Franz Schubert

Piano Sonata No. 21

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: Approx. 45 Minutes
Genre: Sonata
Time of Creation: 1828
World Premiere: Possibly by Schubert himself on a private event on September 28, 1828 in Vienna

Table of Contents

Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 21 in 5 Sentences

The Piano Sonata No. 21 is Franz Schubert’s last piano sonata. It was written at the same time as the Piano Sonatas No. 19 and 20; the three Piano Sonatas No. 19 to 21 thus form the “trilogy” of Franz Schubert’s last three piano sonatas (similar trilogies also exist in Mozart’s symphonies and Beethoven’s piano sonatas). A characteristic feature of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 21 is its emotional development: the work begins evenly and calmly flowing, but becomes increasingly stirring as it progresses. Schubert’s piano sonatas were overshadowed by Beethoven’s output and have only received increased attention since the late 20th century.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 21

Highlight 1: evenly flowing beginning

This beginning is sooo deceptive. The sonata begins so simply and folksong-like, you could sing right along. You can’t even remotely guess how stirring the whole thing gets later on – if it weren’t for that strange low trill (in the video 0:21)…which is almost just a noise…something’s not right after all….

Highlight 2: Lament

I can’t help but hear the beginning of the second movement as a lament: The song-like quality from the first movement is retained, but the mood is now already much more somber. It is as if someone has a rather heavy burden to carry, and the almost manic repetition of the same rhythmic motif also contributes to this overall impression:

Highlight 3: Serenity?

After the slow and extensive first two movements, the third movement seems surprising: so short, so cheerful, so light…is it meant to be serious? Decide that for yourself:

Highlight 4: stirring finale

I think the word “stirring” was invented for the last movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 21. Indeed, one cannot say that this movement is “somber.” Rather, it seems as if you could listen to Schubert trying to find a positive ending – but failing to do so.

As you listen, pay attention to how the music seems to keep taking wrong turns. To understand the emotional scope of this movement, you have to listen to it in its entirety (much like Mahler), but one passage stands out nonetheless: How Schubert lets us participate (in the video starting at 07:20) in how he desperately tries to find an ending (Slipping down – Breaking off – Slipping down…) is quite remarkable.

3 Questions and Answers about Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 21

Question 1: What influence did Beethoven have on Schubert?

Schubert was overshadowed by Beethoven all his life. Yet Schubert greatly admired Beethoven – there are several references to Beethoven’s work in his last three piano sonatas, and on his deathbed Schubert is said to have wished for Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14.

Question 2: Are there any cross-references between Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 21 and his other works?

Since Schubert was incredibly productive until the last day of his life and was actually always working on several works at the same time, there are numerous cross-connections between his works. In Piano Sonata No. 21, for example, there are passages reminiscent of Winterreise as well as his String Quintet.

Question 3: Why have Schubert's piano sonatas only been appreciated since the end of the 20th century?

Schubert was dismissed for a very long time as a relatively insignificant “Biedermeier composer”. At most, his song oeuvre was still of interest. Too great was the charisma of Beethoven, who was still alive until a year before Schubert’s death. It was not until the end of the 20th century that a deeper study of Schubert’s piano sonatas took place – and it was discovered that there are actually many amazing things in them 😊

2 Recommended Recordings of Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 21

Recording 1: Krystian Zimerman (Studio, 2017)

Krystian Zimerman has been among the world’s elite in piano playing for decades. He is known for his crystal clear piano sound, which suits Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 21 well:

1st Movement
2nd Movement
3rd Movement
4th Movement

Recording 2: Maria João Pires (Studio, 2013)

The Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires chooses the tonally somewhat softer approach and achieves a convincing interpretation with it as well. Here is the first movement:

1 Quote about Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 21

Music buried here a rich possession, but even more beautiful hopes.

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