Thematic Development of Schubert’s Last Piano Sonata, D. 960 (First movement)

by Associate Professor, Dr. Yeo (Author) Dr. Kim (Author) Dr. Hashim (Author) Dr. Ying (Author)

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2009 29 Pages



Table Of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Contents
A. Biography
B. Sonata form
C. Analysis
1) Structure
2) Tonality

III. Conclusion



I. Introduction

Franz Schubert’ last piano sonata, D. 960[1] in Bb Major by was written in 1828 (published in 1839), shortly after Beethoven’s death[2] -- he died in 1827. According to Robert Winter, Beethoven was the most influential composer for Franz Schubert.[3] Schubert’s sonatas, in particular, were modeled on Beethoven’s in terms of form and structure. This last sonata is one of Schubert’s popular sonatas, and is often performed. It also has been frequently criticized because of the unusual aspects of its sonata form. Winter has described the last sonata as, “suffused by the composer’s characteristic melancholy, mingled with a feeling of contemplative ecstasy. The stepwise elegiac opening alternates with disembodied trills in the bass, leading to remote keys, notably f# minor, before the exposition is over.”[4] This paper will discuss the following aspects of the first movement -- the form, the key schemes, and the development of themes.

II. Contents

A. Biography

Franz Peter Schubert was born in Vienna on January 31st, 1797, and died on November 19th, 1828. He was one of five children who survived out of fourteen. He was from a musical family. He had his first piano lessons with his older brother Ignaz, but left him immediately. His father gave Schubert’s first violin lessons at the age of eight, and he was already composing by that time. He studied composition with Salieri from 1809. Schubert composed numerous songs, sacred works, stage works, choral works, chamber music, orchestral pieces, and piano music.

In his later works, he concentrated mostly on larger instrumental works, and he was inspired by and insisted on what Radcliffe calls ‘infinite spaciousness’ in his music.[5] He sketched and completed the last three sonatas in quite a short time in September 1828, two months before he died.

B. Sonata form

Charles Rosen states that Haydn contributed to a new instrumental genre and Mozart made a contribution to develop it. The sonata became a larger scale design with the generation of Hummel, Beethoven and Schubert.[6]

The traditional sonata form in the classical period contains an exposition, development and recapitulation. Usually, an exposition presents a main theme in tonic and a secondary theme in the dominant area; the two are connected by a transition. In larger sonatas, there is a closing theme area to finish an exposition. A development usually transforms the themes from an exposition, and its key scheme is unpredictable. A retransitional section emphasizes the dominant chord in order to make a clear return to the tonic. A recapitulation uses the exposition’s themes, all in tonic. The design of the recapitulation is similar to the exposition except that the secondary theme is in the tonic as well. There is often a coda to complete a sonata form.

Radcliffe says that “the last three sonatas can be regarded as a group, and it is possible to trace a kind of emotional pattern running through it: the first, stormy and somber, the second expressing a variety of moods ending with flowing lyricism, and the third serene and contemplative.”7

He also cites relationships among them: “There are certain traits common to all three: a remarkable breadth and simplicity of melody, approached from very different angles, and a tendency to break into a rapid descending scale at moments of high tension.”[7]

In the last sonata, D. 960, which is similar to the other two sonatas, being quiet lengthy compared to his previous sonatas, Schubert followed the traditional sonata form structurally for the most part, but he did not do so tonally.

C. Analysis

1) Structure

This first movement is composed in the typical structure of sonata form: exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. The exposition has two main theme areas: the first theme and the secondary theme. The first theme area is divided into three different parts- theme 1a, 1b and 1c. The secondary theme area has two different parts- theme 2a and 2b. This secondary theme area immediately follows the first theme area: there is no transition.

The closing section consists of two parts: closing theme a and b. Also, there is no transition or bridge leading to the secondary theme area. This whole exposition presents each section as an individual group, rather than connecting them with transitional materials.

The development transforms certain themes in the following order: theme 1b, closing theme a, and then theme 1a. A monophonic descending scale begins and a long trill finishes the retransitional section. After this trill, a long pause leads to the recapitulation.[8]

‘Retransition’ m. 204

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

‘Recapitulation’ m.211

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Example 1-1) Retransition to recapitulation

The recapitulation returns in the same format as the exposition: theme 1a, 1b and 1c; theme 2a and 2b; and closing theme a and b. The coda, which contains theme 1 material, completes the first movement.

2) Tonality

The key of Bb is known as one of the most lyrical keys. Schubert took this key seriously and treated it very carefully. Theme 1a begins with a simple chord progression, which produces a pure and innocent melody line. The first perfect authentic cadence does not resolve until theme 1b begins in m. 18. As theme 1b follows, the key of Bb Major moves to Gb Major unexpectedly, which is a very remote key. According to Radcliffe, “Schubert’s idiom, especially in his later works, is affected very much by his attitude to tonality. He hardly ever anticipates the kind of chromatic harmony that obscures the tonal outlines, but he takes great pleasure in traveling through remote keys, not as a means of producing dramatic tension, but just for the sake of the journey.”[9]. However, the appearance of Gb Major is not new. The note ‘Gb’ appeared in m. 8 with a long trill.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Bb Major) (Gb Major)


[1] ‘D’ numbers represents to O. E. Deutsch, Schubert: Thematic Catalogue of all his Works in Chronological Order, London, 1951.

[2] Robinson, Jenefer. Music and Meaning, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995, p. 179.

[3] Winter, Robert. “Schubert, Franz” The New Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., vol. 22. ed. Stanley Sadie. New York: Macmillan Publisher Ltd., 2001, p. 689.

[4] Ibid. p. 683.

[5] Radcliffe, Philip. Schubert Piano Sonatas, Seattle: University of Washington Press Edition, 1971, p. 38.

[6] Rosen, Charles. Sonata Form, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1988, p. 353.

[7] Radcliffe. Schubert Piano Sonatas, p. 39.

[8] The bass long trill in mm. 209 was added in the final version.

[9] Radcliffe, p. 7.


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    Associate Professor, Dr. Yeo (Author)

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    Dr. Kim (Author)

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    Dr. Hashim (Author)

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    Dr. Ying (Author)


Title: Thematic Development of Schubert’s Last Piano Sonata, D. 960 (First movement)