So Near, Yet So Far Away

In tonal harmony, there is a concept of distance between keys.  Sometimes we talk about two keys being very closely related to each other.  At different times we describe two key centers as being very distant from one another.  This is a struggle for language to try to describe the feeling that our ears get in these situations, but it is not difficult to explain what is going on.  A major scale has eight notes, including the octave.  Comparing the notes of the B flat major scale to the notes of the F major scale, we find they have 7 of the same notes in common.  There is only one note that is different (E flat/E).  This makes the keys of B flat and F sound very closely related to our ears.  Two scales that share very few, or no notes in common, sound very distant from one another.  That is really all that need be at work.  The more notes two keys have in common, the closer they are together harmonically.


In musical hermeneutics (the art or science of interpretation), this concept of distance between keys greatly influences the expressive meaning of music.  Closely related (diatonic) keys are often used to represent home or reconciliation.  Distant keys (chromatic) are more often used to represent exile or banishment. This may be a bit of oversimplification, but composers tend to use keys this way, and listeners are accustomed to hearing things this way.  This concept will help me in my blabbering about the musical subject of today’s writing, the first movement of Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat Major (D. 960).

In graduate level music theory, the B flat Major sonata is one of the most analyzed and argued about pieces in the instrumental repertoire.  Some very smart dudes and dudettes have written about, and disagreed about, this particular piano work at great length.  The first problem is that the “theory” of sonata form was formulated and codified a bit after the fact.  Music theorists in the 1840’s looked back at the music of Haydn, Mozart, and especially Beethoven, to define what sonata form was.  Schubert was a composer with different talents and gifts than Beethoven, and had a very different approach to sonata form.  The sonata in B flat major is widely considered a masterpiece of piano music.

Before you even listen to the first note, you can tell something is different here.  In two of the talks on the podcast page of this blog, I explored the forms of two piano sonatas.  The first movement of the Mozart Piano Sonata number 13 was about 8 minutes long; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata number 8 had a first movement that was 8 ½ minutes long.  My recording of the first movement of the Schubert has a running time of over 19 minutes! (including a repeat of the exposition).  Franz Schubert cut his musical teeth writing song, and his musical gifts included long, lyrical, and vocally inspired themes and melodies.  Beethoven worked with small motives and chunks of music in an intense and concentrated way; whereas Schubert often had flowing, smooth and sprawling sections of music.  Beethoven is dramatic, where Schubert is epic.  If Beethoven equals Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea”, Schubert is equal to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”.

Alfred Brendel
Alfred Brendel

Listen to the opening of the recording below with the esteemed Alfred Brendel playing the first movement.  (Mr. Brendel’s performance is 15 minutes long because he does not repeat the exposition.)  The first two minutes of the performance is all the FIRST theme.  Already we know this is going to be a long musical journey.  But we don’t mind that idea at all, because the first theme is absolutely gorgeous, and pure Schubert.  A great deal is happening in that first two minutes.  The first important detail, which becomes a major structural event, happens at 23 seconds into the recording.  A low, rumbling trill between the notes G flat and F.  The note G flat is not in the scale of B flat major.  This gurgling between two bass notes on the piano sounds muddy, almost intestinal.  In the search for meaning of this gesture, the trill has been variously described as “distant thunder”, “ghostly”, a “stranger”, or a “mysterious sonority”.  The point is, it sounds to everyone to be out-of-place, something from far away.

flyIf all we had were this bubbling bass trill, it would be sitting there like a big housefly in the soup.  Schubert has the genius to almost immediately start building on this out-of-place G flat.  The two minutes of music that contains the first theme is organized in an A-B-A’ structure, like many of Schubert’s sonata first themes.  The middle “B” section happens at 1:02 in the video, where the theme slips effortlessly into the key of  G flat major.  This new key is quite a distant one from B flat major, containing only three notes in common.  If one of the goals of a sonata exposition is to establish a tonic key and contrast it with the dominant key, this detour into G flat major is an unexpected gesture.  It will continue to have significance very soon.

The home key of B flat Major returns to round out the A-B-A’ structure of the first theme, and then something happens.  We get the only 7 seconds of music in the entire 5 minute exposition that is purely transition material.  Schubert uses a slippery diminished chord progression and lands us in the foreign key of f sharp minor.  If home (tonic) is B flat major, and G flat major is a strange place, then f sharp minor is truly no man’s land.  This diminished chord has served as one of those transporter devices on the old Star Trek television series. It has scrambled our molecules and taken us to a harmonic place far away from B flat major or the expected place to end up, the dominant F major.  F sharp minor is technically the “enharmonically respelled minor inflection of the triad on the flattened submediant degree” of the B flat major tonic scale.  This crazy relationship works because on the piano, F sharp is the same note at G flat, and we have been hearing G flats since the opening of the work.  Sometimes crazy relationships just work, in spite of the rules.

It takes Schubert 1:15 to present this second theme and wind his way back to the dominant key of F major for a third closing theme.  Three keys, each with their own lyrical melody taking their sweet time.  This is why Schubert’s sonata forms are so expansive.  The themes have already experienced harmonic travels and some development (Schubert-style) before the exposition is even over.  Finally though, we have our expected dominant key of F major.  Following the conventions of classical sonata form, Schubert marks this long exposition to be repeated.  Over the years, it has been the performer’s choice to observe or not observe this repeat, and many great performers (like Brendel below) do not repeat the exposition.

Development sections of sonata forms are really a place for the composer to show off their creativity.  The only two things that development sections have in common are that they usually start in the dominant key, and eventually wind their way back to the recapitulation in the home tonic key.  What happens in between those two events is entirely up to the composer.  Even this little detail is too much to ask of Schubert in the case of the B flat major sonata.  The development slides into the key of c sharp minor to begin its turn.  Again, this is a very distantly related key, a brother from another mother, having few notes in common with the tonic or the dominant.  The closest relationship it has is with the f sharp minor section of music in the exposition, which itself is a stranger in these parts.  The development begins at 5:00 in the recording below, and the recapitulation section starts at 8:52.  The recapitulation gives us the first theme in B flat major, the second theme in b minor and the third theme in B flat major before ending the movement.  The movement doesn’t end without one last appearance of that low rumbling trill that started the whole mess in the first place.

The task of finding the meaning in all these travels to faraway harmonic lands has created some huge arguments in the academics of music theory.  One unavoidable area of study in graduate level music theory is the process of Schenkerian Analysis, after the writings of Heinrich Schenker.  Schenkerian Analysis is a method deeply rooted in diatonicism, and pays careful attention to the foreground, middleground, and background details in a musical work.  It can be a valuable tool in looking at tonal music, providing much information on large scale harmonic movement and the underlying construction of a work.  Looking through a Schenkerian lens, all of these trips into faraway keys like f sharp minor, c sharp minor and b minor are interplanetary journeys.  In this mode of thought, Schubert’s music is the music of a wanderer, and these foreign keys represent a banishment, an exile, and time spent far away from home (B flat major).

Star ClusterA more recent area of academic discourse is the neo-Riemannian approach to relating harmonies and triads.  Richard Cohn used this exact Schubert sonata as a model in writing a paper entitled “As Wonderful as Star Clusters: Instruments for Gazing at Tonality in Schubert”, looking at the work through a neo-Riemannian lens.  In this viewpoint, triads are connected by the number of notes they have in common, and functions are described to easily voice lead from one chord to the next.  This voice leading isn’t restricted to just the notes of the diatonic scale, and effectively groups the collection of major and minor triads into four cycles of six chords each (hexatonic cycles).  Using this point of view, a key like f sharp minor is not all that far away from B flat major, as they are in the same hexatonic cycle.  These so-called “distant” keys are brought closer using the efficient voice leading of a neo-Riemannian analysis.

This argument is not just some self-pleasuring academic pastime.  If your interpretation of this sonata, the musical meaning you find within, is all about wandering, banishment, exile and reconciliation (a Schenkerian/Diatonic view), the idea that these foreign keys are really kissing cousins (a neo-Riemannian/Chromatic view) is a deal breaker.  It seems to take a sledgehammer to the meaning of the music.  Cohn’s paper created a bit of an academic stir when it was published.

Analyzing SchubertI think the best resolution of these two viewpoints comes in Suzannah Clark’s book “Analyzing Schubert”.  Here she settles the argument for me in one sentence.  “His [Schubert’s] music is not really aimless or wandering or enigmatic, but is carefully constructed to sound that way”.  Richard Cohn illuminated the ways in which it was carefully constructed in his paper, showing us the way in which Schubert was able to build the sonata without it falling apart on its harmonic travels.  But we can still think (and hear) of these places as expressing a far off place.  The fact that Schubert was genius enough to stop on a dime and voice-lead us a great distance away doesn’t have to rob us of the interpretation that it represents a musical wandering. Not all who wander are lost.

In spite of the length and breadth of the first movement, there are actually three more movements to the Sonata.  22 more minutes of music that I would encourage you to seek out and enjoy.  For now, here is Alfred Brendel in tails playing the first movement.

Franz Schubert, Piano Sonata in B flat Major, D 960, first movement.


3 thoughts on “So Near, Yet So Far Away

Add yours

  1. Tonality. Captivated by the way in which departing and returning to tonality affects the human response, particularly emotional. Is this learned, or are we wired to respond in ways? Would love to dig deeply, and engage the brain people on this……

  2. Wow, such an interesting article. Interesting perspective for me to read while completing the last bit of my AP Theory class haha. Good inspiration to keep working towards a deeper understanding of the increasingly mysterious world of music theory and music in general. Really is incredible stuff..

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