minor, one of the many keys highlighted in the development section of the first movment. Schubert’s music again begings to shift harmonically, starting with A major (a bit of sunshine peaking out from the clouds) but evenutally returning to C-sharp minor. In the end, this movment feels like a further development of the first movement and ends in much the same conflicted way.

The third movement is a Scherzo, but this dance is like nothing we have encountered previously in Schubert. It seems like a memory in which the actors are all sped up as if in an old black and white film. A sense of wistful regret hangs over the music, as if our protagonist on the beach is recalling happier days.

The quick tempo continues in the final movement, which moves from Allegro ma non troppo to Presto. Again, Schubert uses the sonata form. The first theme is appropriately in the tonic B-flat major and the second in the expected dominant key of F major. But after a fermata, two sharp F minor chords introduce an unexpected third theme and Schubert does not provide for a repeat of this exposition. The shock of F minor has done its job in unsettling us, underscored by Schubert’s quavering rhythms. But we don’t know this and when Schubert brings back the first theme at the start of the development section, we expect that repeat. But the music spirals off in unsettling if not downright disturbing ways. This is not good. Time is moving too fast and the END is coming all to quick. The coda exacerbates this feeling by taking the tempo all the way up to Presto even as the chords appear to be breaking apart. But instead of darkness, we get light.

What does this light mean? Schiff takes an optimistic view:

These last two movements are like a hallucination of a new life,” Schiff told me. “They are what the dying person might experience on the threshold. The coda has a wonderful, chaotic joy in it: this rushing out, this looking for the final exit, this last flourish. Schubert is saying yes to life. There is still hope.

Andras Schiff (as reported by Alex Ross)

But Ross rightly notes: “But the trill has sounded.” And this is what dives me to drink. Unlike other composers who have stood at the edge of the abyss and composed their darkest fear, Schubert has jumped headlong into it. This, then, is the final resolution. As in music, so as it is in life. The tranquility of the opening theme and terribless of the trill are nothing less than the truth about human existance and Schubert, with mere days left to live, has accepted his fate.

Andras Schiff has done much to shape my understanding of this remarkable work and I highly recommend his lecture and performance captured last year at Wigmore Hall.

But as Schiff notes in the above video, Schubert is best on period instruments. His recording is a powerful argument in favor of the fortepiano.

Franz Schubert, Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, D. 960:

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