The beneficent genie who granted me the ability to play any three piano sonatas of my choosing is growing impatient with me to name my third sonata. My first choice, you may remember, was Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, and my second was the sonata by Samuel Barber. Interestingly, both of those works date from the decade of my birth, but my third choice is from a much earlier time, from 1828 to be exact, the last year in the life of Franz Schubert.
The Sonata in B-flat was Schubert’s last major work for the piano. It was completed in September 1828, just two months before Schubert died at the age of 31. His death has been variously ascribed to typhoid fever, syphilis, and mercury poisoning – mercury being a common treatment for syphilis in Schubert’s time – but whatever the cause, it is my opinion that in the entire history of music, which is replete with premature deaths, Schubert’s was the most grievous loss of all. Can you imagine the musical riches that would have been ours if he had lived another 10, 20, or 30 years? If he had lived even as long as Beethoven, whom Schubert revered and who also died too young, that would have given him another 25 years. What a profound, tragic loss!
This sublime sonata has been a favorite of mine since my days at the University of Colorado. It is performed in this video by the great Alfred Brendel, in a recording made in 1988 at the Middle Temple in London.